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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Multiple High School Scandals Point to Whistleblower Protections as Solution

Hannah Johnson, October 19, 2011

Yesterday, The New York Times published a storyabout 14 distinct cases of New York City high school educators who assisted students in cheating on tests, all of which were substantiated by the City's special commissioner of investigation for schools. That is just a "tiny fraction" (a little more than one percent, actually) of the number of accusations the city has to investigate. At least they've started?

It's not just New York City. The entire U.S. education system has been declining for some time. Evidence that has emerged in recent years is depressing. According to the results of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), our country ranked 14, 17 and 25 out of 34 countries (the so-called 'westernized' nations of Europe, Oceania, and North America, with a few Asian and South American countries as well) in reading, science and math, respectively. These same rankings scores were higher in the2000 PISA: 7 in reading, 14 in science, and 18 in math.

For all our beliefs in American Exceptionalism, those numbers do not make us look good. The ranks of 14 and 17 are fairly average (not great, but not terrible), but 25 is a pretty poor showing. And we spend more money on education per student than most of the countries that outperformed us. Our student performance was on par with Estonia and Poland, although we outspent each of them 2-1 per student. In fact, they actually – sometimes significantly – outperformed us.

So, what's to be done? Of course, there is no surefire solution to our education woes. I cannot speak to what pressure teachers feel to "teach to the test," or the stress of trying to maintain a properly achieving school. I do, however, have one easy (but important) suggestion of something our nation can do:

Increase whistleblower protection for educators.

Why? Just look at the news. There are countless and continual stories about whistleblower complaints from educators in public schooling systems throughout the country. Let's just look at some of the major stories that have emerged since June 1:

  • The New York Times published an article in August about how allegations of test-tampering and grade-changing have tripled in New York City. (Which probably explains why they've only covered about one percent so far.) The New York City schools Chancellor said in the article that he did not feel more allegations meant more misconduct – he cited increased whistleblower protections as at least part of the better reporting. More disclosures translate to better knowledge about problems – meaning they will get fixed more quickly.
  • Atlanta faced a major cheating scandal that involved 44 schools and nearly 180 educators. There are 100 schools in the Atlanta Public Schools system. That means 44 percent of schools were caught cheating the standardized tests. Nearly half. The Georgia Association of Teachers reiterated the need for increased whistleblower protections because of this scandal.
  • Recently, a teacher in Atlanta (they're really having issues, aren't they?) now regrets her decision to speak out on a fellow teacher's cheating because she has had difficulties finding a job since (she was allegedly fired for blowing the whistle).
  • A high school principal from outside Flint, Michigan filed suit in August against his superintendent and school board claiming that he was fired for reporting incidents at his school to the authorities. One incident involved a student with a controlled substance, and another a potentially suicidal student. The principal was reprimanded by the district for reporting these incidents when the superintendent allegedly wanted to "keep a lid on it."
  • An employee of the Tulsa Public Schools athletic department blew the whistle on the department's improper actions, including alleged doctoring of invoices and favoritism of certain vendors.
  • A state education official in New Orleans was fired (along with his supervisor) allegedly for calling out the problems of a local charter school. During his audit of the school, he says he was offered a bribe, heard of teachers doing their students' science projects, and received complaints of foreign teachers who spoke little understandable English. He had recommended to the state board of education that the school's charter be revoked.
  • Philadelphia has also joined the ranks of the cheating. A 2009 study by the state of Pennsylvania found that approximately 60 schools had suspicious results, 29 of them in Philadelphia. According to thelocal article, "the odds that the wrong-to-right erasure patters that showed upon Roosevelt's 7th grade reading response sheets occurred purely by chance were slightly less than 1 in 100 trillion." Just for some context, the odds of winning the lottery are generally something like 1 in 100 million.
  • In Florida recently, a superintendent allegedly created a hostile work environment for one of her employees after she voiced concerns that the superintendent's proposed budget cuts would affect federal grant money.

Most teachers, administrators, and school employees want to improve the system (obviously, there are some steeped in corrupt activities). But it's hard to protect a system that doesn't protect you. The problem is, of course, that there are no federal protections for public school whistleblowers specifically. This is left up to the states – a piecemeal solution where some states cover such valuable employees, and some do not.

What would go a long way, however, is if the United States Department of Education (DOE) would recommend (or somehow eventually mandate) that schools have a whistleblower protection system in place for all staff. Things like a national whistleblower hotline and independent investigators would demonstrate to educators that their voice matters. New York City's special commissioner does have a 24-hour hotline, and this is definitely a step in the right direction.

During the Atlanta cheating scandal, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said he was "in conversation" with the department's Office of Inspector General (DOEIG), who was looking into the scandal. There were also probes into pervasive cheating in Washington, DC and Pennsylvania. Now, the Secretary is saying that "schools' contracts with testing companies should require statistical study that can detect cheating."

While it's great the department wants to start tackling cheating, its own recent whistleblower record leaves a lot to be desired. According to DOEIG's most recent semiannual report to Congress (October 2010-March 2011), in regards to funds related to 2009 Stimulus – which included whistleblower protections for state and local government employees – only one out of 22 complaints "met the Recovery Act's criteria" and therefore, only that sole case was completely investigated.

The DOEIG also "provided comments" to Congress opposing what they viewed as an unnecessary provision of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act – one requiring each agency's Office of the Inspector General to appoint a Whistleblower Protection Ombudsman who would "advocate for the interests of agency employees or applicants who make protected disclosures."

That's not exactly the bee's knees for whistleblowers, is it?

If there were protections in place for education whistleblowers, it would go a long way toward cultivating a school culture where problems within our education system would be more quickly identified. Because, let's face it, without a thriving education system, how can we ever hope to have a thriving society?

Hannah Johnson is Communications Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.