Richard Rothstein to Bank Street College Graduates: Make Your Ethical Dilemmas Public

In a mid-May commencement address at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education, Richard Rothstein reflected with the graduates about the ethical choices they will face as school teachers and principals.  Ethical choices for educators are something many of us have continued to consider since the tragic Atlanta trial that concluded early in April.  For the Atlanta  judge the ethics were so clear: the teachers and principals were cheaters who deserved to be sentenced to years in jail for changing their students’ answers on standardized tests.  But many of us following that trial also realized that the teachers and principals whose careers were at stake had been asked by society and their school superintendent, Beverly Hall, to accomplish the impossible: turn around the trajectory of their students’ aggregate test scores in just a few months.  Hall had promised she could turn around the whole district, and she threatened to fire educators who couldn’t immediately make their students’ test scores jump. (Here are this blog’s posts tagged Atlanta cheating scandal.)

Rothstein reminded  Bank Street College’s graduates about the teacher who told the Atlanta judge she had cheated to keep her students in school instead of dropping out: “The Atlanta judge, expressing moral outrage, claimed that his harsh sentences—including years of jail time—were justified because the victims of cheating were students, denied remediation because test erasures disguised their failures.  But we all know that in practice, their failures would not likely have resulted in special help; holding them back would make them more likely to drop out, not less so.  One teacher told the judge that she believed that changing a young man’s score to passing would make his staying in school, and graduating, more likely, and would enable him to participate more fully in American society.  Was she right?  If so, does it justify engaging in criminal activity?  Perhaps you think this is an easy question to answer (although I’m not sure what the answer is), but many of the ethical dilemmas you will face are more complicated.”

In his address Rothstein enumerated just a few of the moral conflicts teachers face in these times of “legal corruption that inevitably results from using tests not to guide instruction, but to punish educators… encouraged in the name of ‘reform’ by financial elites and by political leaders at the highest levels of government—that is driving the breakdown of our education system.”  Rothstein described the narrowing of the curriculum as one form of corruption: “It results when teachers, even entire school systems, reallocate instructional time to subjects that are tested, because there are no consequences for diminishing attention to civics, science, history, cooperative learning, critical thinking of all kinds, literature, the arts, physical fitness, or even mathematical reasoning.”  Another kind of corruption takes place annually, “At the beginning of the school year, (when) 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 widely-employed strategy necessarily robs attention from students who are far below or far above passing.”   Then there is this: “Today, teachers learn to study prior tests, or the textbooks published by test-making companies, so they can prepare students for questions that are more likely to be asked, questions unrepresentative of the full curriculum.  Coaching that focuses on trivial aspects of test-taking technique, or guessing strategies is now called good teaching by unintimidated school administrators….”  In every one of these instances, Rothstein reminded the Bank Street graduates, “It is unethical, it’s corrupt, but it’s legal. How will you, individually and collectively, respond?”

Rothstein concluded his remarks by asking Bank Street’s newest school teachers to examine a reality that is far more complicated than the thinking of the judge in Atlanta: “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 the careers on which you are about to embark, you will frequently have 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.  You will often have to decide whether you can do more good by going along, or more good by taking a risk, perhaps just a small one, sometimes a large one, with your security and career… If I can… make any recommendation to you, it is to consider how you can make your anguish more public.”

I urge you to read Rothstein’s stunning Bank Street commencement address.


2 thoughts on “Richard Rothstein to Bank Street College Graduates: Make Your Ethical Dilemmas Public

  1. Greetings. I appreciate your calling attention to Richard Rothstein’s thought-provoking address, and I find greatly value in your blog in general.

    Certainly part of Rothstein’s message is that many ethical questions are gray rather than black or white. This is true of what took place in APS under Beverly Hall’s leadership as well. I must take issue with your portrayal of her. I knew Beverly, and I knew her to be a committed “equity warrior.” I saw first-hand the work she was doing to build the capacity of school leaders and educators to better serve all students. Was there excessive pressure to raise scores? Yes. Were teachers expected to single-handedly turn around the trajectory of students in a few months as you imply? No. Too often this story is told in a way that ignores the huge, strategic investment that the Hall administration made in building instructional capacity throughout the system and the fact that this investment resulted in significant gains in NAEP scores during her tenure. No one has suggested that there was cheating on NAEP. Something very real happened under her leadership in terms of systemic change resulting in improved student learning; the tragic cheating scandal has essentially erased all that. The story of what happened under Dr. Hall’s leadership is quite a bit more nuanced and complex than your opening paragraph would allow for.

    Scott Thompson Assistant Executive Director Panasonic Foundation Two Riverfront Plaza, 11th Floor Newark, NJ 07102-5490 201-271-3367 (office phone) 201-210-1514 (mobile)

  2. Jan – Thanks for directing us to Rothstein’s address. He beautifully captures the ethical challenges of leadership as I have experienced them in the church. The seduction of rules based decision making is always confounded by the complex realities of life and the desire by so many today to reduce everything to clear cut data and rigid protocols flies in the face of the flesh and blood struggles of life. In the end rules based and data driven decisions usually serve the privileges of those who make the rules and control the data. Nothing is ever as simple as we’d like it to be which means leaders are constantly having to risk either conscience or convention for the sake of a good beyond themselves. How wonderful that this address was delivered in the Riverside Church where, in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War, essentially ending his partnership with Lyndon Johnson on Civil Rights and angering his own colleagues who believed he was undercutting support for the Civil Rights movement. If ever there was an example of a leader making his or her anguish public, that was it!

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