Following in the footsteps of Carol Gilligan, I will sometimes give my students the following situation to discuss as part of a given Ethics unit. A man's wife is dying and, being unable to afford the medication that would save her life, he decides to steal it. Is this ethical or not? The vast majority of my students come at the problem from multiple perspectives. Of course stealing is wrong, they say quickly, but then again... How close to death was she? Was there truly no way for the man to pay for the medication? Was there no other way he could have gotten it? Were any other lives placed at risk? What about the economic effect on the pharmacist? "It could be right, maybe... depending...." they usually end up deciding, illustrating the relational ethic of Care that Gilligan noted as being more common among girls than boys. Interestingly, only one student has ever questioned the price of the medication itself, although there have been occasional pointed questions about his health insurance.
I can't help but think of these discussions as I follow the rhetoric surrounding the cheating scandal in Atlanta. Of course, cheating is wrong, but then again... I ask myself what I would do if I were a public school teacher there, living in a climate of intimidation and humiliation, fearing that the statistical unreliability of Value-Added Measurement would mean it's just a matter of time before I'm deemed a Failing Teacher regardless of how well I may have taught in a given year. I would worry about placing my entire school at risk of being closed and how my family would weather my being fired if it came to that. I wouldn't ever cheat, but I would be despondent at the notion that from some perspectives, cheating is arguably the best way to take care of my school, my students, and my family. Honestly, I think I would simply resign, leaving a profession I love more than words can express, and get whatever other job I could find.
Those who turn the Atlanta scandal into a divisive, partisan argument are missing the central point. Those who cheated did decide to do so, and must be held responsible. But those who created an atmosphere where there is truly no honorable way out but to quit teaching altogether must also be held responsible. If we are to assign blame and talk about the need for accountability, let's hold everyone accountable for their actions, not just the teachers.
In that context, I truly don't understand the policies being advocated by the U.S. Department of Education. I read what President Obama says about testing needing to be low-stakes and used to guide a school, not determine fates, and it makes sense to me. Similarly, Secretary Duncan advocates a rich and broad curriculum, and a system of teacher evaluation where testing is only one component. Fair enough! But the policies don't match the rhetoric. We are concentrating our funding on "new and better" tests, and are even introducing a system to test five-year-olds, if you can believe it, to assess their readiness for kindergarten. Challenging the policies can bring a mix of confusion and petulance from Ed. Press Secretary Justin Hamilton; when we suggest that kindergarten teachers are sufficiently well qualified to know if their students can, for example, read, he wonders why we don't get that they just want to help children. I wonder why he - and by extension Secretary Duncan and President Obama - doesn't get that teachers, too, just want to help children, or that research doesn't support their policies.
I know what helps children, what policies and practices are in fact supported by research. I know that my 2009-2010 Humanities 7 class burst into sustained applause when informed that one reason we were able to embark on a deep, rich curriculum informed by their own personal questions was that we didn't have to worry about the MCAS. I know that one of last year's students sighed in deep relief and murmured, "Thank God," when she learned that she wouldn't have to take a high-stakes test. And I know how much my students can learn in terms of reading, writing, research skills, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and more when I am free to apply what research tells me, particularly through the principles of "This We Believe" as enunciated by the National Middle School Association and the main ideas of How Girls Thrive by noted psychologist JoAnn Deak. All because I teach in a private school.
I want the same opportunities for all students in our country, at public and private schools. And I believe this will be impossible as long as the current focus on testing above all is the rule of the land, rhetoric notwithstanding.
But that is not the only reason why I support the SOS March. Two other common catch phrases from the D.O.E., both tweeted just today (July 19, 2011) by Justin Hamilton, are "Poverty is not destiny." and "Great teaching matters." This is undeniably true, but obfuscates the full picture. Some people have indeed pulled themselves out of poverty, and teaching is shown by research to be the single most important factor within school walls in how good an education a child acquires. However, research is also quite clear that the effects of poverty such as readiness for school make socioeconomic status a much more important factor in academic achievement than the quality of schooling. Again, teachers who point this fact out are far too often ignored or, worse, belittled and mischaracterized.
The D.O.E. must listen, really listen to teachers if we are to create policies that are truly rooted in research and genuinely benefit students. There is some evidence this process may have, quite recently, finally begun. I support the SOS March that this conversation may continue, develop, and grow, to the benefit not merely of all our nation's children but indeed of each and every one of us.