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Berkeley's Unequal Punishment of Teachers

The school district disproportionately disciplines black teachers and older educators with higher salaries. Are students paying the price?



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In addition, Crowell proposed to add an Advanced Placement macroeconomic course that would focus on African-American issues, but administrators rejected this idea as well, he said. Crowell's efforts to better incorporate ethnic studies into ninth-grade history were also coupled with his push to bring in an alternative textbook — because the one that the school had been using, he said, was at an Advanced Placement level and thus very difficult for some students to comprehend, especially for those already falling behind.

On February 20, 2013, two months after sending his initial inquiry to Scuderi, Crowell sent another email noting that he had not received a response and informed the principal that he planned to file a district complaint regarding the ninth-grade curriculum. That very same day, according to Crowell's Public Employment Relations Board complaint, Scuderi ordered an attendance audit of Crowell's classes and questioned the validity of his first-semester grades, which he had submitted a month prior.

"Mr. Scuderi used his supervisory position to retaliate against me for informing him of the [non-compliance] of the 9th grade history course," Crowell wrote in his labor complaint.

"It's because I was causing trouble," he added in an interview.

In the attendance audit, supervisors cited Crowell for a series of clerical mistakes over a three-month period — essentially errors in his attendance-taking, which, according to Crowell, are common enough that similar numbers could be found in audits of many other teachers. These citations, he said, were based on a policy that is rarely enforced in a punitive way.

In terms of Crowell's grades, administrators were not pleased that he had given every student in his class an A the prior semester. The reason for this, according to Crowell, was that he had students work in teams of four with two high-performing and two low-performing students, in an effort to support those who weren't yet at the ninth-grade reading level (and were having difficulties with the high-level textbook). The grades were based on group presentations, and Crowell said they had achieved the standards he established. "They deserved those grades. They earned them."

Crowell and Scuderi debated the grades at a meeting on February 25, a transcript of which is included in his complaint. According to Crowell, the retaliation he faced was obvious, given that he complained about the lack of ethnic studies classes and was then interrogated about his grades. "Giving kids all A's is unusual," the principal said, according to the transcript. "My job is to ask about it."

Crowell tried to explain his grading and standards, and why he thought the course was unfair and was designed to perpetuate the achievement gap, but Scuderi and Vernon Walton, Academic Choice vice principal, kept questioning him on why he had given across the board As, the transcripts show.

In an interview, Crowell expressed frustration with this pushback. "The lie of the achievement gap is you're bad if you give your black students As and you're bad if you give your black students Ds and Fs. [Administrators] want them to get Bs and Cs. And that's the racism I'm talking about," he said, referring to what he said is institutional pressure to only give certain grades to students of color.

At a later meeting, according to a transcript, Walton, who is Crowell's evaluator, questioned his grades by noting that the As didn't seem appropriate given that many of the students in the class had done poorly on standardized tests the previous year. "How dare the Berkeley administration judge what my students can achieve based on test scores from last year?" Crowell said in interview, adding that he felt the use of these prior scores in the teacher evaluation process was a violation of his students' privacy.

Scuderi and Walton did not respond to my questions about criticisms of the curriculum or Crowell's allegations of retaliation.

Just a few weeks after the February 25 meeting, Crowell's supervisors informed him that they would be assigning him to BPAR due to issues with his grades and attendance errors. Crowell said they were clearly using the program as a punishment for speaking out. Supporting his allegations, Crowell said, was the demographic data that the district sent to him on February 20 — just hours after he emailed Scuderi with his curriculum concerns. For weeks, he had difficulties getting the records, but Daniels, the school board president, helped him in his effort, Crowell said.

Crowell, a union site representative at the time, sent the data to a few colleagues, and it quickly spread among Academic Choice teachers and beyond. The disclosure prompted analyses by Berkeley High math faculty who eventually printed and shared with staff numerous graphs and statistical reports illustrating the overrepresentation of black teachers and older, experienced teachers in BPAR. The backlash, as Crowell's complaint outlines, prompted Scuderi to meet with dozens of teachers in March of last year specifically to discuss the program. At that point, to some teachers the evidence was quite clear: BPAR was a weapon for age and racial discrimination.

The California legislature first formalized the concept of Peer Assistance and Review in 1999 with a bill that directed school districts to work with teachers' unions to establish and implement local PAR programs in 2001. The idea was that schools would place tenured teachers into PAR when they received unsatisfactory ratings on their evaluations. The programs would require written performance goals and offer assistance and review, through teacher observation, staff development, and more. In each PAR program, panels made up of administrators and teachers would select consulting teachers to work with those assigned to PAR. If districts chose not to implement PAR, then they would not receive associated funding from the state.

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