New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles: These cities and countless others across the United States have dealt with scandals involving their public school systems over the past few years.
Whether the charges and guilty pleas involve corruption, bribery, sex, or other official malfeasance, there does seem to be one thread that runs through virtually all of them—those who knew (or should have known) what was happening were asleep at the switch.
Given this, how can we ever expect to improve our public schools if even the most egregious misdeeds are unreported or ignored by those within the system?
Is there, sad to say, a culture of dishonesty within many of our schools and school systems that must first be addressed before systemic school reforms have any hope of succeeding?
Anyone who works in a large organization or bureaucracy—whether public or private—understands that no one ever congratulates the bringer of bad news, so the best workplace survival tactic is often to look the other way when a problem presents itself.
Those lower down in the chain of command are also keenly aware that the relative powerlessness of their positions dictates a certain degree of discretion when they observe inappropriate behavior.
However, refusing to respond appropriately when misconduct is either suspected or observed is exponentially more damaging in certain careers or professions.
There is little public harm when a garden supply salesman pads an expense account or harasses a co-worker, but positions of great public trust—police, educators, the military, and clergy being the most visible examples—require a much higher standard of conduct in order to be effective and maintain the support of the citizens whom they serve.
The culture of dishonesty
We have certainly seen the corrosive effects of scandals involving law enforcement, the armed forces, and religious figures over the past few years, and the scandals that have roiled these professions have led to numerous private lawsuits and legislative actions seeking to end the “code of silence” that allows misconduct to flourish.
Therefore, one must ask why similar pressure is not being exerted to ensure that school administrators, teachers, and staff understand that they have an affirmative requirement to report misdeeds.
Although there are plenty of honest and hardworking individuals within our nation’s public school systems, are their efforts—and efforts of so many individuals and organizations desperately attempting to reform our public schools—being routinely undermined by priorities that have nothing to do with improving student learning outcomes?
Could, for example, an honest employee in rogue financier Bernie Madoff’s office have done much to save his investors from being fleeced?
Personal honesty is only beneficial within an organization when that organization’s primary mission is to provide benefit to others rather than to those ensconced within; in a dysfunctional system, it is a sad fact that those with lax morals and a narcissistic focus on their own benefit (and that of their cronies) are the ones who rise to the top.
For example, one startling case now coming out in the Detroit Public School (DPS) system, alleges that taxpayers paid out as much as $1.3 million to a retired DPS administrator for a decade of tutoring services that were never provided.
When we ask how this could possibly have happened, an obvious question springs to mind: Were the management controls at DPS incredibly deficient due to sheer incompetence—or was this a case of purposefully negligent design by those in positions of influence who sought to benefit themselves at the expense of the public?
Moreover, what are we to make of school administrators who simply don’t seem to care what the law requires if it somehow inconveniences them?
A year ago education advocates in Los Angeles went to court to force the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to spend the money on at-risk students that they were legally required to spend—rather than just roll it into the general district budget to cover payroll and perks.
How much money was misallocated? It is estimated that these students were shortchanged to the tune of $789 million over a three year period—money that is apparently no longer recoverable.
The court is requiring that LAUSD now begin to provide these earmarked dollars to the student population that needs the extra services it was designated to fund, but this whole episode speaks to the main question: Without internal accountability, how can anyone reasonably expect external accountability?
If you are a school reformer who has desperately been working to help at-risk Los Angeles students succeed, are you supposed to believe that LAUSD is now on your side—or the least interested in the students whom you have been trying to save?
It all comes down to internal accountability
Given how many school scandals over the last few decades have boiled down to some variation of “no one knew—or cared,” it unfortunately seems sensible to presume that a basic level of back scratching and low-level graft is simply baked into the fabric of many schools and school districts.
This general lack of concern with internal accountability makes the task of ensuring external accountability a very rocky road indeed. How can any school reformer convince an organization that is loath to be accountable to itself to be accountable to others?
We need to address this issue today because it is likely a core reason why so many decades of school reforms that have cost us hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars have added up to zilch.
I am, as anyone who knows me will tell you, a student of history.
If I try to think of a historical parallel to the challenge that confronts us in reforming our nation’s stupendously unresponsive yet politically powerful public schools, the example that seems most salient to me is the Roman Catholic Church.
Immediately prior to the Protestant Reformation, the Church was a self-serving money machine run by leaders who were determined to sustain the unsustainable status quo and used every tool at their disposal to quell dissent and silence critics.
We all know what happened next. Perhaps we need our own “Martin Luther of Education” to nail an educational version of the 95 Theses to our nation’s schoolhouse doors and lead a revolt against the entrenched and, in many cases, corrupt leadership robbing our children of their futures.