An Open Letter to Campbell Brown from a Teacher on Leave

Dear Ms. Brown,

I saw your interview with Stephen Colbert. I wish I could have been one of those protesters outside the studio. You see, I don’t support people who are not educational experts attempting to reform or really even discuss education in such a public forum. That may be because I am a teacher.

I am certified by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to teach Secondary English for 99 years; in other words, I have earned my permanent certification. I have a Master of Education plus sixty additional graduate credits. I have been in the trenches for eleven years. In those eleven years, I taught English and reading and remedial reading to students in grades seven, eight, nine, ten, and eleven. I also tutored students who were performing below grade level and who were not proficient on our standardized state assessments. I was considered a teacher leader in my building, and I was hired to be an Instructional Coach (i.e. a teacher who coaches teachers on strategies in the classroom) for one school year. That position lasted only a year because the grant that funded the positions expired and the Instructional Coaching positions were dissolved. During my eleven years – yes, I earned my tenure during those years – I received satisfactory ratings. My students also scored some of the highest marks on their standardized writing tests of any students across the state, and I was recognized this past school year by the head principal because my students achieved academic growth above the predicted levels. Despite all of my success as an educator, I am taking a leave of absence for this upcoming school year to pursue freelance writing because I disagree with the idea that “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” THIS is transparency in education.

Unlike you, I am not funded by any political backers. Well, to be fair, you wouldn’t reveal who is funding your group, lest they be subjected to harassment. If only teachers had such a luxury! I do not have legal counsel. I do not have anyone doing pro bono work to find the latest statistics and jargon to use in a marketing (well, let’s be honest here – smearing) campaign against teacher unions. And, in the name of TRANSPARENCY, let’s be honest again: you and your group are against public educators and unions, but you are hiding behind the issue of teacher tenure.

You see, if you had done your homework, you would have found that teacher tenure is not a guarantee to never receive a pink slip. I know you alluded to that fact during your face-to-face, but your spin may have confused some people. So, in the name of TRANSPARENCY, let’s make it clear: teacher tenure does not guarantee that teachers can teach until they die. This is not the United States Supreme Court, after all. If you really want to attack tenure, let’s attack the system that can allow you to work until the day you die; you still retain your black robe, even if you decide to put religious and corporate rights above individual rights. Their effectiveness rating is not very high at the moment, and their approval ratings are very low. Maybe you should find a group to go after those Justices, in the name of that “equality” you keep mentioning. I mean, if we’re going after tenure that seems outrageous, let’s go after the most unjust tenure system in this country.

But, I digress. Yes, you pointed out that teachers receive due process and that it still can take hundreds of days to get a teacher fired. You also pointed out that it’s often the policy of last-one-in-first-one-out when school districts need to cut professional staff positions. And, you recognized the fact that it can take three years to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. So, you don’t agree with the least senior teachers being let go, even though they have not had the adequate amount of time to prove their effectiveness? This is starting to smell like a double standard.

Are there teachers who deserve to be fired? Yes, just as there are individuals in any number of professions who deserve to be fired. If teachers are harming students or violating their contracts, they should be fired. I’m not sure that you’ll find many teachers who disagree. But, if you are simply using the statistics you flaunted during the interview to determine teacher effectiveness, you are playing a very dangerous game. You see, I analyze language. That’s part of my job description. You came armed and ready with what you thought was your silver bullet: 31% of NY students are reading on grade level. That’s the point you were sure to emphasize. But, those of us who are in the business of educating realize you stopped a little short of yourself. Typically, when we discuss reading ability, we talk about students who are reading below grade level, on grade level, and above grade level. You merely pointed out the average students. How many are above grade level, Ms. Brown? I have a feeling that statistic of yours may change a bit. You may want to alert your spin machine to this one. Trust the lady with the teaching degree.

Also, I cheered a little when Mr. Colbert questioned you about making the resources students receive – specifically money – equal, since you are doing this in the name of educational equality. I was disappointed, however, when he did not push this issue any further. You see, to be fair and truly TRANSPARENT, we need to know how many of those students were reading on grade level when they entered their particular grades. You see, we don’t get to pick and choose who walks into our classrooms. We have students entering kindergarten who have never seen a book, who have never held a crayon, and who don’t even know that words, much less letters, exist in written form. We have ESL and ELL students who cannot speak English, yet the state testing system (at least ours in PA) requires they take the standardized tests in English. I am not complaining. And, I certainly am not blaming the children as Mr. Colbert so facetiously suggested. Rather, I am living in reality. All public educators are.

And, if you really want to talk educational statistics, we don’t just need to know how many students started the year reading on grade level. We need to know how many of those students are living in poverty. Countless studies have shown the direct correlation between students’ socioeconomic status and educational achievement. If 31% of students who are living in poverty are reading on grade level, we need to stand up and applaud those NY educators your group essentially is attacking. Even more important, according to some experts in education, is the percentage of students who have an IEP. Because if their written IEP goal is to read with a particular percentage at their actual reading level, not their grade level, and their teachers helped them to achieve that goal, that is another statistic we need to know and applaud.

Look at it this way: If a dentist from a rural community offers to work pro bono at the dental clinic and 10 patients walk in, all with nearly every one of their teeth rotting out of their mouths, we are not going to measure that dentist’s effectiveness by how many healthy teeth his patients have when they leave the clinic. We are going to rate his effectiveness by how many teeth he was able to save, and his patients’ oral health over time. It’s the same with teachers. We can’t control how much knowledge and prior learning and life experience our students possess their first day in our classrooms. We have to work with what they arrive with and then “grow” them from there. If none of the dentists’ patients have to have another tooth pulled after the initial visit, he’s effective. And, if all of the teachers’ students leave their rooms having achieved one year’s worth of growth, they’ve been effective teachers.

I am sure that legal team of yours will take issue with some of my points. And, I’m sure some researchers and “educational reformists” will attack every fiber of my literary being. But, in this year off, I feel a little more free to speak for the teachers who are unable to speak for themselves because of the culture that is being perpetuated by groups such as yours. In this age of undermining the profession – yes, teaching still is a profession despite efforts of groups like yours – educators are hesitant to speak up for themselves. Is it any wonder, when they are under attack at every turn from people who don’t hold teaching certificates, who never have taken an education class, and who have no more stake in “educational reform” than a politician?

It’s a shame that teachers cannot defend themselves because of the political backlash and push to weaken teacher unions. It’s a bigger shame that instead of using your public standing and credentials to help teachers to have a voice, you are using it to cut us down. Maybe if people listened to the educators, the true experts who actually deserve to have a stake in the discussion, we could fix this “crisis.”

In the meantime, those teachers who are dedicated to educational equality will continue to prepare to go back to the classroom in a few short weeks. They will face uncertainty and more stress in an already stressful profession because of your group. But, because they are professionals, those NY educators will approach those students, even those whose parents are filing the suit, with the intent to help them learn and achieve and grow. Who knows? They may even be effective teachers this year, despite all of the attacks from those who are not experts in their field.

With as much respect as I can muster,

Bailey Shawley
Teacher on Leave

***April 3, 2015 UPDATE***

The events of the past week in New York State are dealing devastating blows to public education and teachers. Campbell Brown is not stopping her attacks, even after the new evaluation measures have passed as part of Governor Cuomo’s budget. She and her Partnership for Educational Justice are pursuing her lawsuit to challenge tenure and job protection statutes. For more, follow me @TruthInTeaching, visit TRUTH In Teaching online, and Like TRUTH In Teaching on Facebook.