Holding School Boards More Accountable

Holding School Boards More Accountable

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By now, most readers probably know the story of Christine Pelton, a high school science teacher in Piper, Kan. If not, here's a quick recap.

Pelton, 26, was a biology teacher who gave her classes a writing assignment on tree leaves. When the assignments were turned in, she noticed that many papers had identical passages. A Web site (www.turnitin.com) that tells if papers have been copied from other sources confirmed what she suspected, that 28 students had plagiarized.

She gave the students, about one of every five students she had, no credit for the assignment. Because the paper counted for half the students' grades, each of the 28 would flunk.

Some parents complained, but the school principal and superintendent backed her up. When the complaints reached the school board, the story takes a twist. Behind closed doors, without explanation, the school board agreed to change the grades. The board ordered Pelton to give the students partial credit and to reduce the percentage the assignment would count toward the final grade.

After the decision, Pelton was reported as saying, "I went to my class and tried to teach the kids, but they were whooping and hollering and saying, 'We don't have to listen to you anymore.' " She resigned a few days later.

As I write this, she has recently appeared on CNN and has scheduled interviews with many other news organizations, including The New York Times.

While some of the lessons in this story are obvious-the decline of integrity and the failure of parents to understand the message they were sending to their children-one lesson is harder to untangle.

Where is the school board's accountability? This country was wisely set up with three branches of government-offering a system of checks and balances. As tenuous as this system sometimes seems, it has held up for more than 200 years.

School boards and superintendents are two parts that oversee the running of a school district. But maybe it's time to introduce a third party, even on a limited basis.

In this month's Notebook section (p. 16), Associate Features Editor Angela Pascopella quotes an AASA official who is calling for each school board to be audited for effectiveness. While each school board's ultimate accountability has always been on Election Day, I think there's room for a more immediate check on school boards.

While a national review of each board seems unmanageable and probably unnecessary, a superintendent should be able to review board decisions by appealing to the state board of education.

This group could be the needed third leg in the process, and could offer a fairly unbiased opinion that would be faster than waiting for four-year terms to come up for re-election. It's just my opinion, but at least it's an original thought.


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