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Corrupt, Mismanaged, and Unsafe Schools: Where Is the Research?

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As long as the empire can keep the pretense alive that things are all right, there will be no grieving and no serious criticism.

-Walter Brueggemann
The Prophetic Imagination

Last May, auditors for the city of Washington reported that school officials there had hired thousands of people who had been arrested or convicted of crimes. Among the auditors' discoveries was the fact that about a quarter of the District of Columbia schools' 211 security workers had arrest or conviction records. Over a 15-month period ending in December 1994, the school district had hired 114 people with criminal backgrounds, representing about 6 percent of all its new employees. More than 50 of these persons had been hired as teachers or substitute teachers.

This revelation, shocking as it may be, is just one more indication that many of the nation's large urban districts have serious problems with mismanagement, corruption, and various forms of employee abuse. In 1993, New York City delayed opening schools to allow time to inspect schools for the presence of asbestos, after it was discovered that many of the district's asbestos-inspection reports had been falsified. Earlier that year, the New York City schools had published a report that chronicled fraud and corruption by some of the city's custodians. In May 1995, "PrimeTime Live," an ABC television news show, reported on wrongdoing and bureaucratic bungling in several large urban districts.

Unfortunately, Americans learn most of what they know about urban schools' corruption and mismanagement from the news media and very little of it from the educational-research community. Of the 5,000 scholarly papers delivered at the 1995 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, only a handful dealt with wrongdoing by school employees. In fact, of the thousands of research papers, articles, books, and dissertations on education and education reform that have been disseminated over the past 20 years, very few grapple with these kinds of issues.

Why do we need to know about the dynamics of educational corruption and mismanagement? There are at least three good reasons. First, it seems obvious that school-reform goals will not be met in pathological school environments, no matter what educational innovations we introduce. Site-based management, for example, will not achieve its full promise in schools where custodians won't clean the bathrooms or where school employees misappropriate funds that could be used for program development. Thus, a basic part of education reform involves understanding corruption and mismanagement and developing strategies for rooting it out of the schools.

Second, stopping fraud and abuse is critical to improving schools for minority students, especially African-Americans, the children least well-served by U.S. public education. We seldom read about wholesale corruption in wealthy, white communities--Marin County, Calif., for example, or Wellesley, Mass. Most serious abuses are discovered in inner-city districts, where school populations are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education was intended to improve the life chances of African-American children. Desegregating inner-city schools will not achieve that goal unless the schools that African-American children attend are well-run and staffed by honest and conscientious educators.

Finally, in a school setting, mismanagement and corruption can threaten children's safety. Falsifying asbestos-inspection reports and failing to correct fire-code violations are obvious examples of the way incompetence or wrongdoing in the schools can endanger children. Less obvious but just as dangerous are some districts' slipshod procedures for protecting schoolchildren from sexual abuse. Far too often, children are sexually abused by school employees because administrators fail to screen new employees or fail to supervise them properly after they are hired. And when a child abuser is discovered, some school authorities are inclined to cover it up by allowing the employee to resign with a clean record or transfer to another school.

For example, according to a 1994 internal investigative report, New York City teachers were sometimes transferred to other schools after being disciplined for child sexual abuse, but their disciplinary files were not made available to their new principals. The report admitted that the practice "allow[ed] known child abusers to continue within the system, moving from victim to victim" and recommended that the policy be changed.

Why has the education-research community failed to explore school corruption and mismanagement? Several explanations come to mind. First, education scholars are not trained in these areas. Most received their schooling in doctoral programs in colleges of education, where they learned quantitative and qualitative research methods and various organizational theories. All of this instruction assumed, however, that schools are benign organizations, staffed by honest, relatively conscientious professionals. With this kind of training, it is not hard to understand why researchers have been content to leave the examination of school corruption to investigative journalists and the police.

Second, almost all current education research depends upon the cooperation of educational leaders--superintendents, principals, and central-office administrators. In fact, graduate schools of education teach their students the techniques of negotiating with school officials for access to data and research sites.

Obviously, school officials won't cooperate with researchers if the focus of the research is on the officials' suspected wrongdoing. And most scholars are uncomfortable pursuing their research agenda in an adversarial environment.

Moreover, ethical guidelines of the aera stress the importance of maintaining the confidences of research subjects, being honest with them, and communicating the likely consequences of the research to research participants. Gathering evidence about fraud and mismanagement necessarily raises the possibility that wrongdoers will be exposed, publicly criticized, and even prosecuted. The aera ethical standards give no clear guidance about pursuing research in such circumstances.

Finally, the educational-research community has a strong economic interest in maintaining good relations with school districts, no matter how badly they may be run. Millions of dollars in consulting fees, contracts, and research grants are at stake, and many university professors are hesitant to criticize the institutions that control these funds. This may account for the fact that our nation's great research universities have had virtually nothing to say about corruption and mismanagement in urban schools, even though these universities are often located within the boundaries of the districts where these problems are most severe.

What should the scholarly community do to address malfeasance in public education? First, at least some educational researchers need to develop skills as organizational pathologists as well as strategies for conducting research in school systems that are corrupt and hostile to critical examination. In addition, we need to propose organizational theories to account for the fact that there are adults in some school settings who are apparently indifferent to children's safety.

Second, the rules of engagement for conducting education research need to be changed when fraud, corruption, or dangerous conditions are suspected or discovered. In most instances, researchers should respect the privacy of their subjects, but this rule should not apply when the well-being of children is threatened.

Finally, research scholars need to take a deep and introspective look at their professional relationships with school districts. At their best, relationships between higher-education faculty members and K-12 schools are partnerships in which scholars and practitioners link research to practice. Indeed, providing expertise to schools is an integral part of a faculty member's service mission. Without a doubt, the partnership between educational researchers and school districts depends on trust and good will.

Nevertheless, the research community should understand that when we close our eyes to fraud, corruption, and mismanagement in the schools, we compromise the integrity of our research and we forfeit the right to call ourselves school reformers.

Even more importantly, when we ignore wrongdoing in the schools, we become co-conspirators to conduct that endangers children.

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