Commentary | Education

Teaching in a Challenging Environment; the Ethical Challenges You Will Face: Bank Street College Commencement

President Polakow-Suransky, Dean Roach, and faculty: thank you for this extraordinary honor.

Bank Street graduates: I’m flattered to be sharing this occasion with you. With courage, you have chosen to enter or advance in the nation’s most critical profession, at a time when selfish and misguided elites have made public education, and its teachers, scapegoats for the unacceptable racial and economic inequality that those elites have permitted, indeed encouraged, to persist and grow in America.

It has often been said, by self-styled education reformers, that teaching in impoverished, segregated, communities is the “civil rights” cause of our time. That notion suggests breathtaking disrespect for the sacrifices of those who fought, and continue to fight, for adequate housing, good health care, quality early childhood and community programs, full employment at living wages, and racial integration. Yet our national education policy insists that we can ignore those unsolved problems and assure children’s success simply by recruiting better teachers who have higher expectations for their students.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the ignorance of that view than the tragic story of Freddie Gray, the young African American man killed by Baltimore police last month. He was born prematurely to a heroin-addicted mother and spent months in hospital before he weighed enough to come home to a dilapidated apartment where lead paint was flaking off the walls. By 22 months, his lead level was four times as great as the dangerous level associated with serious loss of cognitive ability—that’s right, four times as great. Such lead poisoning also predicts lessened ability to self-regulate and greater tendency to aggression. For girls, it predicts higher rates of teen pregnancy. Before dropping out of high school, Freddie Gray had spent years in special education. He and his two sisters, also lead-exposed, all suffered from attention deficit disorder. Their schools were filled with other children with similar problems. Yet we have a federal law that says schools like these should be reconstituted—closed and teachers dismissed—unless every student reads and computes at a challenging level of proficiency.

If, as a nation, we were working to combat poverty and segregation, teaching would be one tool in a larger and all-important civil rights battle. But it would not be the only tool. It would complement housing, health, and economic policies that enable children like Freddie Gray, and his sisters, to arrive at school ready to benefit from the high-quality instruction that you and others like you are able to offer.

This leaves you, the graduates, with a burning question you will spend your teaching careers, at least for the foreseeable future, pondering: How do you do the good work for which Bank Street has prepared you, within a system that may undermine your efforts and thwart your students’ education?

In Atlanta, some educators responded to this question by engaging in criminal activity. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Atlanta educators who erased and corrected answers on their students’ tests. At first, I was troubled by their vindictive and selective prosecution and imprisonment, because such illegal activity is widespread in America today, where education is not the only place where we substitute numbers for quality. Veterans’ hospital administrators falsified records to pretend that prompt appointments were scheduled when no doctors were available. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs who imposed a system of accountability, but not resources to meet his standards, resigned. But there were no prosecutions of the VA staffers who committed fraud. Nursing home administrators routinely report, falsely, to Medicare that patient welfare standards are being met, yet none have been tried for altering public records. The mayor of Chicago has been re-elected with a claim that he’d reduced crime, a claim based on inaccurate statistics that police commanders filed with the FBI, but no commanders serve jail time for conspiracy.

I know that prosecutorial strategy can never be uniform; prosecutions, to some extent, must always be selective and I give you these examples without intending to excuse the Atlanta educators. But the contrast should trouble us.

Yet, as I thought about the Atlanta educators, I became troubled for another reason. I’m going to ask you to join me for a few minutes in thinking about this, because I hope it will prompt you to consider, as it has me, some terrible ethical dilemmas that you, as educators, will face. The Atlanta judge, expressing moral outrage, claimed that his harsh sentences—including years of jail time—were justified because the victims of cheating were students, denied remediation because test erasures disguised their failures. But we all know that in practice, their failures would not likely have resulted in special help; holding them back would make them more likely to drop out, not less so. One teacher told the judge that she believed that changing a young man’s score to passing would make his staying in school, and perhaps graduating, more likely, and would enable him to participate more fully in American society. Was she right? If so, does it justify engaging in criminal activity? Perhaps you think this an easy question to answer (although I’m not sure what the answer is), but many of the ethical dilemmas you will face are more complicated. Let’s consider a few.

Reputable psychometricians, as well as statistical and scientific commissions, have warned against the heavy use of standardized tests for accountability purposes. As these experts predicted, such testing has corrupted American education. The corruption is undeniable, although some may argue about how serious it has been.

Atlanta educators’ changing answers on tests was illegal as well as unethical, but such fraud has been widespread. Similar systematic cheating has taken place in Washington, D.C., in Philadelphia, in Houston, in many other places.

Yet legal corruption that inevitably results from using tests not to guide instruction, but to punish educators, is even more widespread. Indeed, it’s this legal and too-widely accepted corruption—encouraged in the name of “reform” by financial elites and by political leaders at the highest levels of government—that is driving the breakdown of our education system. The Atlanta crimes are just a tragic symptom.

The narrowing of curriculum is one form of corruption. It results when teachers, even entire school systems, reallocate instructional time to subjects that are tested, because there are no consequences for diminishing attention to civics, science, history, cooperative learning, critical thinking of all kinds, literature, the arts, physical fitness, or even mathematical reasoning. Teachers and schools suffer consequences only when students are not well-prepared to answer, or make educated guesses, on multiple choice questions in reading and math. Contemporary education policy has contempt for many of the ways that Bank Street has prepared you to enhance the civic, economic, and moral success of your students. The governor of this state proposes to base half your evaluation on students’ math and reading test scores. The inevitable narrowing of curriculum you will encounter is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. How will you, individually and collectively, respond?

At the beginning of the school year, principals nationwide gather teachers to review prior year scores so that students just below the passing point can be identified for special attention. Because classroom time is limited, this widely-employed strategy necessarily robs attention from students who are far below or far above passing. It effectively tells you to ignore students like Freddie Gray. That kind of “data-driven instruction,” as policymakers smugly brand it, is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. When required to attend disproportionately to students whose scores will determine a school’s adequate yearly progress, how will you, individually and collectively, respond?

Today, teachers learn to study prior tests, or the textbooks published by test-making companies, so they can prepare students for questions that are more likely to be asked, questions unrepresentative of the full curriculum. Coaching that focuses on trivial aspects of test-taking technique, or guessing strategies, is now called good teaching by intimidated school administrators, but this is not how to inspire students or construct lesson plans that encourage critical thinking. It is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. When administrators ask you to predict test items for your students, how will you, individually and collectively, respond?

In schools where you work, you may sometimes see low-scoring students with behavioral issues opportunistically suspended just before testing day. That is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. How will you, individually and collectively, respond?

I imagine that you, like me, believe that a teacher’s highest ethical obligation is to his students’ welfare. We understand that teachers are criminal if they enhance students’ passing rates by erasing and changing answers in test booklets. Is it equally unethical, should it perhaps even be criminal, for school systems to enhance passing rates by devoting excessive time to test preparation and robbing children of the broad curriculum they need to truly succeed?

When a teacher is enrolled in a corrupt system, where fulfillment of her legal and organizational responsibilities require her to harm her students, when does she owe it to herself and to her students to refuse?

How should teachers balance the good they may do by saving their right to participate in a corrupt system, with their professional and ethical obligations to shun corruption? If a teacher might be fired, or if her school might be closed, if she refused to commit the illegal act of test tampering, should she nonetheless refuse? If a teacher might be fired, or if her school might be closed, if she refused to engage in excessive test prep, should she nonetheless refuse to engage in that practice? If a teacher is expected to get her students to proficiency while no one worries about her students’ stress, or homelessness, or lead poisoning, or abuse, should she rebel?

Recently, the most powerful resistance to corruption in American education has been articulated by middle class, really upper-middle class, parents who’ve withdrawn their children from testing. Few teachers openly encourage this resistance; doing so risks being fired, and the loss of opportunity to nurture children. They might only be replaced by obedient teachers who do less well at nurturing. How should teachers respond?

I don’t pose these questions with any degree of self-assurance. I don’t have the answers. I’m only asking you to use the wonderful education you’ve received at Bank Street to help me, and help each other, figure it out. I do, however, know this. Ethical choices do not consist either of civil disobedience that refuses to participate in an unjust system, or of obsequious compliance with corrupt orders. Ethical lives are comprised of compromises, of considering where to take stands and where not to make waves. Throughout the careers on which you are about to embark, you will frequently have to decide when to resist, in both tiny and big ways, when to compromise, in both tiny and big ways, and when to capitulate, in both tiny and big ways. You will often have to decide whether you can do more good by going along, or more good by taking a risk, perhaps just a small one, sometimes a large one, with your security and career.

I am not telling you anything you don’t already know. Dedicated teachers devote a lot of attention, and anguish, to considering these ethical dilemmas. They do so mostly in private, sometimes with their colleagues, sometimes only with their spouses or partners, sometimes only to themselves. If I can summon up the arrogance to make any recommendation to you, it is to consider how you can make your anguish more public.

I am humbled to accept this honor you have bestowed on me today because I believe that Bank Street, of all places, may have prepared you to answer such questions in the countless times during the coming years when you will be confronted with them. Myself, I have the luxury of punditry. It’s easy for me to pose difficult questions, and I pay no price if my answers are glib. So my faith must be in you to carry this burden responsibly. Because I am confident that you are capable of doing so, you give me some faith in our future. Thank you.

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