You should read Vanessa Grigoriadis’s fascinating profile of Campbell Brown, the former television journalist turned school reformer (and, incidentally, Jew). Brown is the current major antagonist of the teacher unions, a role previously occupied by Michelle Rhee, and the object of an intense campaign of personal animosity (a position Brown appears to handle better than Rhee did). Part of what makes the story fascinating is that Brown’s opponents, rather than Brown herself, have had the strongest interest in making her character a centerpiece of the struggle over education reform. One thing I took away from Grigoriadis’s portrait is the degree to which the unions have failed to come to grips with the underlying policy rationale that Brown has latched on to.
Some opponents have painted Brown as a front, or even a bimbo, but Grigoriadis shows that Brown is deeply versed in the research. (“She fact-and-figured me unbelievably hard during a two-hour off-the-record coffee earlier this winter and, in our on-the-record interviews, interrupted often to unfurl a study … “) And the research is the nub of the education-policy debate.
The animating impulse behind the education reform movement is research showing that there are vast gulfs between the effectiveness of good versus bad teachers. Education reformers have set out to shape education hiring practices in reflection of this finding, by creating greater rewards for the most effective teachers, and making it easier for schools to fire the least effective ones. This sets them in direct conflict with unions, which generally (though not exclusively) defend traditional hiring practices, which grant teachers tenure relatively early, and pay them in lock step on the basis of time served.
The policy question here places the teacher unions in a perilous spot. It forces them to defend the hardest-to-defend practices of their profession, which Brown deftly exploits, such as “a teacher who suggested to a student she could be his ‘little sex slave’ and could give him a ‘striptease’ and still wasn’t fired (though he was suspended and retired shortly thereafter).” Denying the crucial role of teacher effectiveness paradoxically places unions in the position of denying the importance of teaching itself — after all, if the variation between the best and the worst teachers is not so great, what reason is there to pay any of them more? Reformers have more recently seized on the sort of racial disparity that normally rallies liberals to their side — poor, nonwhite students are more likely to be stuck with chronically ineffective teachers, to the long-term detriment of their career prospects.
This is why arguments against education reform lean heavily on diversion. Reform opponents argue for focusing on poverty, which seems like a priority that could be had in addition to optimizing teacher compensation rather than instead of. Rick Kahlenberg, a leading critic of education reform, offers even more utopian proposals:
Low-income minority students have the weakest teachers because of economic segregation, Kahlenberg says, which suggests the solution is mixing and matching low- and middle-income kids in individual schools (something, one imagines, that would cause an uproar in nice neighborhoods already endowed with good schools).
Right — enticing middle-class and wealthier parents to send their children away from neighborhood-based schools filled with fellow privileged youth into mixed-income schools is a highly ambitious goal. It’s also a goal that could be pursued while also reforming teacher compensation.
The fixation with Campbell Brown (which is a project of large segments of the pro-union left, though not of Kahlenberg’s) is not only a way of turning a hard-to-win policy argument into an easier-to-win personality conflict. It’s a way of avoiding the real personality conflict facing the teacher unions. Their real problem is not Campbell Brown. It’s Barack Obama, whose education policies have driven the wave of reform they decry.
Teachers unions don’t want to go into open war with Barack Obama. (They want to retain a seat at the table; they also can’t be confident their rank and file will side with the union over Obama in a personalized conflict.) Unions and their allies have avoided naming Obama as their enemy, instead elevating Rhee, and now Brown, and the insidious donors who support them, as enemies. When forced to come to grips with Obama’s agenda, they tend to focus on Education Secretary Arne Duncan, as though Duncan has spent six years pushing reform behind Obama’s back. Brown, like Rhee, has certain exploitable vulnerabilities, the chief one being her marriage to Republican Dan Senor. But if the unions managed to push Brown out of the education policy debate altogether, they’d need to find their own replacement for her.