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The Ethical Challenges Teachers Face

April 12, 2016

A Speech to New Teachers in a Test-Driven System

by Richard Rothstein

From the Spring 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

JC-Winter-coverFOR SEVERAL DECADES NOW, a bipartisan coalition of policymakers in both government and business have attempted to make public education and its teachers into scapegoats for racial and economic inequality. These self-styled education reformers have often said that teaching in impoverished, segregated communities is the “civil rights” activism of our time — a notion that suggests breathtaking disrespect for the sacrifices of activists who have fought, and continue to fight, for a broad range of goals, including adequate housing, good health care, quality early childhood and community programs, full employment at living wages, and racial integration. Our national education policymakers insist that we can ignore those unachieved goals and assure children’s success simply by recruiting better teachers who have high 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 a year ago. 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 above the dangerous level associated with serious loss of cognitive ability. 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 federal law 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 the kind of poverty and segregation that shaped Freddie Gray’s life and death, 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 teachers are able to offer.

This leaves teachers with a burning question that they must spend their teaching careers, at least for the foreseeable future, pondering: How do you do the good work 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, erasing and correcting answers on their students’ tests. I was troubled by their vindictive and selective prosecution and imprisonment, because education is by far not the only place where we substitute numbers for quality. It was revealed not long ago that administrators of veterans hospitals were falsifying records to pretend that prompt appointments were scheduled. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs resigned, but there were no prosecutions of the VA staffers who had committed fraud. Nursing home administrators routinely report falsely to Medicare that patient welfare standards are being met, yet no administrator has been tried for altering public records. The mayor of Chicago was recently reelected with a claim about crime reduction based on inaccurate statistics that his police commanders had filed with the FBI, but no commanders are serving jail time for conspiracy.

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

The judge in the Atlanta educators’ case claimed that his harsh sentences, including years of jail time, were justified because the victims of cheating were young people, students who were denied remediation because test erasures disguised their failures. Yet we all know that in practice, their failure on tests would not likely have resulted in special help, and that holding them back from grade advancement would have made them more likely to drop out. 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, enabling him to participate more fully in American society. Was she right? If so, does it justify engaging in criminal activity?

I’M NOT SURE what the answer to this question is, but many of the ethical dilemmas you will face as teachers are even 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. Systematic cheating has taken place not only in Atlanta, but in Philadelphia, Houston, Washington, D.C., and many other cities.

Yet the legal corruption of education that inevitably results from using test results to punish teachers is even more widespread than the cheating. Indeed, this legal corruption — encouraged in the name of “reform” by financial elites and by political leaders at the highest levels of government — is driving the breakdown of our education system.

The narrowing of curriculum is one form of this corruption. It results when teachers, even entire school systems, reallocate instructional time to subjects that are tested, because there are no institutional consequences for diminishing attention to civics, science, history, cooperative learning, critical thinking of all kinds, literature, the arts, physical education, 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 therefore has contempt for many of the ways that well-trained teachers are prepared to enhance the civic, economic, and moral success of students. Still, the governor of New York has proposed to base half of each teacher’s evaluation on students’ math and reading test scores. The inevitable narrowing of curriculum is unethical and corrupt, but legal. How should you, as teachers, 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 necessarily robs attention from students who are far below or far above passing. It effectively tells teachers to ignore students like Freddie Gray. That kind of “data-driven instruction,” as policymakers smugly brand it, is also unethical and corrupt, but legal. When required to attend disproportionately to students whose scores will determine a school’s adequate yearly progress, how should you, individually and collectively, respond?

Instruction that focuses on trivial aspects of test-taking technique or on 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 is legal. When administrators ask you to focus on test-taking tactics this way, how should you, individually and collectively, respond?

In some schools, low-scoring students with behavioral issues are opportunistically suspended just before testing day. How should you, individually and collectively, respond?

When teachers are enrolled in a corrupt system, where fulfillment of their legal and organizational responsibilities require them to harm students, at what point do they owe it to themselves and to their 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 her school closed, if she refuses to commit the illegal act of test tampering, should she nonetheless refuse? If a teacher might be fired, or her school closed, if she refuses to engage in excessive test prep, should she nonetheless refuse? 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 mainly 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 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 a career, teachers are frequently called upon 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. Teachers often have to decide whether they can do more good by going along, or more good by taking a risk that might jeopardize security and career.

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.

Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, is author of Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right (2008), Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (2004), The Way We Were? Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement (1998) and other books. This article is adapted from his commencement address upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the Bank Street College of Education Graduate School in New York in May 2015.