The Emma Sullivan Affair: Not Just An Aberration

Time to double-down.

Yes, it's student-hating teacher Natalie Munroe, back again to remind us that the welfare of our children is no longer guranteed to be the #1 priority for your child's teacher, principal or school board member.

Over the weekend, I managed to ignite a controversy with one sentence I included in my discussion of the ridiculous incident which began when high school student Emma Sullivan tweeted that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback “sucks” and ended with her being called on the carpet for it by her principal. Noting that the incident should have been cut short by the school district administrator telling Brownback’s lackey to stop bullying kids, I wrote,

“But the school district administrator had neither the integrity, courage or common sense to do that, which permitted the fiasco to be passed on to the next spineless incompetent, and which also, I submit, tells us all we need to know about why public education in the U.S. is a disgrace.”

“I disagree with your statement and think it is an unfair generalization!” wrote Michael Boyd. Tim LeVier wrote, “…how many public schools are there in the U.S.? How many students are educated (enrolled) by those public schools in the U.S.? How many “social networking” fiascos have there been? Do the positive situations get the same amount of attention as the negative?”

Obviously, I was insufficiently precise, as both Michael and Tim are solid analysts and deft critics here. I was not suggesting that this one incident proves anything about the U.S. public education system. No one incident in a Kansas high school can prove anything about the system as a whole. I was, however, asserting that the deficits of character, warped priorities and lack of common sense displayed by the administrators in this incident are emblematic of the problems of the educational system as a whole. There are too many incompetents in high places, and too often the priorities of the system lie with staying on the right side of the political structure rather than being concerned about the welfare and development of students. To be broader still, my statement indicated that this is the kind of incident that shows why I believe that we can no longer trust the educational establishment, which has “jumped the shark,” “nuked the fridge”, or any other metaphor you  designate to describe when a profession has lost its moorings to professionalism and ethics.

And I believe 2011 is the year in which the teaching and school administration professions reached the tipping point where it is no longer rational to trust them. Does that mean that every single school, administrator and teacher is untrustworthy? No, of course not. What it means is that the education professional culture no longer rejects or even discourages incompetence, warped priorities and cowardice, so that parents and students cannot assume that problems or even regular duties will be handled fairly or well.

In Atlanta, 178 teachers and administrator colluded to raise student test scores. It was only the biggest of several metropolitan school system cheating scandals involving teachers, and nobody believes that it is anything but the tip of the iceberg. I wrote,

“If 178 principals and teachers in a major American metropolis could mutually agree to fabricate test results—without a single member of the educational community coming forward and saying “No! This is wrong!”—then it isn’t unethical individuals, but a culture devoid of ethics. If there were 178 professionals directly involved, another 350, or more, knew something was going on. Why Atlanta? Only because the conspiracies in the other cities haven’t been uncovered yet. America is hiring self-centered, unprofessional, dishonest, cowardly cheats as teachers, and America’s parents are entrusting the socialization, training and education of their children to them. Don’t tell me this is a funding crisis. Give more money to the government to hire unethical teachers, and you just end up with more and richer unethical teachers. This is a long-developing crisis of ethical culture that the teaching profession has successfully deflected attention from by evoking the dedication of their better predecessors. How long is that strategy going to work, and how many children will be corrupted while we refuse to act on what we know to be true?”

The Kansas incident didn’t involve cheating, but it arose from that same culture. So did the conduct of the Wisconsin teachers, who dishonestly called in sick and collected fake excuse notes from doctors in order to protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attack on their union’s bargaining powers. Three days before the Kansas post, I wrote about a teacher in Florida who called the sheriff on a grade school girl who kissed a boy in class. She’s an idiot. Will she be fired, so the culture can make a statement that such offensively abdication of proportion and fairness at the expense of a child’s self-esteem and respect for authority won’t be tolerated? Of course not. It is tolerated. It is, I believe, epidemic.

Three teachers (that we know of) have denigrated their students or minority groups to which their students belong in on-line rants this year, and all three are still teaching. Yet a Texas student who expressed politically incorrect sentiments based on his religion was suspended. The ACLU has intervened in one of many examples where a school has tried to punish a student for off-campus speech it didn’t like. Meanwhile, 2011 has seen a record number of high school and middle school teachers being accused of seducing their students. The average is about two a month; the last one I noted was out of Kentucky on November 3; the one before that was reported on October 24, as a teacher admitted to a long-term sexual relationship with her 17-year old student. In between, there was Dave McMillan, a Selah, Washington middle school science teacher who placed a hidden camera under a female student’s desk so he could see up her skirt.

I could easily devote this entire blog to the dumb, unprofessional, unethical, and often illegal conduct of teachers and school administrators, and I would still only be scratching the surface. The defense that these are still only isolated incidents that are not representative of hard-working and dedicated public servants is always ready to be deployed, just as it is for indictments of the ethical cultures of journalism and politics. It rings hollow. Powerful teacher unions and school district terror of litigation effectively block accountability for poor performance in education. There are no “rubber rooms” where incompetent journalists are allowed to collect their salaries without working; that ethical culture may have declined precipitously, but at least the worst performers can be fired, and often are.

Say what you will about lawyers, but there are strict rules of ethics for attorneys, they must take courses on them every year, and there are enforcement mechanisms in every state that can and do sanction unethical practitioners. Meanwhile, incompetent lawyers are targets for malpractice suits. The teaching profession and school administrators have no profession-wide code of ethics, and it shows. It shows in incidents like the one that has made a Kansas high school student an involuntary First Amendment warrior—which brings me back to where I started:

“But the school district administrator had neither the integrity, courage or common sense to do that, which permitted the fiasco to be passed on to the next spineless incompetent, and which also, I submit, tells us all we need to know about why public education in the U.S. is a disgrace.

Neither integrity, courage nor common sense are fostered by the current culture of public education, and too many employees in the system lack these and competence as well.  The Kansas episode doesn’t prove the trend, but it is an example of it. There are too many other examples to argue that it isn’t a systemic problem, or that reform isn’t desperately needed.

11 thoughts on “The Emma Sullivan Affair: Not Just An Aberration

  1. Jack, as you know, I work in education. I have a great many friends and acquaintances who are teachers and school administrators. Yet, sadly, I must agree with you. The old “few bad apples” apologia just won’t wash anymore. These incidents keep on happening, too often and in too many different places, to just be aberrations. A rot has set in, and it will destroy a once-great institution completely if allowed to progress much further. I believe that part of the problem, at least, is that we’ve become too starry-eyed about teaching. All kinds of people like to wax nostalgic about some great teacher (or two, if they’re lucky) who Made a Difference in their lives. I’ve been guilty of it myself. But let’s face it: Most of our teachers weren’t great. They weren’t bad, often, but they weren’t great. There is nothing magical about education, and most persons possessed of ordinary intelligence can do the job (whether they’d want to or not, is another matter entirely). Yet we have, somehow, allowed education to be elevated to the status of a calling, something that only a special few can do. Add to that the fact that, scratch a teacher (and none too deeply) and you’ll uncover an idealist. Idealists are rarely at home with commonplace realities, however, and faced with all kinds of messy problems that plague our schools, too many of them become disillusioned and more than a little cynical. Thus is the stage set for educators becoming part of the problem. Educators and their apologists plead that they are, for the most part, hard-working and attentive, and they are. But too many have allowed themselves to become corrupted, and here we all are. I wish to God, you were wrong, Jack. But I fear that you are not.

  2. I agree Jack. I misunderstood your previous post on this story. The Penn State fiasco is another similar example. I especially liked your statement-“If 178 principals and teachers in a major American metropolis could mutually agree to fabricate test results—without a single member of the educational community coming forward and saying “No! This is wrong!”—then it isn’t unethical individuals, but a culture devoid of ethics.”

      • Now if the spineless Ms. Brown at the Shawnee school district gets fired, as well as the idiot principal at Emma Sullivan’s school, some real progress might be made. I see where the school is no longer demanding an apology from Emma, and plans to simply drop the matter. That means, of course, that it can, and may well, happen again, since no one is being held accountable.

  3. Depressingly, this is the way government entities are. The problems in the schools were exacerbated when education graduated from being a local responsibility to a federal responsibility. My career was in the federal government, and there were many conscientious workers there, but way too many were just like these educators. Government is a necessary thing, but if something can be done another way, by another entity, it should be. I believe this is especially true for education. Abolition of the U.S. Dept. of Education would be a good first step. I think free school choice by parents using vouchers would generate a little competition for excellence among the schools. What is your solution to this escalating rot, Jack?

  4. My name is max. I know emma, she isn’t a hero just an attenion seeker she always has been. Dr. K our principal did his job and isn’t being fired. While you are entitled to your unique opinions I respectfually disagree with you all and bid you all a good day.

    • 1. Hi Max.
      2. Who said Emma was a hero? Not me. She sent a juvenile, uncivil and dishonest tweet.
      3. Her tweets are still none of the school’s business. Or the governor’s.
      4. The principal isn’t doing his job by jumping through hoops for a toady school board member, who is sucking up the the governor’s over-protective lackey. Or by bullying his students regarding conduct that is none of his business.
      5. You’re entitled to you opinion too, but when it is backed up by nothing but misunderstanding, don’t expect it to carry much weight.
      6. “I bid you good day” and all variations are officially marked here at Ethics Alarms as weasel words, the sign of a commenter who wants to get in a shot but who also wants to skate by any critical scrutiny. Too bad. Bid not accepted.

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