Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Campbell Brown's Reality T.V. Philosophy of Tenure

Reality television can teach us much about the Campbell Brown (former CNN anchor) philosophy of education and her attack on teacher tenure in New York.

Campbell Brown's foray into education policy consists of a lawsuit she filed challenging New York's tenure statute on July 28, 2014 

In a photo op for the ages, Brown gathered children and their parents in a tableau that alludes to Jesus gathering the children for the Sermon on the Mount and saying, "suffer the little children to come unto me..." (Mark 10:14). 

Brown's organization, The Partnership for Educational Justice (P.E.J.) filed the lawsuit, which you can read more about at Capital New York. 

How can reality television offer insight into Campbell Brown's attack on teachers' due process (a.k.a. tenure)?

Simply, reality television is organized around people who think they have skills they lack. Consider the premises on which these few reality shows are based: 

  • "American Idol" features "aspiring" singers, many of whom can't carry a tune let alone evolve into the next Beyonce.
  • The reality show original "The Real World" on MTV filled an abode with unskilled individuals just so the audience could gawk at them like sharks in an aquarium. 
  • HGTV is filled with reality television programs that showcase people with marginal skills, but they do have experience and training in most cases. I'm thinking about shows such as "Design Star," "Brother to Brother," and "Flipping the Block." 
  • "So You Think You Can Dance?" may feature dancers with some skill as it culls the pack for the best booty-hopper. Importantly, this program does show the connection between head knowledge and demonstrated talent
I could go on with the list, but you get the point: Some reality television shows that contestants need no skills, no ability, no knowledge to gain fame from their inability to do anything but make noise while other reality television shows demonstrate that success comes from both head knowledge and demonstrated ability. 

Campbell Brown falls into the first camp. She thinks she can teach. She thinks she understands tenure. She thinks she's an expert on what it takes to be an excellent teacher. 

Campbell Brown belongs in the club of pseudo-education reformers I call head cases. Brown may have read some slanted rhetoric about teaching and how anyone who has sat in a desk can do it. She has listened to well-intentioned parents who decry the incompetence of their child's teacher, but she has never demonstrated any ability to step into a classroom and do what she so eagerly tells teachers how to do: teach. 

My recent experience dealing with a well-read family member has positioned me to give this topic much thought. I've been listening to and observing this individual quite closely the past month and have had an epiphany about how someone can know so much as a result of reading incessantly but not be able to transfer that cognitive knowledge into observable skills. 

What one knows about does not always equal what one can successfully do. 

I can give hundreds of examples from my own life. I know about many sports, but I am a complete incompetent when it comes to playing them. I often tell students the story about my bowling tutor in college. He was the Midwest bowling champion, yet despite his coaching and patience, I could never get better. As a consequence, I made a C in bowling, and I'm proud of that C because it's not a D, which I very well may have deserved given my inability to perform. 

I struck out in bowling. But at least I studied and practiced. Unlike Campbell Brown who has never taught and has no real clue about how to teach, the training one needs to teach, and the pressures one experiences from all kinds of forces from outside and within education. 

Arthur Goldstein's Huffington Post article "The Misleading Argument That Blames Teacher Tenure" succinctly articulates much that's wrong with Brown's thinking about education and tenure. Beginning with the pressure to pass kids, Goldstein challenges what he calls "Campbell Brown's Law" as ignoring every factor that influences a child's success. Goldstein imagines teachers accepting Brown's premise that the only good teacher is an untenured one: 

In short, if you're a tenured teacher, you are an impediment to Excellence. The only way you can help children is by getting rid of your tenure, standing up straight and walking to Arne Duncan in Washington DC and saying, "Please sir, I want to be fired for any reason. Or for no reason. I want to take personal responsibility for all the ills of society. Neither you, society, poverty, parents, nor children themselves are responsible. I'm ready to be dismissed at the whim of Bill Gates or the Walmart family and I agree with you that Katrina was the bestest thing to happen to the New Orleans education system."

When a reality show contestant gets shown the exit, the contestant often rationalizes his/her departure: "The judge didn't get my vision." or "Those judges are stupid." Many proclaim, "I'll be back. This is just the beginning. You haven't heard the last of me." 

Sadly, we haven't heard the last of Campbell Brown or her ilk, but teachers who do the challenging, often unappreciated work of educating children, those public school teachers who embrace all God's children as deserving and capable of learning, we know that just like the failed contestants whose names none can recall and who do disappear into the has-been universe of celebrity wannabes, the students we serve will remember us as the ones who did gather the children around in our classrooms for more that a photo op. 

And what of Campbell Brown? She's just another contestant in the sad parade of head cases who fancy themselves experts in teaching. Unfortunately, it's public education that's the biggest loser in the ongoing side show. 

Image credit: wikipedia. Brown at
Greater Talent Network's 2012 New York gala


  1. Amazing that she has any klout given the absence of knowledge, integrity, humility...

    1. I agree, Mary Ann. That lack of "knowledge, integrity, humility" doesn't stop her or others whose main hobby is teacher bashing. What gets me is that CB and others like her don't get how they undermine all of us w/ their anti-tenure rants and finger pointing; in the next breath she's fond of proclaiming, "there are lots of great teachers." There won't be if things don't change.

  2. Incredible and heart breaking, tenure is such a misunderstood concept.