STOP THE POLITICAL WITCH-HUNT OF BRIAN CROWELL
Defending the Best Political Traditions of Berkeley Requires Defending Brian Crowell Against Victimization by BUSD
CONTACT THE DISTRICT TO DEMAND THEY STOP THEIR WITCH-HUNT OF MR. CROWELL (Board of Education: 510-644-6550 email@example.com; Superintendent: 510-644-6206)
CONTACT BAMN TO SUPPORT THE CAMPAIGN: 855-ASK-BAMN firstname.lastname@example.org
Veteran Berkeley High School teacher Brian Crowell is currently facing what will be either a quick or more prolonged process of termination by the Berkeley School Board. Mr. Crowell deserves the support of Berkeley students, teachers, parents and the community at large in his fight to keep his job, both because he is an excellent teacher and because Mr. Crowell’s victimization is nothing more than a politically-motivated witch-hunt by the School Board. The outcome of Mr. Crowell’s case will determine whether the Berkeley schools continue to operate on an equity/critical-thinking model or adopt the already discredited neoliberal free-market model for public education.
The stakes in this case are too high for it to proceed without public scrutiny. It is essential that the political motivation underlying the Board’s attack on Mr. Crowell be brought above-ground and openly debated. The District must be made to come clean and be open about its political aims instead of be allowed to surreptitiously impose its free-market ideology on the district. The Board, with the unflagging support of the current leadership of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), has already gotten away with victimizing and disciplining too many good teachers simply because they chose to openly challenge the School Board’s attempts to impose the hyper-competitive, test-driven, regimented, grade-grubbing, racist and educationally-bankrupt policies of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD).
The School Board’s attack on Mr. Crowell is essential to their aim of imposing the failed Arne Duncan schemes of test-driven, regimented learning in Berkeley’s schools
The evaluation and discipline practices of the Board are discriminatory and an abrogation of the District’s past commitment to intellectual freedom and affording its teachers basic due process rights. The top-down business model being imposed on education by ideologues like Arne Duncan and the billionaire backers of the current administration have already decimated public education in intensely-segregated majority black and Latina/o urban school districts across the country.
Millions of poor urban and rural students are being forced to attend second-class, inferior, privately-run, publicly-funded charter schools because accessible public schools no longer exist in their communities. The new Jim Crow ideology of black and Latina/o intellectual and cultural inferiority has forced millions of black and Latina/o students into stripped-down, boot-camp charter schools where originality, creativity and individual expression are systematically repressed. Educational techniques discredited years ago are making a comeback. Tried-and-true policies that have successfully led to the closing of the achievement gap, including the creation of integrated magnet school programs and intra- and inter-district busing programs, are being junked in favor of far-cheaper phony solutions that have only widened the achievement gap and worsened the problem of educational inequality.
Until a couple of years ago, more-privileged and majority-white school districts like Berkeley were protected from the maelstrom of reactionary educational reforms. The new free-market “educational experiments” were confined to the most vulnerable, resource-starved black and Latina/o districts. However, the initiation of Duncan’s much ballyhooed “Race to the Top” program extended his market-based educational model to middle-class and upper-middle-class districts. Offering financial incentives to school districts and states that implemented his methods, Duncan got even relatively well-off districts to adopt some aspects of his reform package. Duncan’s offer of federal funds to districts that implemented his reactionary reforms led to a frenzied competition between states and school districts to distinguish themselves as true believers of the principles of the free-market system. Within school districts, schools were forced to compete against each other rather than cooperate. Teachers in the same schools were encouraged to stab each other in the back to move up the professional ladder while forcing their students to compete against one another for grades and opportunities to advance.
School districts including BUSD, facing budget cuts and increasingly dependent on private funding to maintain even the most basic school programs, felt the necessity to pretend that biased and discriminatory standardized tests could be used as objective measures of students’ intellectual ability and the quality of a district’s teaching techniques. The pressure to improve test scores and District rankings created by Race to the Top was intensified in California and other states by deep budget cuts that caused the contraction of public higher education. Fewer seats and higher tuition costs made even the most fair-minded parents look for a way to gain some advantage for their sons and daughters.
The Berkeley School Board responded to the imposition of Race to the Top and the market-based educational model in two diametrically-opposed ways. In words, the district opposed imposing test-driven, scripted curriculum and other reactionary education methods on teachers and students. However, when push came to shove, even Berkeley–which had fought to maintain its school desegregation plan and commitment to diversity–was prepared to sacrifice its principles to satisfy the demands of the billionaire backers of the free-market education policies. When the School Board first tried to sell the lie that the forced removal, exclusion and warehousing of black students in a newly created segregated charter was aimed at helping black students excel, their charter plan could not be put into effect. The School Board only gained passage of their proposal by utilizing undemocratic methods,The Board’s actions were denounced by black teachers, students, parents and by community members of all races as unfair and deceptive.The difficulties experienced by the Board and the tumult and polarizing impact of the charter led to the Board concluding that it needed to use more underhanded methods to get Duncan’s reforms instituted in Berkeley. Getting union support for implementing these reforms was also understood by the Board as an essential element to the continued imposition of the free-market model on Berkeley.
A year ago, Race to the Top collapsed, defeated by overwhelming evidence that its policies were not only failing, but increasingly impossible for state and local authorities to implement. The desire of BUSD to continue to cultivate private funders and appear to be a more-elite district made the district wary of abandoning its adaptations to free-market educational principles. In the wake of all the protests against the privatization of public education, BUSD could not exactly explicitly state its intention to continue to try to impose teach-to-the-test methods on Berkeley teachers and students. The only way to impose these changes without provoking a public backlash was to do so in a less public manner. Maintaining the union’s support for this policy was essential to its working. The B-PAR (“Berkeley Peer Assistance and Review”) system provided the perfect vehicle for silencing opposition to the Board’s stealth scheme.
Younger teachers educated in the era of market-based educational reform and the world of phony standard-based education had less difficulty in conforming to the market-based regime being instituted by the Board’s leadership and the teachers union leadership because it is the only educational model many of them have ever known. Many parents who know that the District is changing have silently accepted the teach-to-the-test reforms in the District because they are desperate to gain any edge for their sons and daughters.
Older and more-experienced teachers accustomed to the old regime of intellectual freedom and mutual support among teachers, and black and Latina/o teachers who know that any system based on evaluating students’ ability through their performance on standardized tests means supporting a system that always gives white students an unfair advantage and always favors the privileged and demeans poorer and less-privileged students, have been far less willing to buy into the new system. These two groups of teachers, often a generation apart in age and trained in two vastly different era’s of public education, still share the belief that equity-based public education is the only method that can be used to develop the abilities of all students. Teachers like Brian Crowell are facing discipline and harassment precisely because they cannot and will not lie about what students need to learn and what American public education needs to restore its once great status in the world. The B-PAR system is being used to stem the organizing efforts of teachers like Brian precisely because the district knows how easy it would be for even a small number of dedicated anti-racist, pro-student and anti-company-union teachers to galvanize a movement in Berkeley of real opposition to the Board’s new policies.
It makes sense, under these conditions, that the teachers found to be “unsatisfactory” under B-PAR are disproportionately black and Latina/o. Older, more-senior teachers have also been disproportionately targeted and victimized by the District because of their commitment to defend the right of teachers to intellectual freedom. These two groups of teachers have been at the forefront of the movement to defeat the hyper-competitive, test-score driven, completely discredited free-market model for public education. Their support for the equity model for public education is based, not just on ideology, but on the living reality they have experienced which proves that, to realize democracy, justice, innovative thinking, scientific progress and provide an equal opportunity for all young people to realize their full potential, public education must be based on and must promote racial and socioeconomic equity, diversity and integration. The mainstreaming of students and the conscious creation of classrooms that are racially and socioeconomically diverse are the only proven method ever created to maximize young people’s ability to think critically and express who they are.
For the past fifty years, Berkeley has been the model for educational equity throughout the nation. Berkeley is known by people across nation as the home of free speech; the first district in the nation to institute a voluntary school desegregation and busing program; the community in which wealthier homeowners are prepared to pay high parcel taxes so that this District could offer the children of the flatlands the same education available to the children of the hills; and, more recently, we are seen as a place that does not just talk about diversity but makes it a reality by protecting the most vulnerable students in our community. Berkeley teachers, students, staff and parents have protected undocumented immigrant students and their families from the menacing grip of the ICE; LGBT students and families from bullying and discrimination; and black, Latina/o, other minority, immigrant, English as a Second Language, special needs and poorer students from the badge of inferiority by promoting integration and a sense of community in all our schools.
Many of the black and Latina/o, immigrant and progressive teachers of all races and the students who identify with them and are now facing victimization by the District’s change in policy, chose to teach or attend school in this district precisely because Berkeley is known as a school district dedicated to pursuing equality and protecting intellectual freedom. Similarly, many of the people residing in this community, including homeowners that rejected buying homes in more wealthy, exclusive and homogeneous districts, live here because they too subscribe to the progressive vision once held by the District. If the Board is now jettisoning its longstanding values, this community deserves to know why and deserves to have the final say over such a momentous decision. As things stand now, the School Board is in the process of adopting the regimented, racist and unequal “standards” regime of neoliberal educators like Education Secretary Arne Duncan behind closed doors. The Board knows it will lose any open and honest debate of the issues. And so, for the time being, it is reversing our progressive policies through discriminatory and wrongful discipline policies and through the dishonest and cynical maneuvers of presenting every reactionary proposal as the opposite of what it really is.
THE ANATOMY OF A POLITICAL WITCH HUNT: Utilizing B-PAR to Manufacture a Case For Discipline Against Mr. Crowell
The conduct of the District administration in Brian Crowell’s case makes clear how the School Board gets away with cloaking a political witch-hunt as simply the execution of the Board’s duty to “protect the public interest.” Until March of this year, Mr. Crowell had never in his six years of teaching received an unfavorable evaluation. In fact, as recently as last fall, the Berkeley High School principal was openly praising Mr. Crowell’s ability as a teacher and as a role model for African-American students:
“Really was reminded of early observations of you back in ‘06. You are such a good storyteller and while I am sometimes cautious about teacher talk/lecture, you really had a big chunk of the class engaged and seemed, if I’m right, to be connecting early European trade/explorations with how those arrangements look today.
“Feedback: Widespread engagement — several students were really dialed into your presentation. very pleased to see multiple African-American students actively engaged in the discussion; we need this type of involvement to be more commonplace in all classrooms for students of color.”
-Principal Pasquale Scuderi email to Brian Crowell, Sept. 18, 2012
During this school year, Mr. Crowell came to the attention of the School Board and District administration by being an open, well-spoken and well-versed advocate for his students, the teachers he represents as a union rep, and for the Berkeley community, especially the black and Latina/o community. Mr. Crowell attended Board meetings where he helped to lead a successful effort to stop the Board from hiring Edmond Heatley, a pro-charter administrator, from becoming BUSD’s school superintendent. Heatley was the sole candidate the Board put up for consideration for the Superintendent position.
Mr. Crowell’s work as a steward who did not support the teacher union’s policy of acting as management’s henchmen and uncritical backers, made him very popular with teachers and equally unpopular with BUSD administration. His successful defense of teachers disciplined or threatened with discipline distinguished Mr. Crowell as a union representative, given that many union officials work intimately with management to secure the removal of teachers whom one or both bodies—management and union—regard as trouble.
Mr. Crowell during this school year asked the administration to investigate instances of police brutality against students and to report their findings to the community, publicly advocated for the restoration of the school-spirit Rally Day cancelled by the administration, and advocated for students in innumerable other ways that have won him the trust and respect of black students and other more alienated students who feel disrespected or demeaned by so many other teachers.
All of Mr. Crowell’s activities made him known to the Board as a regular opponent of their policies–but two actions made clear to the District that he was a dangerous and increasingly-powerful opponent of the regime that wanted to change Berkeley into a market-based education system. One was his handling of his ninth-grade world history class and, even more importantly, the momentum and success of his efforts to defeat the evaluation process called B-PAR that has been the main vehicle used by the Board to drive out pro-equity teachers and teachers who believe their union should defend them rather than serve as management’s most-effective defenders and disciplinarians.
The Board’s Attack Against Mr. Crowell’s Values and Premises as an Educator
Last fall, Mr. Crowell was assigned to teach ninth-grade world history. During the past six years, Mr. Crowell has taught every grade level in a wide variety of history curriculum, including several AP history classes. From the beginning of the fall term forward, Mr. Crowell asked the District to let him use a better, more grade-appropriate textbook for his ninth-grade students. The book the District selected for use was an AP-level textbook, which was deficient in its treatment of Asian, African, Latin American and other non-European nations. Mr. Crowell argued that the book’s Eurocentrism did not conform with the state standards and that its inaccessibility would discourage and lower the intellectual confidence and academic performance of his first-year high school students, especially the most academically, socially and emotionally vulnerable students. Mr. Crowell’s repeated interventions for change were ignored by the Berkeley High administration. Mr. Crowell, unable to ditch the bad, truly inscrutable textbook, did his best to compensate for its weaknesses by supplementing the textbook with current-event discussions, documentaries, primary source material and other pedagogical devices. His students were assigned to do interrelated small group projects that asked them to use what they were learning and their own knowledge of how society functions to construct functioning governments for different societies in different historical epochs.
Mr. Crowell has always encouraged his students to disagree with him in class. He has used the academic capabilities and advantages of the more-privileged students to address the needs of their classmates through collective work in which the performance of every student would be measured by the quality of the whole group’s work. Mr. Crowell does not and has never subscribed to the view that grades should be based on a system of pitting one student against another in a heads-up competition based on an arbitrary set of criteria that pretend to be objective but always reflect the biases of the evaluator and favor certain intellectual and social skills over others. Mr. Crowell has always favored challenging every student to excel beyond the student’s own expectations and grading the students on how well they succeed at this task. When group assignments serve as a major source for a student’s grade, Mr. Crowell has refused to undercut the gains of a collective learning process by asking the students who should get credit for the different aspects of the group process and then assigning each student a different grade. In ninth grade, where students from different middle schools are thrown together for the first time and where the whole group can be mistreated by older students, building bonds of trust and support among the students themselves can provide the foundation that so many students need to excel in other courses and throughout their high school careers.
At the end of the first semester, impressed by the work of his ninth graders and the growth in each individual’s abilities and confidence, especially given the obstacles created by the textbook, Mr. Crowell did something he does not do ordinarily and is rare but considered absolutely fair and good practice by teachers when warranted: he gave all his ninth grade students A’s. No one questioned this decision at the time or the months that followed. The right of teachers to determine the criteria for grading students and their right to determine each student’s grade without management interference is a legal hallmark of the California Education Code and an essential protection of academic freedom.
Throughout the year, the District administration pronounced in Mr. Crowell’s evaluations that his student assessment skills were not only proficient, but included the utilization of a variety of methods recommended by educators to assess a student’s proficiency and determine her or his grade:
“The assessment strategies I observed during my three formative observations were warm up question in the first lesson, whole class checks for understanding, and a graphic organizer with critical thinking questions. During the first lesson student[s] worked in groups and were able to monitor their own learning. Another strategy you used to evaluate student learning and to support students in monitoring their own learning was writing reflections. You communicate student academic progress to students and families by PowerSchool.”
– Vice Principal Vernon Walton’s summative evaluation of Mr. Crowell, March 8, 2013
Yet on February 20, 2013 — the very day that Mr. Crowell notified the administration he would file a formal complaint against the continued use of the inscrutable World History textbook — the District responded to his charge by “opening an investigation” into his grading decisions.
If Brian’s main and only affront to the administration’s unilateral authority had been his filing a formal complaint on the textbook, it is possible that the scope of his process would have been confined to the bizarre, nerve-racking, stigmatizing, and conveniently completely subjective world of the B-PAR proceedings. But Brian’s challenge to the Board’s authority went beyond anything anyone had ever done. He made the teachers’ fight collective and concerted, and in doing so, began the process of revitalizing the union from within.
B-PAR: Union/Management Collaboration and the Club Used Against Teachers
Also on February 20, 2013, Brian did the unthinkable: he sent teachers the data he had worked miracles to obtain from the district, showing the race, gender, age and salary level of teachers placed on B-PAR. The data showed the bias and discriminatory character of the whole B-PAR system. Black teachers, for example, comprise a mere 6.5 percent of the District’s teaching staff but make up 24 percent of the teachers on BPAR. The average age of teachers in B-PAR has been 53 years, and twenty of the twenty-two women placed in B-PAR have been over 55 years old. This data was a bombshell for two reasons: first, because it made clear that the whole BPAR system was not a method by which all teachers are evaluated as individuals, but is instead a mechanism for driving out certain groups of teachers that relies upon and reinforces the most common base prejudices and stereotypes; and second, because it made clear that the teachers’ current union leaders are prepared to violate the most basic principles of trade unionism and professional standards to support a system of union/management cooperation that is designed to favor certain groups of teachers while assuring that other groups of teachers are terrorized, humiliated and forced to assimilate into the new culture of the District or leave the District altogether.
The importance of Mr. Crowell’s blowing the whistle on the whole B-PAR program cannot be overstated. Many teachers, especially minority and older teachers, hate and fear the B-PAR process. What the statistics make clear is that what these teachers always suspected about the process is real and backed by hard data. For many individual teachers who are placed in B-PAR, the stigma of being labelled a bad teacher and/or the determination that suddenly now, after years of being a good teacher, they are being reclassified as inferior or lacking, is infuriating, demoralizing and isolating. Teachers placed in B-PAR challenge their designation far too infrequently. Knowing that their job tenure rests on the completely subjective assessment of a tiny clique of like-minded people including the union leadership, makes openly protesting the system seem like a cry for further victimization.
The B-PAR system, like every system of abuse, negatively affects all the teachers because the mere placement of one highly respected and in some cases obviously dynamic, popular, creative and independent minded colleague on B-PAR makes clear to every teacher that no one is safe from the reach of arbitrary and unwarranted discipline. This has a chilling effect on teachers’ free speech rights and the ability to advocate for their students or defend other teachers. Creating and nurturing a culture of fear in the district has given the Board the kind of power to unilaterally determine the standards for and direction of the district, a power that has not existed since the civil rights movement established the right of public workers to organize and stripped school boards of the power to impose and foment discriminatory and reactionary ideologies through the public education system.
Brian Crowell was already known as outspoken opponent of B-PAR when he published the statistics exposing the rank character of the B-PAR system. He was seen as the go-to steward in the District if you wanted to fight against B-PAR or other forms of discipline. Mr. Crowell successfully represented Valerie Trahan, a black Berkeley High teacher who waged a very public and successful fight against B-PAR and racism within the district. He is the only union leader who has openly supported and defended the district’s most recognized, radical, outspoken and popular civil rights, immigrant rights proponent for public education, Yvette Felarca, who faces constant political harassment and threats of discipline by the Board. But none of these individual efforts raised the collective will and spirit of teachers to fight together as much as the mere publication of the B-PAR statistics and the Board’s overreach in placing Mr. Crowell himself in BPAR. These two events, which occurred within a month of each other, are a game changer.
How the District’s Overreach in Brian Crowell’s Case Can Shift the Balance of Power in Favor of the Teachers
On March 8, 2013, Mr. Crowell received a copy of his completed summative evaluation that included the aforementioned quote. This initial evaluation he received dated March 8, 2013 recommended that Brian undergo evaluation again the following year but that no punitive action in the form of B-PAR would be taken against him.
Mr. Crowell should never have been subjected to a formal evaluation this year, much less recommended for B-PAR next year. Teachers who have repeatedly received good evaluations, as was the case with Brian, routinely are granted requests to have an “alternative evaluation” which is a much less demeaning, personalistic, and subjective undertaking. Brian made a formal request for an “alternative” evaluation for the 2009-2010 and 2012-13 school year. His requests, which should have been granted, were denied with neither management nor the union ever explaining why Brian was forced to go through formal evaluation again this year.
On March 22, 2013, after the BFT president and longtime member of the B-PAR panel called the Berkeley High administration about the fact that Brian was not placed in B-PAR, Brian received notice that the outcome of his evaluation had been changed and a decision was made to place him on B-PAR.
Entering the Star Chamber: The School Board Utilizes Intimidation and Secrecy to Carry Out Its Politically-Motivated Discipline Tactics
Two factors are always present for politically-motivated tribunal processes to be really successful: first, that the person charged and tried in a political show trial must be denied basic due process rights for the process to succeed; and second, that the gathering of evidence and formulation of charges begins after the victim of the political show trial is selected for prosecution. The point of witch-hunts and show trials, after all, is not to mete out justice, but rather to establish the willingness of the trier of facts to ignore or abrogate ordinary legal procedures in order to make a political example out of a person that represents a supposedly dangerous and different viewpoint. The newly-initiated disciplinary investigation of Brian Crowell fits these two criteria to a tee. The BUSD Human Resources disciplinary procedures make the BPAR system look like a model of fairness and restraint.
All Board politically-motivated disciplines are conducted in the same way. First, the District identifies the person targeted for discipline, and then it embarks on a process of concocting charges against the preselected victim. The first step of this process requires the school principal to scour a teacher’s record to find irregularities and then to raise the most commonplace alleged “breaches” of policy with the teacher. Berkeley schools have no readily available teacher handbook and is devoid of a single uniform instituted code of conduct. For example, in sharp contrast to just about every other large employer, BUSD has no published attendance policy. The sheer vagueness of basic policies, the inconsistent enforcement of these vague policies, the lack of training and clarity on systems that can result in discipline, and the inability of teachers to get any clarification on how to use new systems like the new pupil and student electronic attendance systems, means that almost every teacher is inadvertently violating some policy all the time. Even the most commonplace policies, such as attendance policies, that are used everywhere to set clear and consistent performance expectations do not exist in the District. The vague, inconsistent and opaque system of unwritten rules works in management’s favor because it provides the district with a completely free hand in creating the rules to fit the needs of the District on an ad-hoc basis.
Once an initial review of an employee’s file establishes some areas for potential discipline, management sets up an “investigative” meeting with the employee in which the employee is supposedly given the opportunity to “exonerate” her or himself. Since the employee is not told what she or he is being charged with or given a chance to know or review the evidence against them, conducting a defense of the nonexistent but assumed charges against yourself is more likely to give the prosecutors against you the evidence they need to formulate charges against you then it is allow for the person being interrogated to establish their innocence. There are elements of psychological torture involved in their process.
The Board knows that their discipline methods evoke fear and are designed to maximize defensiveness and paranoia in teachers. Most teachers are goody-goodies who have no idea how to avoid being manipulated or tricked into giving false confessions or plead themselves guilty to policy violations they did not commit in these staged theatrical proceedings. Almost none of these proceedings go forward without the use of good cop/bad cop routines by the District, complete with the real bullying and feigned concern that so often lay the basis for false confessions and a high rate of successful-but-wrongful and unjust convictions.
The so-called “investigative meetings” are nothing more than fishing expeditions for the District. Just holding the meetings gives the Board all kinds of opportunity to initiate discipline. Employees refusing to attend the meetings or participate can be threatened with insubordination for their refusal to cooperate with the discipline process. Hearings that begin with no colorable underlying cause for the discipline can result in discipline purely from what occurs in the alleged “investigative meeting.” These meetings, in which employees are accused of some unstated but implied serious wrongdoing by smug lawyers and administrators, can only work if the District gets away with the abrogation of employees’ most basic due process protections.
The School Board almost always ends the “investigative meeting” by instituting a gag order on the employee. The gag order is justified by the District as what it needs to allegedly “protect the public good.” The real point of instituting a gag order on the employee is of course to give the District the time and latitude it needs to secretly solicit testimony and evidence from students and parents to solidify whatever charge the District ultimately decides to concoct and pursue. Parents, students or other District employees who would, on principle, refuse to cooperate in the process of a politically-motivated discipline of a teacher, can be unknowingly sucked into or intimidated by the district into cooperating with their “investigation,” so long as the teacher being investigated is barred from publicly speaking out about the whole process. The only instances in which gag orders are warranted are those in which the reputation, legal rights, and safety of a teacher or student victim of teacher abuse must be protected. The successful execution of a political witch-hunt rests more upon the ability of those in power to create the perception of wrongdoing and upon strong decisive action by those in power to thwart the danger, than it does upon scientific facts.
Relying on star-chamber methods to establish guilt, fear and prejudice to enforce its will, the District is steadily and successfully reconstituting the District as a regimented, top-down, atomized workplace, where dissent is easily punished and where black and Latina/o students are constantly reminded they are no longer welcomed in the District. The District uses these tactics in order to enforce hugely unpopular educational policies that, if stated openly, would never be accepted by the broader Berkeley community.
At the heart of the defense of Brian Crowell is the defense of every progressive tradition that Berkeley prides itself as a community: intellectual freedom, critical thinking, diversity and integration, individual liberties, free speech, and equality.