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 district's actions, critics say, thus reflect a larger assault on academic freedom — an effort to micromanage the activities in the classroom with a counterproductive focus on test scores and prescribed standards. One especially troubling consequence, according to multiple Berkeley High teachers, is that instructors who work to lift up struggling students tend to face the most pushback — which they argue only worsens the achievement gap. And students of color, who are themselves disciplined at disproportionate rates in Berkeley schools, are forced to witness the few non-white teachers suffer through the stress, scrutiny, and humiliation of BPAR.

District spokesperson Mark Coplan declined to answer questions or make any officials available for interviews, writing in an email that the district would not discuss the peer review process, even broadly. He added that no legal complaints against the district or Berkeley High regarding BPAR "have been substantiated to my knowledge." Crowell and Daly have filed complaints with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleging discrimination over their placement in BPAR. These two cases, in addition to Crowell's unfair labor practice charge, are ongoing. Crowell said several other teachers are considering filing DFEH complaints over BPAR; one teacher confirmed this intention with me. Scuderi declined to comment and two vice principals who do evaluations and are named in separate complaints did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Berkeley school board President Josh Daniels declined to comment as well.

For Crowell, the demographic data on BPAR proves that the district engages in discrimination and retaliates against teachers who don't conform. "The district wants to force out anyone who would show conscientious objection on the grounds of academic freedom," he said. "If the district had their way, they would fire me and any teacher who is outspoken." In his case, Crowell added, "I am not going to change the way I teach."

So far, he hasn't. Because of the stress from BPAR and his escalating disputes with his supervisors, Crowell's health slowly deteriorated last year — so severely that in September, just a few weeks after the academic year began, his doctor ordered him to take medical leave. He hasn't been back in the classroom since. But the fight, he said, is far from over.

In 1968, Berkeley Unified became the nation's first school district to voluntarily desegregate. Integration is a proud part of the district's history and contributes to the city's reputation as a progressive municipality with forward-thinking policies.

The school district also has a long legacy of activism; according to school board records, in an October 1968 meeting, representatives of Berkeley High's Black Student Union presented fourteen demands to "rid ourselves of the result of centuries of racial oppression in America, and to make the school curriculum relevant to the needs of Black people," which included recommendations that the school create a "black curriculum committee" and offer courses on black American literature and poetry, African art history, and more.

Decades later, the fight for curricula that better meet the needs of minority students continues. For Crowell, it's about taking steps to help close the district's achievement gap, which is still very wide. According to a 2012 district report on Berkeley's efforts to end disparities in academic achievement — as part of its so-called 2020 Vision plan — only 30 percent of African-American high school graduates in the district were considered college-ready in 2010 (meaning they had successfully completed a certain set of requirements), compared to 76 percent of white students. And in 2011-12, while African-American students made up only 27 percent of middle and high school enrollment, they accounted for 61 percent of suspensions. These troubling disparities extend to a wide variety of measurements — from lower attendance rates for students of color to significant racial gaps in third-grade reading proficiency. Further, the diversity of the student body is not reflected in the teacher population. District data from 2011-12 showed that while 21 percent of district students were African American, only 7 percent of teachers were black. Hispanic or Latino youth made up 21 percent of the student body that year, compared to just 12 percent of teachers.

This data adds up to a school environment that can be uniquely challenging for non-white students, said Crowell. "The demographics of education is not such where African-American students particularly are going to believe in the system. They are not going to believe the K-12 education process is their ticket to the middle class. Why? Because they don't see it. There's no black teachers .... If you want to address the equity gap, you must first change your hiring practices so that black students will believe in the process."

In the classroom, Crowell has taken a number of steps to address disparities at Berkeley High — all of which, according to him, made him a target of administrators. Twice he proposed a case study on African-American student achievement and direct intervention, as part of what is called an "alternative evaluation." This process, according to the Berkeley teachers' union, is available to educators who have received distinguished or proficient evaluations, and is an opportunity for them to propose some kind of larger research project that they can develop with an evaluator (as a substitute to the traditional classroom evaluation procedure). For two years, Crowell said, his supervisors denied his request, despite the fact that based on past evaluations, he was eligible for the program.

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