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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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As evidence that she was unfairly targeted, Daly's complaint points to a positive critique from a different observer that year and also notes that Melgoza, evaluating one of the exact same photography lessons two years earlier, gave her nearly all-proficient marks. "It is very difficult for me to understand how the quality of my teaching has diminished so much in such a short time, especially considering that I continuously strive to improve my pedagogy," Daly's complaint states. "I believe that I am a better teacher today than I was two years ago."

In an interview, she said it seemed that Melgoza failed to recognize that her photography class is by nature a creative one. "What a person reviewing this class needs to do is look at the actual work that students are doing. My supervisor has never looked at a single work of their art." She said it seemed clear that he was simply checking off a list of items with the intention of trying to ultimately push her out of the school. Also included in her complaint are nearly thirty individual letters of support from former and current colleagues, parents, and students.

Melgoza did not respond to requests for comment. When asked about concerns of age discrimination during a meeting with Daly and her union site representatives, Principal Scuderi said he would not discuss "district BPAR issues," but said the recommendations "are not based on salary step or age," according to a transcript provided in her complaint.

Daly's discrimination case is still under investigation at the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In the meantime, she has spent the last year participating in BPAR, which, she recently learned, she has successfully finished. She appreciated the guidance of her consulting teacher, who she thought helped her develop some useful new techniques. But, she said, "the students' work is no better than it was before."

Willson, the math teacher who said he narrowly avoided BPAR this year, said the targeting of veteran teachers does not surprise him. "The older teachers are there to provide long-term knowledge and institutional memory. If you don't want to hear that or you want to do it your own way, you might feel threatened by those older teachers." He thinks this kind of ageism was partly why he started to receive poor reviews: "They're just looking at all the teachers in those categories, and as soon as they see one little nick in your armor, wham, let's put you in BPAR."

He said his evaluators were giving him "improvement needed" marks for problems that were very minor or out of his control. This year, Willson agreed to teach one of the most difficult courses in the department — Algebra One for juniors and seniors. Students typically take algebra in eighth grade, which means that most of the students in Willson's classes have failed the course three or more times.

Willson said he is generally good at working with such students and argued that it was unfair for his evaluator to criticize him for minor behavior problems, like students texting. He also received negative marks for spending too long on individual work time; Willson, however, argued that this strategy gives him an opportunity to help students in a more direct manner — answering their individual questions, for example — which can be most effective for those struggling with the material. "The one-on-one teaching is appreciated by the students. It's asked for by the students .... That's how they improve and move forward. I was just hammered for teaching that way."

He argued that more broadly he was essentially punished for taking on some of the most difficult students, which, in turn, could send a message to other teachers to avoid these kinds of classes if they don't want bad evaluations.

The end result, he said, is that these students who have already fallen behind, are only further neglected.

With his time off, Brian Crowell has done some research on peer assistance programs in other districts in California. He soon hopes to get data from the San Francisco Unified School District, where he has been in contact with one African-American teacher who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit over his placement in PAR. "To me, this is a civil rights issue," Crowell said.

And it's a concern that extends beyond California and PAR. Humphrey, one of the experts on PAR, pointed to a controversy in Boston's public school system in which data revealed that black and Hispanic teachers were more likely to be deemed unsatisfactory or in need of improvement than white teachers in the evaluation process. (The disparities were reported last year in the Boston Globe.) In those public schools, teachers over the age of fifty were also more likely to get negative reviews.

"It's a huge concern," Humphrey said. "It requires a really hard look at what it is that you are evaluating."

While Crowell wants to continue to shed light on inequities in teacher evaluation, he also wants to teach again. After months away from the conflicts at Berkeley High School, his health has improved, he said, noting that back in September, he was sick enough that he truly could not work anymore. His medical leave ends in August, by which time he is hopeful that he will be more than ready to return to the classroom.

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