Monday, August 26, 2013

Ed Reform Gone Wrong: How Teachers Are Required to Engage in Unethical Conduct

Much has been made about the push for higher academic standards across the spectrum of what we consider the reform movement. The Common Core is held up as a prime example of these higher standards. The new teacher evaluations systems, coming online in states all across the country, are another. The embracing of high stakes exams (with a promise that the need to assess will eventually move beyond simple tests and into more acceptable and complex assessments) is yet another.

The reasons for this push from the reform movement are mainly old and familiar. Many students are locked out of opportunities as adults in the complex service-based American economy. Our college readiness rates are painfully low. We leave too many students behind. American students, the reform movement contends, must be better academically prepared. This is what really matters.

This push has led many teachers, principals and school leaders to bemoan about how the job of teaching has changed from building an intelligent well-rounded (and academically prepared) adult to preparing students for a test along the lines of what they claim to be unreasonably high academic standards. Teaching, as the criticism goes, just isn't the same as it used to be. The era of building a child has ended, they claim, and the era of teaching only to academics -and to a test- has arrived.

The 'Ed Reformers' they claim -who are interested only in making profit off of educating our fellow citizens-  are to blame for this destruction. The Ed Reformers' -who don't understand what teaching or learning is about (or who do understand and are just out to destroy)- have this need to make a profit from education that has led the entire profession astray. Their thirst for privatization and profit has turned everything on its head, rendering it almost unrecognizable, and has gravely hurt the teaching profession. That's the claim, anyway.

Full disclosure: As a thirteen year veteran teacher, I subscribe to the opinion that the teaching profession is being gravely hurt by these policy initiatives . But I also cringe whenever this concern is publicly asserted. I do so because I rarely see anything other than commentary or anecdotals to back up the opinion whenever it is expressed . I believe in anecdotal evidence and I a strong subscriber to listening to commentary.  But I also know that the people on the other side will respond with public jeers and snickers and will invoke the children in order to marginalize these very real concerns and discredit the people who express them. This is how their kind always responds to criticism and dissent.

I was just recently reminded of this trait (of discredit critical professionals) when I read this piece by Peter Cunningham, former media relations assistant to USDOE Secretary Arne Duncan. He went to great lengths to discredit Diane Ravitch, who works harder than anyone else in the country to responsibly criticize the Ed. Reform movement under the Obama administration. Apparently, Mr. Cunningham, who is now a privately paid consultant for the very same US Department of Education he once worked for (see his Linkedin profile here) wasn't happy that Dr. Ravitch is about to release a new book which squarely takes aim at the reform movement itself, including the need to spend so many oodles of public money on private consultants (like him).  Views expressed in the book, if well received, might possibly change public opinion and threaten to bring policy changes that may effect the bottom line of his very own company; Cunningham Associates.

While it would be unfair for me to opine that Mr. Cunningham's true stake in this discussion is to advance his own personal profit, it should be pointed out that it was unfair for him to leave the bio  "Former Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach, U.S. Department of Education"  under his byline as he entered this discussion of "Ravitch vs. the Reform Movement". I say this because he left out the fact that he is now a paid consultant. Cunningham Associates is nowhere in his byline. But that's what they do: They level hard and harsh critiques on dissenters without making clear what their stake really is, where they're coming from or how they might personally -financially- benefit from continuing the current policies. This is why I cringe whenever anyone says the profession of teaching has changed for the worse without attempting to offer any proof. Profit making reformers like Mr. Cunningham will take to the public airwaves and simply slay us (smote, I believe, may be a better term) with snickers and jeers and a good dose of discredit.

So, to that end, I have one, small, but provable accusation to make: The current policies require teachers, at least here in New York, to engage in conduct that is simply unethical. (This requirement to commit unethical conduct is what is changing the profession of teaching.)

President Obama's great education legacy is a three legged stool: The Common Core standards, the implementation of new accountability measures (embodied in such things as the new teacher evaluation systems and the new tests that are tied to them) and the new public/private partnershipto support these efforts (something that, at least around my dinner table is referred to as privatization).   The Common Core, as you probably already know, are (very high) academic only standards. They speak to skills (as opposed to content) and are coming with new standardized exams (provided by several for-profit education companies, of course). And here in New York, the new teacher evaluation system will evaluate teachers along the lines of how well their students perform on the exams (academically). The Danielson Framework (used across New York and other parts of the country) is concerned only with academics. The new standardized exams consider only academic achievement. The standards themselves are concerned only with academics.

Yet academics is only one (albeit major) part of our job.

Each teacher in New York must adhere to a specific set of ethics called the New York State Code of Ethics for Educators. This code of ethics is printed on the back of each and every teaching license in New York and, I am told, was once held up as a model for teacher ethics across the country. These ethics are codified into six principles and set a clear path for how a teacher should conduct his or self in the workplace. Conduct yourself along these lines and you're being ethical. Fail to conduct along these lines and you are being unethical. It's fairly cut and dry stuff.

So what does the code of ethics say about an academics only approach? Well principle one says:

Educators promote growth in all students through the integration of intellectual, physical, emotional, social and civic learning   
So every time you choose not to pause your reading assignment to ask little Peter whether he's eaten breakfast or has had a safe night at home, but choose to stay with your pacing calendar so that he can pass that test, you are committing unethical conduct. And yet the new responsibilities of your job to the Common Core and to the Danielson Framework and to the ever-present test require you to not address those things and to stay with the reading assignment. The new responsibilities require you to do something that is unethical. In fact, your continued employment as a teacher requires it.

So if you're a teacher, and you feel that the job of teaching has changed for the worse, you may be absolutely correct. The job is having us all turn away from those aspects that help us build a future adult and is embracing only one instructional aspect. But remember that if you choose to share that concern in a public forum, and if you don't phrase that objection just the right way and don't back it up with some type of fact (feel free to use the word unethical), then you're setting yourself up for jeers and snickers as a way of being discredited (after all, if they can try it on Diane Ravitch, they can surely do it to you).

One last thing. If you're an ed reformer and you're reading this post and you're a little upset; please don't smote me. Principle 6 of this code of ethics  requires educators to

... advocate for fair opportunity for all children
The over-commitment to testing and the for-profit structures that have been put into place to support that commitment, is hurting children and the people who teach them. This post (and others like it on similar blogs) are actually our way of adhering to ethical conduct. I invite you to read all of my professional ethics again linked here.


  1. Excellent points. All that lamenting and hand wringing sometimes irks me too. No matter how much that goes on -- and it does have some impact in turning the discussion -- the only true solution is to organize and activate people to take action. For me that has always started with the one institution that if turned around would be a key player in the fightback - maybe THE key player -- is the union. Imagine if the UFT had fought a full frontal war against ed deform. It might be bloodied but the teachers in this city would be much more prepared to engage in this political war. Instead we have people angry, disillusioned and weaponless. And that takes me to why I have put my flagging energy into building MORE even with some of the problems we have seen crop up -- the only game in this town for teachers. A MORE chapter in every school will do MORE to change things than anything I can think of.

    1. I completely agree. And I'm grateful that there are like you from MORE who are guarding my profession!