Whistle Blowing Teacher Says He Faces Firing for Revealing Discrimination

Brian Crowell

Brian Crowell

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.

He said he was aware of teachers who are placed in the program “who 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 the way) people were being referred to PAR,” he said in an interview with the Post.

Photo from City of Berkeley Website.

Berkeley High School. Photo from City of Berkeley Website.

“It’s a horrible process,” Crowell said. “It is not a program for 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. Instead what he heard from teachers was: “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 that 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 2 weeks of clerical errors in 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 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 stronger. 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 the Post’s questions about B-PAR, and according to a staffer at the Berkeley teachers’ union, “Because of pending litigation against the union, our attorney has advised us not to comment.”

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  1. Burned by the union

    I used to be naive enough to think the teachers’ union cared about teachers. Like many people, I learned the hard way. It still makes me sad, how badly the union has treated teachers.

  2. Lincoln Teacher

    We would all be for PAR if it were what it is supposed to be. It isn’t. If it really helped teachers or got bad teachers out of the system, I would support it.PAR is a political machine. The people evaluating and referring to PAR are mostly principals. Most of the principals have no clue as to how to run a classroom. Most of them are political people who want to advance. If getting rid of a teacher helps them do that, then they will be happy to refer. Most of the PAR coaches are either lazy people who don’t want to be in the classroom or people who want to be principals. They will do whatever they have to to keep their cushie job.The person above who said that PAR is proof that the union is dead and in bed with the district hit the nail on the head.

  3. we know

    There is a principal in San Francisco that has gotten rid of many (some say 30 percent) of his staff through PAR. Most of these were excellent teachers. Now everyone does everything the principal thinks is right (even if it isn’t) and everyone follows in line. This would be fine, if San Francisco weren’t a union district. I thought unions were supposed to protect people from this. To learn that the union is involved in PAR is really scary. If people want to get rid of teachers, what can I say? But for the union to do it? What is the point of having a union?

  4. The truth

    I watched one of my friends go through PAR and it literally all but killed her. She left the district after 20 plus years of service. It was about 2 years before she could retire, so she never really got her full retirement (it saved the district loads of money). I watched PAR really hurt our school and kids a lot. It is a barbaric process. Shame on the union for being a part of it.

  5. The truth

    BPAR isn’t for bad teachers, a certain age bracket, or even a particular race. It is for targeting ANYONE that has rocked the boat in some way. It does nothing to make education better. It just shuts EVERYONE up.

  6. who thinks?

    Who seriously thinks that the teacher’s union would do anything to help teachers? Come On!!!! The union is there to hobnob and take your money while they dumb all your money into their own political interests. Help you? Why would they do that?

  7. BHigh Grad

    I for one thought that Mr. Crowell was an excellent teacher. I learned loads from him. The person that says he gave everyone As is not telling the truth. And the person who says he never took attendance is not telling the truth. I’m sad they are getting rid of him.

  8. lisagg

    BPAR and PAR are targeting agents. End of story.

  9. BHigh2011

    Rather you like Mr. Crowell or not is sort of irrelevant. There are a lot of teachers that have been targeted through the BPAR program. Some of them are good and some aren’t. Some of the worse teachers seem to stay on, and I have heard it is because they are up kissers to the powers that be. Don’t know if it is true, but I’ve heard it for years. Berkeley High isn’t the mecca for critical thinking that it once was. It is just a land of zombies any corporations. As young as I am , I would never be naive enough to believe the unions would help me with anything. I wish Berkeley High were different. I wish it were the cultural mecca that it could be. But major politics get in the way.

  10. B High 09

    I’m all for an honest debate about the merits of this program. But I also feel obligated to mention that Mr. Crowell was the laziest teacher I have ever had in my entire life. So I suspect there is more to the story than what he might be saying.

    Mr. Crowell didn’t bother to learn the material he was supposed to teach. Instead, we would sit in his class and when we weren’t just chatting among friends, we sometimes would take turns reading out of the text book. At first, If someone didn’t understand something, they’d ask Mr. Crowell. He’d say, “don’t worry about it, let’s go to the next page”. After a few weeks of that, we got the picture, and no one bothered to ask about anything. After all, it didn’t matter. We took tests as a class and he would just give you the answers and guarantee that we’d get A’s. I learned absolutely nothing about a subject I was genuinely interested in.

    Maybe this program is imperfect and does unfairly target some teachers. However, I can say beyond a doubt that Mr. Crowell was in dire need of assistance and external motivation to become a better teacher.

    • ^

      The reason they put him through BPAR has/had nothing to do with him being a good or bad teacher. It is all about targeting. Trust me. You can always justify mistreating people and scapegoating people. BPAR is evil and everyone knows it. It isn’t targeting the teachers who show movies all day are not the ones getting targeted. It is the people who disagree with the union. Scary that a union would do this to its own members.

  11. Shelby

    Rather Mr. Crowell was a “good” teacher or a “bad” teacher really is subjective. He has people that feel both ways. Why do the people who think he is a “bad” teacher get to get rid of him? If we did that with every teacher that had anyone think they were bad, no teacher would survive. They would have to give everyone straight As or else someone would complain and they would get fired. There are teachers at Berkeley High that show videos a lot, but those don’t seem to be the ones going through BPAR.

  12. anon

    The part that is left out of this report is that mr.crowell was actually not a phenomenal teacher…he did not teach us anything.

  13. reality bites

    PAR is not about making teachers better or getting rid of the bad teachers. It is completely about dehumanizing a group of people. PAR is mean in spirit and hold teachers down form being the critical thinkers they should be.

  14. union blues

    If you ever needed proof that the union is on the side of the district and not the teachers this should be it. I don’t think PAR is really about skin color. I have observed it to be about getting rid of people who ask questions of administrators or rock the boat in some way. It seems to really be about retaliation. It defiantly isn’t about making teachers better. I have seen teachers get referred to PAR for nebulous things like “makes facial expressions the kids don’t like.” I have never seen it make a teacher better. I have seen PAR destroy the morale of a school and put teachers into extreme ill health. It is a sad day that such a program exists. But, hey, they gotta blame someone for the trouble of the world. Why not teachers?

  15. Berkeley High graduate

    Also, look how badly written the comment by Daniel above is. The first sentence is totally grammatically incorrect and makes no sense. Do we really think it’s unfair to evaluate the effectiveness of that person’s teaching?

    • ^

      If you read the post, you will see that they did evaluate his teaching and he past the process.

      I read the post of the guy above and it makes as much sense as any posts on these things.

  16. Berkeley High graduate

    This article is total bullshit. Mr. Crowell was a terrible teacher. “Two weeks of clerical errors in taking attendance” means he didn’t take attendance for two weeks. That’s not a small mistake. It’s a sign that his class is a complete joke – even he doesn’t think it matters whether or not students attend.

    It’s great to hear that Berkeley High has finally started evaluating teachers and firing those who don’t do their jobs effectively. There are far too many teachers at that school who literally do nothing. I had several teachers who did not even attempt to teach us anything. Like literally no lesson plans; we just watched movies every class.

    The education system is not in place to help teachers – we’re supposed to be helping the students. It’s honestly a bit ridiculous that we’re even spending money on a program that teaches teachers to teach. If a teacher isn’t effective, they should be fired. There are plenty of young, enthusiastic teachers who should be in their place.

    • ^

      To the person above,
      Writing “There are plenty of young, enthusiastic teachers who should be in their place” is classic agism. You are right. You didn’t learn much at Berkeley High.

  17. Daniel

    PAR is exactly as described I know of 24 persons who were recommended for the PAR program, this is the real starting point for evaluating its impact. Of those 24 only three remained as teachers. One grieved the process which placed him in it, two passed. I was one of those two. As for the other 21, several quit teaching, changed districts or retired. While more than half of that number 13 failed the process and lost their jobs. In SFUSD the only figure the union is willing to provide is that passing is about a 50 50 proposition. No proof of this is offered. There is no public evidence of the programs effectiveness, that is to say how many teachers are truly “helped” by the process as oppose to how many fail the process. When I was on a PAR panel I was presented with 10 cases for review. The persons in the program averaged over 25 years experience while the principals involved averaged less than 5 years experience. Older teachers being abused by younger principals. And yes, there was a high percentage of female african americans in that mix. Al this despite the unions admission, albeit on the QT, that they know the district uses PAR to “help teachers move on”, that the process “is subjective” and is not helpful. However, it, the PAR program, is a “union baby” in part and so it goes on abusing, dehumanizing and cowing the rank and file teachers to prevent them from any kind of organizing or promoting a truly cooperative, collegial relationship with each other so as to make a school site a place where teachers have say and influence in the decisions that effect their students, their lives and livelihoods.

  18. ezdeathification@gmail.com

    I find it ironic that a teacher who actively discriminated against me because of the color of my skin is a ‘whistle blower’ on discrimination

  19. sad

    I knew that unions were finished in this country when my district brought in PAR about 15 years ago. Sadly, the critical thinking teachers who speak up in meetings about injustice are fewer and fewer. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a teacher significantly disagree with a principal and be able to continue working at the school site. Sad but true. I’m not sure why we still have a union. PAR is proof that unions aren’t real.

  20. for real

    Most people in education know that PAR is used almost exclusively for retaliation. It is a place for “the others” who don’t go along with the status quo. The district sell it as a place to “help struggling teachers.” That has gotten the district good PR. But PAR is not at all a place for help, and it doesn’t even get rid of the “Bad Teachers” (I’m not saying there are BAD Teachers). PAR is a place for targeting and excluding people. Most importantly , it keeps everyone in line and mouths closed.

    • no fan of seiu

      My mom was an SEIU member for more than thirty years, and got fired on trumped up charges and SEIU did nothing to help her. I always said she should have sued for all her union dues, but she never did.Looks like this guy is doing it. Good for him.

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