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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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The ironic part, she said, is that the net impact on her teaching was negative. While some of the personal coaching in BPAR was helpful — all teachers can benefit from some form of one-on-one guidance, she said — the anxiety stemming from a potential dismissal far outweighed any benefits. "It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. And they still want to call it support? Who are we kidding?" In addition to missing some classes due to stress-related illnesses, on multiple occasions while in BPAR, she lost her place in the middle of a lecture, unable to recall what she was discussing.

Within Berkeley High, she added of BPAR, "it's so humiliating and embarrassing. It's this secret shame. And when people do find out about it, you become a pariah."

A 2013 survey, coordinated by union site representatives with a focus on teacher evaluations, shed light on how tensions with supervisors have had broader impacts on the health of some educators. Out of 94 Berkeley High teachers who responded, roughly forty had a negative response to the question "How do you feel about the security of your job?" At least sixteen, in response to a follow-up question, provided specific comments about the kind of stress they've experienced. For one question soliciting feedback on whether teachers felt their evaluators were biased against them or their style or pedagogy, 19 out of 82 who responded criticized their evaluators and the process.

The survey did not ask about BPAR, though a handful of teachers brought it up in their written responses, saying it had become an unfair tool for harassment or discrimination; other respondents, however, defended the program as fair, arguing that the backlash against BPAR has been unproductive.

Crowell's unfair labor practice complaint sheds light on some of the broader tensions around BPAR at Berkeley High that have apparently been brewing for several years. The complaint includes a transcript of a 2011 meeting between Scuderi, the principal, and two union site representatives, on the topic of BPAR. (An African-American teacher who had been placed in the program decided to send out the transcript to colleagues after the demographic data was released last spring, according to Crowell.) The most noteworthy part of the conversation is an alleged admission by Scuderi that has, in light of recent controversies, fueled concerns that the district may be aggressively and unfairly using BPAR.

According to the meeting notes, in response to criticisms that the evaluation process had become too punitive, Scuderi replied: "Our BPAR numbers are actually low. I've been hearing 'You don't use the BPAR process enough.'"

Without spending time in the classrooms of BPAR-referred teachers — and without reviewing a large sample of teacher evaluations at Berkeley High — it's difficult to definitively know whether an individual referral was truly justified or not. But as some critics of BPAR have argued that, if in fact these evaluations and subsequent referrals are carried out in a discriminatory manner, or if teachers who speak out are unfairly targeted, it is clearly the students who stand to suffer the consequences. And it's not just because teachers may face negative mental health impacts from BPAR and the evaluation process.

When it comes to allegations of age discrimination, BPAR critics point out that a flawed evaluation system could have a detrimental impact on students; that is, if the district goes after older teachers because of their higher salaries (or due to other subtler forms of ageism), students may end up losing teachers with the highest level of education and the most classroom experience.

Daly, the longtime visual arts teacher assigned to BPAR this academic year, makes the case that she was a target of age discrimination in her Fair Employment and Housing complaint. For starters, she is 61 years old and is at the top of the district's pay scale for teachers — which ranges up to about $80,000 a year — given her extensive post-graduate education and years in the profession. In fact, the BPAR demographic data, which is included in her complaint, shows that 31 out of the 41 BPAR-referred teachers from 2002 to 2012 were highly educated, which means they also were among the best paid. Further, her complaint alleges that Melgoza, her evaluator, made this statement to Daly's department chair, in reference to Daly: "Old teachers think they can teach in the same old ways." (The complaint includes an email from the chair confirming that Melgoza said this or made a comment similar to it.)

Daly shared all of Melgoza's evaluations with me, highlighting some comments that she thought were particularly absurd. For example, he reprimanded her for pausing her lecture to address a student's request for glue: "You place her needs for glue above that of the whole class," he wrote in October of 2012. The following month, he marked her up for the fact that two students were putting on mascara for "nearly two minutes" before Daly stopped them. "It was appropriate that this behavior was addressed but troubling that they felt this was acceptable," he wrote. In a January evaluation, he noted that a student was texting on his phone and that after Daly told him to stop and walked in the other direction, "he pulls it out and is busy playing his game again." These kinds of observations, mostly tied to student engagement and flaws he observed in her "instructional strategies," added up to enough "improvement needed" marks that Melgoza assigned her to BPAR.

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