Former Camden educator speaks on role as whistle-blower

Raynor Denitzio

Joe Carruth, former principal and educator in Camden schools who was fired after reporting that the assistant superintendent encouraged him to change students’ test scores, spoke at the University on Nov. 13. He discussed his role as a whistle-blower, the flaws of the No Child Left Behind program, teachers’ unions and school choice.

Carruth said Camden district officials expected him to go along with the cheating because he was a first-time principal.

After he became principal at Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School, a magnet school in Camden, then-assistant superintendent Luis Pagan called Carruth in for a meeting. Pagan described in detail how Carruth should doctor students’ test scores, suggesting he would suffer consequences for lower test results. As the only source of income to support his wife and daughter, Carruth at first felt helpless.

“Initially, I’m thinking, I kind of felt like I had to do it,” Carruth said.

After consulting his lawyer and his own conscience, Carruth decided not to doctor the scores. Carruth reported the improprieties to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office and later to the New Jersey State Department of Education and the press. The state of New Jersey is now conducting a criminal probe into the Camden School District due both to Carruth’s claims and to reports which appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The investigation uncovered irregularities in test scores and. as a result, monitors were placed in schools for testing in 2006. After that, scores at Brimm dropped from a 92 percent to a 75 percent passing rate, and other schools saw passing rates of 100 percent drop into the 20s.

Carruth was eventually fired by the school district for reporting the alleged cheating.

He said that he saw both the good and bad side of teachers’ unions. Carruth first went to the president of the Camden City Federation of School Administrators expecting help.

“She said ‘Joe, what did you think was going to happen if you went public,'” Carruth said. “I thought my union was going to back me up if I was right.”

Still, Carruth credited the New Jersey Principles and Supervisors Association, which provided him with an attorney and continued to fight for him when the Camden School District began working against him.

“That’s when unions are helpful,” Carruth said. “If you’re wrongfully terminated or if wrongfully something is done to you.”

Carruth said administrators who produce high passing rates on tests receive incentives. The NCLB law also pressures administrators to improve schools’ performance. These two incentives encourage people to doctor test results.

“I think it was 50/50 [between NCLB and incentive-related pressure],” Carruth said. “Even before No Child Left Behind, you didn’t want to look bad to the state. There was still pressure to cheat.”

Still, Carruth says NCLB has potential, although he believes something must be done to protect the integrity of tests. He suggested using databases to track the test scores of individual students for impropriety, as opposed to just each grade, making it easier to spot discrepancies in student scores from year to year.

“I think [NCLB] can work, but I think it supports this kind of behavior,” Carruth said. “I think you need watchdogs.”

On the topic of school choice, Carruth said it is necessary to break the current monopoly. He said when he moved to Delaware, he made a conscious effort to find a neighborhood with the best possible schools for his daughter. Carruth believes allowing all parents to choose where to send their children to school and attaching school funding to the student would force schools to improve or go out of business.

“Without competition, what’s the incentive to do better?” Carruth said. “To me, there isn’t one.”

For prospective teachers, Carruth offered this advice: “When it comes to the kids, you have one shot at educating them. Do the right thing by your kids, do the right thing by your school and let the chips fall where they may.”