More than 7,000 U.S. citizens teach in 195 schools in 136 countries. Many, if not most, of these schools are accredited by U.S. accrediting agencies, private organizations that are legitimized by the U.S. Department of Education and receive financial assistance from the Department of State's Office of Overseas Schools.
I taught abroad for 13 years in four different countries and I can testify that teachers are treated in ways that would not be tolerated in stateside schools: Administrators routinely bully and lie to teachers, fire teachers without due process, violate contracts, withhold salaries, and engage in many forms of discrimination. Obviously, my experiences alone cannot adequately support my claims; however, I have crossed paths with many teachers in the milieu of international education and I can say for a certainty that violation of civil rights is rampant. I also continue to be a member of the International Schools Review, a popular website where teachers post anonymous reviews of most international schools so other teachers can make informed decisions about where to teach. Consequently, the reviews are rife with instances where teachers rights have been and are being violated. True, it is not difficult to determine that some of these reviews are sour grapes diatribes, but it is equally easy to determine that most are written by intelligent, professional, and well-meaning teachers who have born the brunt of or who have witnessed their colleagues suffering under unethical treatment. I submit the latter post their reviews because they believe in and love education and genuinely strive to maintain its integrity. Ironically, the abuse of teachers' rights creates a climate of fear in many schools and teachers are fain to relinquish anonymity to protect those rights.
In 2011, I defended a number of my colleagues by enumerating and delineating an administrator's violation of their ethical and civil rights to no avail. In fact, the school's accrediting agency cut me off in mid-argument, refused to engage me in further discussion about the issue, and had their attorney send me a "shot across the bow." The Department of State official curtly dismissed me offhand and concurred with the accrediting agency they support; my congressman's aid or secretary concurred with the Department of State. Why?
Accrediting agencies maintain that they are not enforcement agencies, that they cannot mediate personal disputes, and that they cannot supersede the laws of the host country. First of all, accrediting agencies set themselves up as enforcement agencies by holding schools accountable to agency standards — standards that include ethical treatment of staff — and violation of the more "salient" standards are subject to penalty. Additionally, unethical treatment of staff would almost certainly have to be personal. Second of all, school administrations and their accreditors typically fall back on the "phantom" laws ("phantom" because teachers are not apprised of these laws that are at best ambiguous) of the host country to summarily end any contention. However, most laws — e.g. age restrictions — are waived for foreign companies or they can be negotiated.
It is a misconception that teachers teaching abroad are not entitled to the rights they would otherwise enjoy in the U.S. or that they have somehow relinquished those rights because they have made a career choice to work in another country. When and where was the umbilical legally cut in that choice? Again, the U.S. agencies that accredit international schools are recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and receive State Department funding. To my mind, this is an umbilical that sufficiently links teachers to their civil rights. Accrediting agencies rely on the U.S. government for legitimacy and funding, and yet fail to use that legitimacy to ensure the ethical treatment of teachers teaching abroad.
The rampant unethical treatment of teachers employed by international schools accredited by U.S.-based accrediting agencies is crucial in two respects: One, much of it is unconstitutional, plain and simple. Two, a mixed message is sent abroad when the United States of America stridently broadcasts the ethical treatment of all people and yet allows for the unethical treatment of its own international teachers. Given their ability to mix with local populations in education communities, international teachers are as integral to U.S. diplomacy as any state appointed diplomat, and yet I am sure US diplomats serving abroad are treated with the ethical and legal care they deserve. Why not teachers?
Four excuses — not reasons — the aforementioned agencies often employ to stymie efforts to ensure international school teachers enjoy the fair treatment they are entitled to are: 1. the unimaginative and disarming "We're doing our best"; 2. denying that abuses exist, which would be so patently false as to be ludicrous; 3. citing a dearth of verifiable evidence when in fact there is a mountain of evidence tied up in fear; and 4. maintaining that the aforementioned government services and government-sponsored accrediting agencies do not have the authority to intervene on the behalf of United Citizens teaching abroad in private institutions when in fact protecting U.S. citizens' rights is precisely the role of government. As for accrediting agencies, they as much as promise to "operate in the public interest and in accordance with ethical practices with respect to the rights ... of faculty ..."
I do not think it unreasonable for the Department of State to require accrediting agencies they support and fund to ensure the ethical treatment of international teachers through the following: 1. implementing a robust international teachers' rights awareness campaign; 2. mediating complaints judiciously to the satisfaction of all parties; 3 recommending strategies for schools to improve unethical policy and behavior when necessary; 4. forfeiting accreditation for a particularly egregious offense or for a pattern of unethical behavior; and 5. protecting whistleblowers as per US federal whistleblower laws.
However, I do not believe reason cycles well in a ship of fools.