Yesterday’s release of the findings from the independent investigation by former FBI Director Louis Freeh into Penn State’s handling of information on the criminal and pedophilic behavior of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky revealed a lot that was shocking. The evidence that the university’s now-former president, Graham Spanier, continued to cover up his knowledge (and that of his colleagues, including legendary football coach and all-around slime Joe Paterno) of Sandusky’s criminal activities — including the now-infamous 2001 discovery of Sandusky raping a child in the university’s showers by assistant coach Mike McQueary — should be more than enough to subject him to an indictment; so should the evidence that Spanier aided and abetted Sandusky’s evil-doings by giving him an emeritus professor status (despite not having the standing, morally and otherwise, for the role), and even striking a deal with his now-defunct Second Mile charity. Meanwhile the revelations that now-deceased Paterno, former vice president Gary Schultz and ousted athletic director Tim Curley continually sought ways to keep Sandusky’s crimes under wraps, both in violation of federal and state laws — and, more importantly, without a hint of guilt or shame — along with the consequences of their inaction that have been borne by young men who deserved better, proves Edmund Burke’s adage that evil triumphs when supposedly good men do nothing. Those who try to defend these men, including Sabermetrics mastermind Bill James, and Paterno’s own son, should stop defending the abominable and indefensible.
Yet, as Dropout Nation noted back in November when the Penn State-Sandusky scandal broke out, none of this is shocking. When loyalty is more immediate and valuable than morality, and when institutional and personal power is left unchecked and out of balance, institutions and people become corrupt absolutely. More importantly, it is a sad reminder of the frailties of human nature. Far too often, those we consider to be “good” people are far too willing to let evil take hold wherever it chooses to go. These are the important reasons why we must hold even our closest friends responsible for their actions, regardless of the possible loss of camaraderie, why sunlight and transparency are critical in holding institutions and organizations responsible, and why we must overhaul (and even shut down) institutions whenever they fail the moral code. It is also why it is important to remove failed institutional leaders regardless of one’s regard for their successes; when they fail in holding colleagues accountable and taking needed action to correct problems and crises, they will also fail morally, especially when it comes to our most-vulnerable children.
But let’s not think the failure of leadership at Penn State is an isolated incident. It is also endemic in various ways throughout American public education.
There’s the scandal that has engulfed the Los Angeles Unified School District over over the long career of former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who now faces 23 charges of what the law politely calls lewd acts upon a child. The discovery and prosecution of Berndt’s misdeeds, the revelations that Berndt may have been engaging in such misdeeds for more than two decades, and the arrest of another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, shed a harsh light on how L.A. Unified’s school leaders — including previous superintendents and the school board — have failed the children in their care. And not just in terms of allowing abuse. The fact that L.A. Unified’s school leaders has done a shoddy job of evaluating its teachers — with 60 percent of tenured veterans and 30 percent of new hires going without performance assessments in the 2009-2010 school year, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality — is evidence of how poorly the district has done in living up to its obligation of providing all children attending its schools with high-quality education.
Then there is the continuing failures of Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White, who has presided over the district’s slide in status as an educational going concern. Last week’s news that IPS allowed 27 percent of students in the Class of 2011 to graduate despite failing Indiana’s end-of-course exams was just the latest example of how White’s seven-year tenure as its chief executive has done little to help the poor and minority kids who attend its schools get a high-quality education. Same with woeful data on the minuscule number of IPS students taking college-preparatory courses, and being able to read at proficient levels. But the starkest example came just a few months earlier, when IPS expelled Darnell “Dynasty” Young, who was bullied throughout his time at the notorious Arsenal Tech high school because he was gay, for firing a weapon in school in order to defend himself from another round of bullying. One can’t defend Young’s decision to bring and use a weapon in school. But the fact that Arsenal’s school leaders and teachers did little to thoroughly stamp out the harassment that led to Young taking such drastic action exemplifies how White’s failures at the top (especially in his unwillingness to toss out IPS’ abysmal school managers, and promotion of nepotism and ineptitude throughout the ranks) flow downward into the everyday experiences of children in the district’s care.
Certainly scandals can happen even at the best-performing and most reform-minded districts. New York City, for example, has had to tangle with the spate of intrigue at its James Madison High, which has been at the center of several scandals, including one involving a teacher, Erin Sayar, allegedly abusing her position of power over children by engaging in a relationship with one of her students. But there is a difference. While the leaders overseeing failing and mediocre schools and districts tolerate such behavior — even allowing teachers bullying children to remain in their jobs — their counterparts exercised strong leadership by school leaders by sacking those who shouldn’t be in classrooms or schools (even at the expense of tangling with National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates demanding “due process”), and reminding all who work in schools that their first obligation is to the children for whom schools are at the center of their lives. Strong leaders also realize that tolerating neglect, abuse, and malpractice, educational or otherwise, is a slippery slope downward into the abyss. This isn’t to say they are just heavy handed; after all, to err is human, and we will not always do well. At the same time, it is easier in the long run to avoid educational and moral quicksand than it is to emerge from it.
This is especially true when it comes to leadership. The same negative impact of laggard teachers on high-quality colleagues noted in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on teacher quality reform also apply to school leadership. Failed school superintendents, administrators, and principals are cancerous to the cultures of the schools in which they are allowed to fester, often pushing out good-and-great teachers and colleagues in leadership (or if they try to stay, weakening their ability to improve student achievement). Because these failed leaders are also too unwilling to embrace innovative approaches to helping all kids succeed, have no interest in strongly evaluating and mentoring teachers, and lack the will to advance much-needed reforms at any level, they are also too willing to let laggard teachers and administrators stay in jobs causing damage to children and communities alike. And since they turn a blind eye to the educational neglect of kids, they also tend to be unconcerned with their emotional and physical well-being; as seen in the case of former Jersey City Superintendent Charles Epps, who called his students “dirty, nasty, bad”, they are often the ones perpetuating this abuse and setting bad examples for those who they are supposed to lead.
This is why school reformers must work as hard to remove laggard school leaders from schools and districts as on moving low-quality (and in some cases, criminally-minded) teachers from classrooms. The effort to use student performance data in evaluating principals, superintendents and even school boards is an important place to start. Allowing for the use of student surveys such as the Tripod system developed by Harvard’s Ronald Ferguson and Cambridge Education in principal and other school leader evaluations (as well as measuring how those leaders successfully launch innovative reforms) also makes sense. Meanwhile we must also continue to overhaul how we train school leaders and expand the talent pool from which they come. Given the reality that school leaders at the building level will have to have real management expertise — which is often different from being a successful classroom teacher — this also means pulling from the private and nonprofit sectors as the Eli & Edythe Broad Foundation has done as part of its reform efforts.
At the same time, reformers must also take heed of the failed leadership in other systems and institutions that flow into — and are fed into by — American public education. Our juvenile justice systems, for example, are infamous for subjecting far too many kids to abuse and denial of due process. This includes the scandal in Luzerne County, Pa., in which more than 2,500 juvenile offenders were convicted by former judges Mark Ciavarella and Michael Conahan in order to funnel $1.3 million a year in taxpayer dollars to cronies operating two private jails by tossing alleged youth offenders, to the abuse and judicial misbehavior in Indianapolis’ juvenile court under the watch of longtime judge, Jim Payne (who has unfortunately, escaped criminal charges and banishment from public life). Given that schools are often responsible for referring kids into juvenile courts, often for truancy and other issues that should be addressed by schools and families, it is important to do our part in keeping children from such damaging misfortunes. Reformers must also tackle the nation’s foster care ghettos and how traditional districts fail to help prepare these young men and women to succeed in higher education and career once they age out of those systems.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that one out of every three kids held in 13 juvenile jails and prisons were sexually abused by guards, other employees, or fellow inmates. This included 37 percent of kids imprisoned at Maryland’s Backbone Mountain Youth Center, and Indiana’s Pendleton juvenile prison. Nationally, 12 percent of all juvenile prisoners reported molestation and other forms of sexual abuse.
Five years ago in Indianapolis, the city’s juvenile court system was rocked by scandal after allegations surfaced that nine employees at the juvenile jail were sexually abusing youth offenders. The news came after revelations of rampant overcrowding. Prosecutors couldn’t sustain those charges in court. But your editor would reveal that alleged juvenile offenders were often denied attorneys and, in some cases, were being falsely convicted of crimes. For example, one 16-year-old was convicted by one juvenile court magistrate for allegedly molesting her three year-old son and photographing the action; the conviction was overturned after appellate judges found that the photo used to justify the conviction actually showed the young woman kissing her child’s belly. Another 16-year-old was held in juvenile jail for 70 days — 69 days longer than allowed under Indiana state law — without so much as a trial.
School reformers need to heed these lessons of Penn State and tackle failed school leadership. Because there are far too many institutions in American public education that have proven be as morally, criminally, and educationally corrupt as Graham Spanier and his former colleagues in Happy Valley.