Q: A teacher I work with was shaking as he told me a senior had failed his class — one he needed to graduate. My colleague knew his supervisors were upset with him even though he had given the student plenty of chances. I said, “Look, I’m sure you did what you’re supposed to do and the kid legitimately failed.” But I knew where the conversation was heading. Sure enough, he told me his department chair came up with some dumb crap the kid could do to recover the credit. In other words, the teacher had to pass him. Forget the fact that he didn’t show up for class and ignored all offers of help. After filling out a few bogus worksheets — which only required one school day to complete — the senior was able to graduate with his class. Awesome for our graduation rates, I suppose, but that diploma didn’t mean much.
I’m actually a school counselor, but I’ve been frustrated by this padding of academic data. For example, I’m often asked to move kids to higher-level classes when there’s no parental approval. The administration knows that most parents won’t even notice the switch, especially ones who don’t speak English. And the school looks great when lots of kids take advanced classes, so you have to have a REALLY good reason not to put them there. Being in all self-contained classes is not a good reason. Not wanting to take another honors class because you’re overextended is not a good reason. Being in and out of the hospital for suicidal ideation is not a good reason. The thing is, many kids will do fine anyway because we’ve watered down the curriculum to make this all possible. When my colleagues and I protest what we see as unethical or corrupt practices, we’re either penalized or ignored. These orders seem to be coming from the top, so we feel powerless. What can we do?
A: I’ve been receiving an increasing number of questions from teachers and other school staff who witness corruption. They want to know where they can go with this information and whether their unions, school boards, and local media are aware or even care. In other words, who is dedicated to receiving, sharing, and following up on reports from civic-minded staff members?
There aren’t any easy answers, and options will vary from district to district. Complicating matters, educators may not know who they can trust. Their union rep? An ombudsperson? They may worry that their message will fall on deaf ears or lead to retribution.
Different people feel comfortable handling these dilemmas in different ways. The choices aren’t limited to “explode the system” or “do nothing.” While you certainly could call the media, hire lawyers, and generally blow the lid off everything, you also could start small. Keep in mind that no matter what you do, there likely will be unanticipated consequences. Here are some ideas that could lead to small but significant improvements:
1. Do what you can on a personal level. You may not have the power to change policy, but you can resist unethical directives. That may mean calling parents before moving a student to an AP class even if you’ve been told to skip that step.
2. Anticipate situations. As soon as you suspect a student will fail, contact your department chair and try to come up with a compromise — such as a credit recovery plan that doesn’t involve bogus assignments.
3. Choose your battles. You may decide you’ll put your foot down when you think your student shouldn’t take a certain class, but let others worry about whether that class is watered down. Think about your values and what you will and won’t tolerate.
4. When there’s no recourse, learn from the experience. If you had handled anything differently, could you have avoided the problem in the first place?
5. Do you trust anyone who has authority? If so, start by talking to them. Identify individuals who have the courage to speak truth to power. You also could involve multiple stakeholders, such as members of the PTSA and colleagues at other schools.
6. In the long term, would you consider working toward management? You could try to become a decision maker.
7. Does your district have ethics policies in place? How about a vision and mission statement? Are educators governed by rules of conduct? Could you join a committee devoted to creating these types of documents? Organizations need the language and sensibility to deal with corrupt practices before they arise. It’s much easier to push back when a culture of ethics is already established.
8. Use whatever advocacy skills you have. If you like to write, write an advocacy letter or opinion piece. If you like to present, share ideas at a school board meeting. If you’re an organizer, create a coalition of allies to agitate with you.
9. If corruption is trickling down from the top and you can’t work within the system without compromising your values, remember that you always have the option to quit.
These are systemic, structural issues that you can’t solve alone. But whether you refuse to comply with demoralizing practices at the personal level or run for a seat on the school board, you’ll feel more hopeful and less powerless.
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