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John Thompson: Would a Reformers' Code of Ethics Help End Our Educational Civil War?

Guest post by John Thompson.

Early in my career, I floated a naive idea with my union business representative. What if education embraced a school reform code of ethics?

The attacks on teachers by "reformers" who had declared war on the educational "status quo," were ramping up their attacks on teachers. I could already see that the blame game could spin out of control. And sure enough, the contemporary accountability movement eventually declared a war on teachers, who supposedly were complicit in schools' failure to overcome the legacy of generational poverty. Back then, however, I was still too trusting of the idea that we could all reason together and thus improve schools.

My rep was sympathetic with my question, but he shot me down with a reminder of the system already in place. If teachers pushed policies that they disagreed with, administrators could retaliate by enforcing the existing code for educators and teachers could lose their licenses for violating it by, say, yelling at a class.

Many non-teachers might be perplexed by the answer, as I also would have been when I first entered the classroom. I had worked in plenty of brutalizing non-union blue collar jobs, including roughnecking in the oil fields, so I understood the survival-of-the-fittest ethos which was created by cruel workplaces. Before teaching in the inner city, I would have been shocked at the idea that the same belligerence was ubiquitous in schools.

Of course, teachers are wrong when we raise our voices in anger, but we work in a dehumanizing system. In my high schools, adults shouting at students, kids screaming at each other, frustrated administrators and livid teachers yelling back and forth, and parents cussing out teachers, administrators, and their kids were common symptoms of a dysfunctional system. We needed to think twice before we got all righteous towards each other. Even so, I'd again like to float the idea of a more modest reformers' code of conduct as a step toward ending our educational civil war.

High Stakes Testing.
We need a code of ethics with #1 beginning, "No stakes shall be attached to standardized tests without the consent of the student or educator." Under such a code, high-quality standardized assessments, such as AP and SAT tests, would not be threatened. Charters could test to their hearts delight. Testing could be used for its proper purpose as an assessment. It would provide evidence to inform instruction and policy. It would simply disarm "reformers" who want to use bubble-in testing to destroy "the status quo," and prevent the imposition of educational malpractice on schools and students who don't want rote instruction and nonstop test prep.

Truth in Advertising.
When a school or a system presents numbers purporting to be about "student performance," the ethical code would require definitions and methodology to also be reported. For instance, it would be unethical to report the "pass rate" without revealing the "exclusion rate." Improvements in student outcomes reported in percentages should also include raw numbers, thus illuminating the attrition rate. Attendance numbers should include the numbers of students who did not attend class but whose absences were dropped or "worked off." Graduation rates should also indicate how many students were granted how many credits for classes despite failing grades and/or excessive absences.

The professional autonomy of teachers.
Micromanaging or imposing scripted instruction on a teacher must be seen as a very serious manner, especially when done by persons who have little or no experience in comparable classrooms and/or when a large body of social science and cognitive science evidence calls the wisdom of those mandates into question. There would be nothing unethical in giving teachers a curriculum pacing guide which calls for the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and comparable standards to each be covered in eight minutes. After all, our teachers and administrators shared a belly laugh about our pacing guide when it was passed down. It would be inappropriate to expect teachers to take such a guide seriously, however, or to order the teaching to benchmark tests that cover those standards on such a timetable.

Adult Interests.
It has often argued that the welfare of children should be placed above the politics of adults. In one sense, we can still agree with that ideal. The ethical position is to recognize, however, that adults hold different positions because they often have honest disagreements. It should be considered rude to characterize an opponent's position as defending "adult interests" without evidence.

Education "Papers."
It would be unethical for "research" papers presented by think tanks or policy advocates, using the trappings of scholarly papers, to mischaracterize the positions of their opponents. They should borrow the academic convention of accurately summarizing the arguments that they seek to refute. For instance, a paper on seniority would be honor-bound to honestly articulate the reasons for "last in, first out," and their opponents' proposals for reforming it, as opposed to just labeling the other side as "False."

Similarly, a researcher would be allowed to spin the findings in regard to his pet project, and characterize its results as "quite encouraging," even when most scholars would identify them as modest. But it would be improper to bury attrition rates in a table in at the end of the paper. For instance, if a researcher like Roland Fryer knows that readers have concerns about the attrition rate of students in "No Excuses" schools, and is studying neighborhood schools that adopt their methods, the number of students who begin the year should be reported prominently and the number of those students who stick it out until spring testing should be transparent. And, if a study (like "The Long-Term Teacher Impacts of Teachers" by Chetty et. al) excludes classes where 25% of the students are on IEPs, that should be revealed in the introduction. When using statistical modeling on a sample of students, the proper approach is to review the work of prominent scholars (like Aaron Pallas and Jennifer Jennings) who have shown why those samples may be unrepresentative or how an economist's algorithm might be missing the effects of real world dynamics.


Today, after years of failed "reforms," my old neighborhood schools are even more dehumanizing than they were when I started teaching. The gratuitous harassment of teachers is even more common, and the abuse is then re-directed towards the students. The scientific term for this dynamic is, "the feces rolls downhill."

When educators and/or students "lose it," the ethical response should be to follow an apology with an honest conversation probing the reasons why tempers were lost and making concrete plans to do better. The purpose of those discussions should be the creation of a respectful learning culture. Such an approach could provide a bonus, improving school climates enough that reformers do not need to demonize educators in order to help students.

My students' big complaint with me was that I held things in for weeks before blowing my stack. Is that an issue in your school? What do you think? Could we create a learning climate, even in the inner city, where adults and students do not raise their voices in anger? Why are "reformers" so confident that the ends justify their means? Could a code of ethics help deescalate our educational civil war?

What do you think?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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