THE BLOG
04/25/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Public Education Gone (Absurdly) Wrong

As I described in my recent "Race to the Top?" series, the need for significant reform of America's public school system is great (Part II), yet the institutional obstacles preventing reform seem even greater (Part III). The challenges of changing a system that is so entrenched came to absurd light from a reader of my "RTTT?" series who shared with me her frustrations in trying to hold a principal accountable for what the parent believed was incompetence and negligence related to student safety at her children's school in the San Francisco Bay Area. This parent has provided me with a series of e-mails documenting her and other parents' attempts to get the Superintendent of Schools to take action against this principal.

Let me begin with a disclaimer that all of my information is from one person and that it may not represent a complete or balanced picture of what happened. Nonetheless, the flagrant ridiculousness of the situation I will describe provides, at a minimum, a glaring illustration of the massive roadblocks, both substantial and laughable, that stand in the way of meaningful education reform. I have also kept all parties and schools anonymous to protect the innocent (and, unfortunately, also protect those who may be guilty).

The issue in this case relates to the principal's handling of a series of incidences of bullying and assault by out-of-control students over the past several years. After frequent complaints about safety to her children's teachers, and inadequate responses from the principal, the mother reported her concerns to the school district's superintendent.

Though the mother got plenty of lip service and crocodile-teared concern from the principal and district employees, the situation didn't turn absurdly comical (if it wasn't so sad) until an e-mail arrived from the Assistant Superintendent in response to a letter signed by ten parents asking that the principal be replaced or reassigned to another school because of the his/her behavior and actions.

Let's deconstruct the email to demonstrate the complete absence of logic, reason, or concern for children that seems to be reflective of much of our public education system:

1) "The District does not as a practice, accept, investigate nor take action upon anonymous complaints against employees."

The use of the word "anonymous" has a certain Clintonesque "is" quality to it. This complaint was signed, so the letter wasn't anonymous. But, quite reasonably, the parents didn't want their identities revealed when the complaint was discussed with the principal. So the Assistant Superintendent appeared to redefine the meaning of anonymous to fit the school district's policy, thus absolving the Superintendent's office of responsibility for investigating the concerns.

As the Superintendent's office noted in several e-mails to the parent, it is very concerned about protecting the employees' confidentiality, yet it shows little regard for the confidentiality of the parents (and, by extension, the students).

2) "As the Parent/Guardian handbook indicates, the District's goal is to have concerns and complaints handled at the lowest level possible."

And several years and much effort had been devoted to having these problems "handled at the lowest level possible" (with no success, I might add). But the Superintendent's office didn't even acknowledge those lower-level attempts at resolution and, in doing so, passed the buck back to the school.

3) "Accordingly, an employee is given a copy of any complaint against him/her and in addition to the expectation that an attempt is made to address the concern, the employee has the right to attach a written response."

So, the "employee is given a copy of any complaint against him/her" (emphasis added) except, of course, when the employee is not. What does this statement have to do with anything related to the complaint? Because it is very official sounding, it gives the appearance of relevance without actually being relevant at all. In other words, it's bureaucratic filler. Another convenient disavowal of the complaint.

4) "A complaint is a formal written statement alleging a substantial misapplication or violation of school, district, state or federal rules or regulations. A petition from several parents declaring dissatisfaction and requesting employee dismissal, does not meet the parameters of a formal complaint. Again, complainants need to include the details of their concerns regarding a specific incident ..."

Granted, the signed letter lacked detail, but, if the Superintendent's office had taken these concerns seriously, wouldn't it have provided guidelines on how to prepare an acceptable complaint or expressed a willingness to help in preparation of the complaint so that it met its parameters for submission? And, last time I checked, ten parents is far less than oodles of parents, but far more than "several parents."

5) "...and be willing to meet with the employee in person in an attempt to resolve the concerns."

The parents already tried that a number of times to no avail. That's why they went up the food chain to the Superintendent's office. By the way, as for attempting to resolve the concerns directly with the principal, we all know how well people react when confronted with an effort to have them fired. It should be the responsibility of the Superintendent's office to act as the advocate for the complainant (which is really the student).

6) "The concept of protection for a "whistle blower" -- which is most often an employee alleging illegal activities by his or her employer and at personal risk for reprisal by said employer -- does not apply. "

Why doesn't it apply? Whose definition is that? No explanation or rationale is given. According to Wikipedia.com, a whistleblower is defined as someone who reports "a violation of a law, rule, regulation and/or a direct threat to public interest, such as fraud, health/safety violations, and corruption." As the saying goes, if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it's probably a duck. The parents seem to have a reasonable foundation for whistleblower status and the right to press their case. Yet the Superintendent's office rather brusquely dismisses their concerns over a series of self-serving procedural technicalities.

7) "As the principals' direct supervisors, the superintendent and myself always inform a principal of any concern or complaint that is brought to our attention, and we consult with the principal, so that he or she may take the appropriate steps to resolve the issue."

Except, of course, when they don't. Or are they saying that they did because they "always" do? If not, what was their rationale for not doing so? If so, what were the appropriate steps that were taken to resolve the issue? This statement avoids directly addressing the complaint by regurgitating handbook jargonese.

8) "This practice supports the District's commitment to a culture of collaboration."

Yes, and there had been such a wonderful "culture of collaboration" between the principal and the parents so far in looking for ways to ensure student safety. And that heart-warming culture of working together then extended to the Superintendent's office.

9) "We also hope that in the process, both the principal and the complainant grow together in partnership ..."

And can we now get a group hug and sing Kumbaya for such a touching desire by the Superintendent's office to have everyone "grow together in partnership." Feelings sure do matter here in Northern California, but, Mr. Superintendent, so do results.

10) "...in order to best meet the needs of our students."

Excuse me? Did I read correctly? For the first time in this email, those whom the parents are advocating for and for whom should be the Superintendent's office's primary concern have been mentioned. The students? Oh yeah, that's what public education is all about, right? I think what the Assistant Superintendent originally wrote and then corrected was, "...in order to best protect our own arses, oops, I mean, the needs of the students."

Sorry for being so snarky, but bureaucratic double-talk, mindless policies, and putting kids in the back of the priority line kind of ticks me off.

This post isn't to suggest that the principal in question should be summarily fired or publicly flogged; he/she has a right to due process. The problem is with the arbitrary and unresponsive process that this parent went through to protect her and others' children. And, most importantly, for the Superintendent's office for adherence to bureaucratic protocol and avoiding responsibility with word games over the welfare of the students that the Superintendent is sworn to serve and protect.

What does this have to do with education reform, you ask. If schools can't create a system that protects students' basic safety or one in which parents' concerns are not only heard, but acted on, what chance is there of actually effecting meaningful change to the monolith that is our public education system?