The ethical dilemma of teaching in the age of standardization

I recently read Richard Rothstein’s commencement address given at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education on May 14th, 2015. I would like to share some of his thoughts and then suggest some responses for teachers in public schools today.

Here are some points Rothstein made in his speech (with liberties taken by this author):

  • It is regrettable that some people are labeling the crisis in education as the ‘civil rights’ cause of our time. It is not because to do so really diminishes the true civil rights struggle that aimed at improving housing, health, voting rights, and economic policies that dealt harshly with poor and lower middle class people. Today, educators who like to call themselves ‘reformers’ do not pay attention to the lives and environments that children inhabit.
  • Education has become a place where we substitute numbers for quality. ‘Data driven instruction’ is unethical but it is legal. Teachers are evaluated on the manipulation of these numbers.
  • The above approach leads to a narrowing of the curriculum – it disregards critical thinking, cooperative learning for both students and teachers, and music and the arts to name just a few items that are diminished. This too is unethical but it is legal.
  • Inordinate amounts of time are given to test prep and test taking techniques. This is considered ‘good teaching’ and teachers are evaluated poorly if they do not conform to this belief. This is also unethical but it is legal.
  • This ‘good teaching’ approach has a foundation that believes that teaching is mechanical in nature – if you follow specific steps, then anyone can lead students to higher standardized test scores. This is a basic tenet of Teach for America preparation. This approach diminishes the profession of teaching and is unethical but it is legal.
  • Rothstein believes that “ethical lives are comprised of compromises, of considering where to take stands and where not to make waves.”  How does a teacher then decide when to resist or when to capitulate? Dedicated teachers devote a lot of time and anguish to these dilemmas, often in private, with a spouse or alone.  Some suggestions to deal with this could be:
  • Look for networks of professional teachers where these thoughts can be shared. In my experience I have encountered three wonderful networks – The National Writing Project, Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity (S.E.E.D.), and the Coalition of Essential Schools. Please contact me if you would like information about them. I am sure there are other viable, ethical networks available for you. You can also, and should, form your own network in your school of like-minded teachers.
  • If you work in a public school be thankful that the union can offer some protection for you. If you work in a charter school, consider looking into developing a relationship with a union. I know from personal experience that this is not easy – your job may be threatened or there may be threats to close the school. I have experienced both of these threats.
  • Continue your education – take classes in critical theory, critical thinking or cooperative learning. You will find some like-minded teachers doing the same thing.
  • Google Adrienne Rich. She once wrote “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it.” I used to paraphrase her quote when  I did workshops for teachers to “Teach as if your life depended on it”, implying that there may be times when you have to take risks that may threaten your teaching position if you feel your ethical life is threatened too much.
  • Continue the belief that teaching is a profession and not a mechanical task.
  • Be very wary of so called reformers who believe in ‘data driven instruction’ while at the same time they are dismantling the teaching profession and filling it with ‘obedient’ followers.

You can also google Richard Rothstein and Bank Street Commencement address – it appeared as an article in the Washington Post.

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