By Ken A. Epstein
Brian Crowell, a Berkeley High School history teacher, is locked in a fight with his school and district over the Berkeley Peer Assistance and Review (B-PAR) program, which was originally designed to help underperforming teachers improve their teaching.
But he says the program – as it operates in practice – is punitive, arbitrary and discriminatory and that it harasses and targets African American and older women teachers and pushes them out of their jobs.
Most of the teachers who are placed in the program “are forced to resign or retire,” he said. “That’s the real purpose – not to improve your teaching practice. That’s a total lie.”
Crowell has taught 9th and 10th grade history classes at Berkeley High School since 2007 and been teaching for 14 years.
An elected building rep – shop steward – for his fellow teachers since 2009 at Academic Choice – the biggest of the schools into which Berkeley High has been subdivided – he began to represent teachers who were subjected to the PAR process and soon began to advocate to shut it down.
“I thought there was discrimination in which people were being referred to PAR,” he said in an interview with the Post.
“It’s a horrible process,” Crowell said. “It is not a program of helping teachers. It is a program of forced retirement and discrimination.”
“Nobody has ever said: ‘PAR has made me a better teacher.’ Ever. Nobody has ever said: ‘It helped me,’” said Crowell. What teachers told him, instead, is “It’s like being in prison. It’s hell. It’s twilight zone. It made me want to quit.”
Defending B-Par, School Board Director Karen Hemphill told the Daily Californian newspaper that the program is designed to fairly evaluate underperforming teachers and allows teachers to improve their teaching after receiving unsatisfactory evaluations instead of dismissing them outright. The B-PAR panel is made up of both teachers and administrators who jointly make evaluations.
Though he was a building rep, Crowell has not had the backing of his union. The union president serves on the B-PAR panel, and the union does not represent teachers who have complaints about the process, he said.
Crowell, who was popular with students and always received excellent job evaluations, soon found himself in B-PAR’s crosshairs when he began to demand demographic data on which teachers were assigned to the program.
Denied the information despite a Public Records Act request, he finally was able to receive the data after he talked to and received support from the school board president.
Only a few days after receiving the information last spring, his department chair came to his classroom and cursed him out in the hallway, within earshot of his students, said Crowell.
He also received notice he was being placed in the PAR program, accused of “unprofessional behavior” for giving a couple of classes high grades and for clerical errors during two weeks of taking attendance, he said.
“Proving retaliation is never easy, (but) there was immediate retaliation,” he said. “They started the investigation on me the same day that I got the (demographic) information,” he said.
What the B-Par data revealed was startling. Almost all (20 out of 22) of the women in B-PAR since 2002 were over 55 years of age. Almost all of the teachers in B-PAR had high levels of experience and education, which meant they placed higher than average on the salary scale.
In addition, 24 percent of the teachers in B-Par (10 of 41) were African American, though only 6.5 percent (39 out of 604 in 2010) of Berkeley Unified teachers were Black.
“I’m a whistle blower,” he said. “I’m proud. This is happening because I blew the whistle on this problem.”
However, the constant stress has taken a toll on his health, says Crowell, who has been on medical leave since September.
“What it does to your health is devastating,” he said. “When I came back to work (last) fall, they were harassing me. They were trying to get me to curse at them, get me angry so they could fire me.”
It was clear they were saying: “He’s a trouble maker. Go after Brian,” he said. “But I was trying to make the union strong. I was trying to give the teachers their power back.”
The son of two educators, Crowell is married to an elementary school teacher, and the couple has two children who go to school in Oakland.
The practice of B-PAR, though not necessarily the written policy makes someone who is placed in the process into a second-class citizen, says Crowell.
“You are evaluated every single year for the rest of your career,” compared to other teachers who are evaluated every second year. “You can’t have a student teacher. You can’t be a union rep. You can’t file a grievance against anything that happens in the PAR process. You’re considered a bad teacher by your colleagues.”
“This is how it plays out in practice.”
Crowell says he is going through the legal process. He has filed complaints against the district for discrimination and against the union for failure to represent him.
If those complaints are rejected, he plans to go to court.
Berkeley Unified has not responded to the Post’s questions about B-PAR, and according to a staffer at the union, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, “Because of pending litigation against the union, our attorney has advised us not comment.”
Courtesy of the Oakland Post, February 27, 2014 (www.postnewsgroup.com)