When Do Ethics Kick In?
Competent, Committed, Ethical–this is the motto of the Teacher Education program at the small regional university where I teach. When I began there six years ago, I was mostly concerned with the first two aspects of this motto. I set about designing lessons and projects that I felt would help my pre-service teachers build an adequate knowledge base about how to teach reading (my particular area of expertise) and how to become a reflective, life-long learner focusing on the needs of their students and how best to meet them. I really didn’t pay a great deal of attention to the “ethical” component of the motto; I think I just assumed that everyone knew how to be ethical. After all, doesn’t “ethical” just mean pretty much following the Golden Rule?
And then along came Common Core. Yes, I hear your question–what does Common Core have to do with ethics? Well, quite a bit, it seems to me. But perhaps a slice of history is in order first.
The standards movement began to gain serious traction about 25 years ago. The idea was that there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should learn before they leave school. Unless teachers were provided with a set of goals or guidelines related to the content that should be taught, they might not teach everything a student needed to learn. Initially, the standards that were developed were not very constraining; teachers used them as general guides in planning their instruction. Standards, it was argued, were the what to teach, not the how. Slowly, with strong “encouragement” from the federal Department of Education and other policy makers, most states created a set of content standards and required school districts to implement them. In some states, a system of statewide testing was initiated to be sure that students were learning the content in the standards and that teachers were teaching the required content. At that point, the standards began to take on a more constraining character.
It must be said that as the states developed their standards, there was a serious effort to build the standards from the ground up. Educational personnel with expertise in child development attempted to match the requirements in the standards to the developmental stages of the children at each grade level. Because that was true, teachers could feel comfortable that using the standards to plan instruction would be appropriate for their students.
With the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, everything changed in the world of standards. NCLB not only required the states to have standards taught by “highly qualified” teachers, it required the states to develop tests for those standards and monitor “adequate yearly progress.” If schools were not able to demonstrate such progress by their student populations, they were threatened with sanctions, up to and including the closing of the schools. Tests to monitor progress had now become high-stakes tests used to reward and punish.
No problem, we teachers thought. If we just keep doing good teaching, our students will be able to pass almost any test. And for schools in affluent and middle income areas, that was more true than not. But in urban schools and in poor rural areas, things didn’t go that well. Teachers and administrators lost their jobs; some schools were closed; charter schools appeared that lured the best students away, leaving a high percentage of those who struggled. Creeping into our schools came the idea that we had to focus more on what was tested, on the “bubble” kids that needed just that extra little push to pass, on skills workbooks and, although we didn’t say the words, “teaching to the test.” I suspect that push came more from administrators who feared that their schools might be the ones to be closed if their students’ scores didn’t reach that magical cut score.
Through all of this, we teachers rationalized our ethical stances. For myself, I knew that teaching to the test was not ethical, and I was not willing to do it. However, I didn’t voice my feelings. I simply took the stack of test-prep reading workbooks I was given, found whatever activities in them I could incorporate as a minilesson, and then moved on for the duration of the class period to provide a varied, differentiated fare for my students based on where they were cognitively and where they needed to go next. Nobody ever questioned what I was doing and I never offered an explanation. It was my way of satisfying my own ethics, guided primarily by the needs of my students. I made an ethical decision that my students’ needs trumped the possibility that I was misleading my administrator. Although some teachers in my building opted for the drill-and-kill mentality of the test prep workbooks, I am confident that many others were operating much as I was, guided by much the same ethical stance.
Fast forward five years. About two years into my first college teaching experience, I learned that our state had adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Okay, I thought, I’ll just dig in and learn how these standards will impact my pre-service teachers’ lesson planning and teach them to use them, and for two years I tried to do that. But the more I studied the CCSS and the Initiative that they are part and parcel of, the more I questioned.
I began to see some serious deficiencies in the Standards themselves; especially at the lower grade levels, the tasks required of the students do not match their developmental abilities, resulting in confusion and frustration on the part of the students. I learned that there would be three times as many achievement tests for the students to take, and that even kindergartners would be taking these tests which would not be field tested in any authentic way. Having observed the levels of stress students experience on high stakes tests, I can only imagine the exponential increase of such stress that will occur. (Actually, I don’t have to imagine it, since a child psychologist in New York recently testified to the New York Assembly that she had seen a 200 to 300% increase in patient load that could be tied directly to the impact of Common Core teaching and testing in her state.) I learned that these tests, taken on computer, would send enormous amounts of private data about students and their families into statewide, perhaps even nationwide, databases and that the managers of these databases could not and would not guarantee the security of that data.
I also have read that many schools, rather than developing their own curricula to align with the CCSS, are opting to buy packaged programs. Since the CCSS are the law in our state and cannot be changed because they are copyrighted by other entities, administrators in many schools are requiring teachers to march through the purchased curricula without accommodating the pace or the method of teaching. The script must be followed to be sure that we have covered everything that might be on the tests. The only result this guarantees is that many students will be Left Behind.
Competent, Committed, Ethical. It seems necessary to begin paying more attention to the third component of this motto. Together we must think deeply about what the definition of ethics is and what it means to be ethical. I must find the best way to communicate clearly to my pre-service teachers the minefield they will be entering. I must help them think through a number of possible scenarios they may be faced with. I must give them opportunities to consider what the best ethical choice may be.
Could/should a teacher refuse to follow the pacing of the scripted curriculum because he or she knows that it moves too fast for many students to stay up? Could/should a teacher use differentiated teaching in his or her classroom even though it is not recommended in the teacher’s edition of the curriculum? Some folks who oppose the CCSS are organizing parent opt-out movements, in which the parents formally notify the school that they refuse to allow their students to participate in the testing. Could/should a teacher refuse to give these tests because of his or her ethical position that the tests do more harm than good for students? Could/should a teacher join with other like-minded teachers to voice their opposition to practices in the field that are detrimental to children? These are just a few of the decisions a teacher will have to make in the CCSS environment.
I recently read an article that suggested that, in the face of the behavioristic corporate reform movement, it may be necessary for teachers to become insurrectionist pedagogues. I’m not yet comfortable with that term, probably because it translates to “rebellious teachers.” I don’t like to think of myself in what are generally considered negative or oppositional terms. At the same time, my own ethics require me to provide my students with a realistic picture of the field they are entering–and pray that the ethical stance they develop under my tutelage will guide them to advocate for the children they serve.