As a former broadcast personality, Campbell Brown has some advantages when appearing on the media to discuss her campaign to end teachers’ workplace protections. She has experience in interview techniques. She understands what works well on camera and what does not. She knows how to pitch her voice and use facial and body language to convey deep sincerity and earnestness regardless of what she really believes. These served her well on Mr. Colbert’s program last week.
Mr. Colbert is similarly skilled, but he plays a satirical representation of a right wing ideologue in order to lampoon a segment of the media and to keep his guests off balance. I would argue that he did not level the full weight of his satirical talents upon Ms. Brown, but rather he waited until the end of the interview to present her with some serious challenges that she could not respond to adequately. More on that later.
Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post provides a pretty thorough assessment of Ms. Brown’s many prevarications and reliance on talking points over evidence courtesy of Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn of Michigan State University. Dr. Dunn makes it very clear that there simply isn’t a research base to support any of Ms. Brown’s assertions, and since she had made those assertions in the media prior to her appearance on The Colbert Report, I wish that Mr. Colbert had been more ready to take on some of the more stubborn and egregious talking points. For example, Ms. Brown repeated her claim that New York State’s teachers cannot possible be as effective as job evaluations say they are because student test scores are too low:
SC: Okay, how’s the crisis in New York? What’s the problem here?
CB: So, if you look at, if you look at the, um, outcomes, student outcomes in New York, okay? So, 91 percent of teachers are around the state of New York are rated either “effective” or “highly effective,” and yet [SC: Sounds good.] 31 percent, [SC: Yep.] 31 percent of our kids are reading, writing, and doing math at grade level. How does that compute? I mean, how can you argue the status quo is okay with numbers like that??
SC: Well, I went to public school in South Carolina and 31 percent sounds like a majority to me. (transcript is courtesy of Mercedes Schneider, teacher and author)
Mr. Colbert chose to lightly mock his own education, but there is a major, I would argue deliberate, flaw in Ms. Brown’s favored talking point. First, the 31% figure does not measure students’ grade level performance; it measures the percentage of students who scored “proficient” or above on the new Common Core aligned testing piloted by the Pearson corporation in New York. Second, the 31% proficiency rate was gamed by the process to determine the cut scores and openly predicted by New York State Education Commissioner John King before the tests were ever deployed. From the Times-Union in 2013:
State Education Commissioner John King said he expected some push-back. At a Times Unioneditorial board meeting on Tuesday, he said the number of students considered proficient will likely drop by 30 points. He said, while that number is intimidating, it provides a more honest assessment of what New York’s students know. He acknowledged that makes for nervous educators, but said the state can’t afford to roll back the tougher new standards students will be expected to meet because just 35 percent of New York’s high school freshmen leave ready for college or a career four years later.
How could the commissioner so accurately predict the drop in test scores for the new examinations? According to award-winning Principal Carol Burris, it is because his office deliberately sought to peg the cut scores between proficiency levels to markers that would leave just a third of New York students making the cut. The condensed version of Burris’ analysis: NY DOE sought information from the College Board on what SAT scores (widely considered only a loose predictor of college success) correlated to a successful first year in college, and set measures of that “success” that are clearly aimed at that 30% target. Once in possession of the desired SAT scores in reading, writing and mathematics for a combined 1630 points, the state’s committee went about setting cut scores for each level of performance on the new CCSS aligned tests. From Principal Burris again:
When the cut scores were set, the overall proficiency rate was 31 percent–close to the commissioner’s prediction. The proportion of test takers who score 1630 on the SAT is 32 percent. Coincidence? Bet your sleeveless pineapple it’s not. Heck, the way I see it, the kids did not even need to show up for the test.
So is it honest for Ms. Brown to keep repeating that only 31% of NY students are at “grade level”? Absolutely not — first, because this is not a “grade level” measure and second, because the result was gamed from the beginning.
This also brings up another question. If the goal of the “proficient” rating on the exams is “college and career ready” is a 31% proficiency rating actually wrong? In 2013, 33.6% of the U.S. population aged 25-29 had a bachelors degree, which is up over 11 points from 22.5% in 1980 when the education “crisis” rhetoric began in earnest. More of our young population is in possession of college degree today than ever before in our history, and the economic data does not suggest we are in a crisis of too few people with such degrees in the economy. 48% of recent college graduates are underemployed, and in 2010, over 5 million college graduates were employed in jobs requiring only a high school diploma. Moreover, according to Pew Social Trends, today’s wage benefit for obtaining a college degree comes less from rising wages for college graduates than from cratering wages for those without college.
One could argue that more students need to be on path to be “college and career ready” by their third grade exams because college is increasingly necessary to keep from falling behind economically moreso than it is necessary to get ahead. Something tells me that today’s reform advocates don’t want to emphasize that point. We would do better to question if the distribution of students who qualify for and are successful at college are concentrated in specific communities and neighborhoods, but discussed honestly, that would require examining America’s rising Residential Income Segregation Index, another topic education reform advocates don’t like to discuss.
Mr. Colbert made a feint at this late in his interview with Ms. Brown:
SC: You can mention. I’ll edit it out, but you can mention it. [CB: Okay.] [Audience laughter.] All right, now, but, here’s, the thing is aren’t you opening a can of worms there, because [4:00] if you say the kids are entitled to e, equal education, if that’s your argument, doesn’t that mean eventually, you’re going to say, “Every child in the state of New York should have the same amount of money spent on their education”—rich community, poor community—pool it all in, split it all up among Bobby and Susie and Billy—everywhere. [Audience applause.] Because the argument is, everyone gets the same opportunity. [Audience applause.]
CB: But, but you, you’re suggesting that mon, that it’s all about the money, and I think it’s not about the money.
SC: Well, you’re suggesting it’s about equality, and money is one of the equations in equality, or have I just schooled you? [Audience laughter.]
Mr. Colbert did not let Ms. Brown duck the question of money and school funding entirely, but she quickly professed how she wants to “pay teachers more” AND treat them like “professionals” through evaluations. Then she sidestepped to her “safe” territory by claiming it is almost impossible to fire a teacher with tenure. As previously noted, Dr. Dunn of Michigan State makes it clear that these claims are completely problematic because first, new evaluations using student test scores focus on formulations of teachers’ impact that only accounts for 1-14% of variability between student performance and second, Ms. Brown’s information on the length of time needed to remove a tenured teacher is badly out of date and her assessment of that time is possibly off by more than a factor of four. This all tied to her previous claims the “least effective” teachers are concentrated in schools with high levels of disadvantaged students, but her argument against tenure is not remotely related to that because measuring effectiveness via test scores automatically makes urban teachers less effective regardless of their experience and skill. Additionally, these school have far fewer tenured teachers because the turnover rate in many urban districts tops 50% in three years, resulting in a dearth of teachers with the skills that come from experience.
If tenure were truly the problem with teacher quality, then wealthy suburban districts with more stable and experienced teacher corps would not be the districts with high test scores and large percentages of college bound graduates. In this sense, Ms. Brown’s fight against tenure resembles Republican led drives for voter ID laws that threaten to block 100s of 1000s of currently eligible voters in order to stop a “problem,’ voter impersonation, that occurs so rarely it does not statistically exist.
Mr. Colbert then pivoted to what appears to have been his most important question of the interview — what is the money involved in Ms. Brown’s lawsuit?
SC: Just trying to win, Campbell. Just trying to win, all right? Um, your organization, where does it’s money come from? That’s one of the things they asked me to ask you.
CB: I, I saw that on my Twitter feed today. The, the, who’s funding this effort?
SC: Yeah, who’s funding your, your effort, [CB: Kirkland Ellis.] your organization.
CB: The law firm…
SC: The law firm is funding it?
CB: Well, the law firm is doing this for free, so we haven’t gone out…
Ms. Brown’s point here appears to be that despite her fronting the organization that is facilitating the lawsuit, the efforts on behalf of that suit are, in essence, charitable. This may be true as far as legal fees are concerned, but it is absurd on the face to even hint that there is no monetary value to the assistance Ms. Brown is giving the plaintiffs her organization recruited. First, her connections and celebrity almost certainly played a role in obtaining the legal services. Second, Ms. Brown is a media ready spokesperson who has been giving interviews and penning opinion articles on behalf of this cause, and such services would cost dearly if they came from a private consulting firm. Further, Ms. Brown has managed to sign up the services of Incite Agency, led by former Obama administration alumni Robert Gibbs and Ben LaBolt to do publicity for the cause on a national level. The plaintiffs in this case are enjoying pro bono legal services, Ms. Brown’s celebrity and public relations services from former White House personnel. I think it is sufficient to say that those are no small levels of support.
Mr. Colbert pressed on about financial support and finally got Ms. Brown to admit to something which I find astonishing:
SC: So, the Partnership for Educational Justice [7:00] has not raised any money so far?
CB:Yeah, we are raising money.
SC: And who did you raise it from?
CB: I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the people (pointing toward window) are out…
SC: I’m going to respect that because I had a super PAC. [Audience applause.]
CB: I hear you. But, part of the reason is the people who are outside today, trying to protest, trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate…
SC: Exercising First Amendment rights…
CB: Absolutely, but they’re also going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause and an important cause, and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the people who were out there earlier today, then I respect that.
Ms. Brown is married to Dan Senor, who was the former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq following the fall of the Hussein Regime. He sits on the board of of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirstNY, and he joined hedge fund Elliot Management before becoming a top adviser to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Ms. Brown is on the Board of Directors of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain of charter schools, an organization that boasts massive financial support from Wall Street. Her ties to people who have been pouring money into education “reform” in the interest of charter schools is not difficult to establish, as blogger Mother Crusader has demonstrated. Suffice to say that these are incredibly wealthy and politically connected people who are the most likely donors to her organization.
And Ms. Brown wants us to believe that they need to be “protected”. That if people want to know who is funding lawsuits to challenge laws that were passed by democratically elected governments and job protections that were subject to open and adversarial negotiations between unions and administrators, they cannot know because the donors seeking to overturn such laws could not abide potential criticism of themselves in the public sphere.
Let’s be clear. Who are “the people who are outside today” who Ms. Brown assumes will bully and intimidate her donors? According to The Daily News:
I am sure that Eva Moskowitz’s donors are just quaking in their boots…right after they drop another $400,000 into Governor Cuomo’s pockets.
Mr. Colbert did not sneak a camera crew down to the street to make Ms. Brown look as ridiculous as she richly deserved at that moment, but the fact that he led her to make such a ludicrous statement is telling in an of itself. Today, it is very hard to trust that major media outlets will take the time and effort to research and interview people trying to lead public debate via deception, and on issues that require a genuine understanding of complex social phenomena, that is even less likely. I have written before how abysmally the New York Times’ editorial staff have failed in that regard, preferring to take the statements of advocates with wealth and connections at face value.
Mr. Colbert is not a journalist, yet he and his fellow comedians Jon Stewart and John Oliver have become almost guardians of truth in recent years. It is often more likely that Mr. Colbert or Mr. Stewart or Mr. Oliver will highlight the absurd inanities, half truths and contradictions routinely offered by politicians, pundits and advocates. In the case of Ms. Brown, Mr. Colbert got her to openly confess to a truth that is gaining greater and greater public awareness: American governance is increasingly oligarchical in nature whereby elected officials craft policy more to serve the interests of their very wealthy donors rather than the interests of the actual voters who put them in office. Ms. Brown’s undisclosed donor list is a perfect example of this, and her refusal to disclose under the fiction that her donors could possibly be intimidated by moms and teachers with home made posters should be mocked loudly and frequently.
I am grateful to Mr. Colbert for organizing his interview to that point, but I am saddened that we rely almost exclusively on satirists to get to the heart of public affairs these days.