Tough Choices and Doing "The Right Thing" in Education

It’s graduation time across Colorado and the nation. Happy kids everywhere are moving up a grade, finishing school, or digging in to do some more work over the summer. I think that’s fantastic, but I was reminded today of a different perspective while I was perusing my daily flood of education news, blogs, and columns.

Brace yourselves. Today’s post is a little squishy. Stop scowling. We five-year-olds are allowed to be squishy sometimes.

Most of you probably know that despite some amazing success stories, I have serious questions about number-gaming when it comes to graduation rates. The same applies to rates of advancement in lower grades. But I will admit that I have not spent a lot of time pondering the issue in terms of the potentially agonizing decisions teachers and school leaders have to make when it comes to sending kids out into the real world—or holding them back.

That perspective, and the important philosophical questions it raises, popped into the ol’ thinker this afternoon as I read a guest post on Rick Hess’s blog. Written by Meira Levinson, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the post puts forward a fictional scenario involving an underprivileged eighth-grader at the end of a school year. The big question at the end: What is the right thing to do?

Here’s the story from the blog post:

On a sweltering afternoon in June, the eighth grade team at Innovation Academy was gathered to make the tough decisions about who actually would graduate the following week. The team’s most challenging case was Adahuaris Soto, a mouthy but charming 15 year-old. By any objective measure, Ada had to be retained.  She was reading at a fifth grade level.  She was failing both social studies and science. She had been absent 17 days this spring, meaning she had missed over three weeks of school. Innovation Academy’s graduation criteria were clear, and Ada equally clearly did not meet them.

On the other hand, Ada’s low achievement obscured some amazing accomplishments. Thanks to working after school every day with Ms. Castro, the English teacher, Ada had made two years’ reading growth in a single year, skyrocketing from third to fifth grade level on the May tests. She accomplished this despite having watched her brother die from a gunshot wound on their front porch on Halloween night, and despite being shuttled around the foster system through a series of ever-more dysfunctional homes. The 17 absences? Those were mostly due to housing disruptions, and difficulties navigating new bus routes to school.

Her grades also could be tweaked. Her 55 average in social studies was low, but possible to increase to a D- with some last-minute extra credit. It was hard to blame her entirely for her failing science grade, which was thanks in part to the science teacher’s going on maternity leave; the long-term sub couldn’t help Ada make up work she had missed while moving among foster homes.

On the other hand, Ada also hadn’t kept up with her science assignments even when she was in school. The sub had offered to let Ada retake a test she had bombed, and she hadn’t done so. “What’s the point, Mr. B?” Ada responded when he pressed her. “We both know I ain’t gonna do no better the second time round. And, no offense, but it’s not like you going to become Mr. Science now, neither.” Mr. Beecher couldn’t dispute that. Although he had been working twelve-hour days, for less than half the pay of regular teachers and no benefits, he still found teaching science challenging—no small surprise for a French and theater major. He had taken the sub job at Innovation Academy to add some teaching experience to his resume, not because he had any aspiration to become “Mr. Science.”

The teachers knew that Ada had been planning to go to summer school for credit recovery. But budget troubles had led to the district’s deciding in April to eliminate summer school for middle school students. This struck many as unfair. On the other hand, other students at risk of failure had taken this as a wake-up call, worked their tails off, and earned final quarter grades that were high enough to give them a passing average for the year. Ada hadn’t.

Mr. Beecher shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and finally spoke. “What about the alternative school?  Could Ada go there in the fall and then maybe start high school in the spring?” His voice trailed off as Mr. Rodriguez stared at him.

“Have you ever visited there?” Mr. Rodriguez asked. “It’s the express bus on the school to prison pipeline. Adahuaris would get eaten alive there. We care about her, at least, and we want to show her the right way forward. Those teachers? They’re lucky if they keep the stabbings under control. Even if she survives, she wouldn’t learn anything there.”

Ms. Castro concurred. “I didn’t spend every day after school with Ada to watch her get fed to the lions.  She has potential. She’s a good kid. No way we’re sending her to that crazy house.”

The principal’s voice boomed out over the PA. “Eighth grade teachers, I’m waiting on grade sheets and graduation lists from a number of you. Respect the deadline, please. I expect you to bring them down to the office in the next ten minutes.”

Stricken, the eighth grade team looked at one another. What should they do?

I’m not going to pretend that I agree with all of Professor Levinson’s work on justice in schools. It’s not lost on me that this story is riddled with subthemes related to substitute teachers, grade advancement, the limitations of assessment, attendance policies, academic standards, alternative education campuses, and a variety of other subjects. And yes, this situation would be made significantly better if Ada had access to more and better educational options. But those policy issues aren’t why the story caught my eye.

Rather, I think this story does two critical things. First, it offers a great example of the responsibility—morally, academically, and socially—we place on our teachers’ shoulders. Why do teachers have such enormous responsibility? Because they are superheroes who hold tremendous educational power and the ability to alter life outcomes. And as Spiderman’s Uncle Ben taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. That’s a big part of why I believe teachers should be treated fairly when it comes to pay, and why I am such a strong believer in outcomes-based accountability.

Second, and most importantly, I think the story poses fantastically introspective—and tremendously complicated—questions about education overall. I love education because it is so deeply intertwined with both policy and philosophy. It forces incredibly complex conversations on the policy front, but it also demands that we wrestle with tough questions regarding the true meaning of compassion, the ideas of opportunity and equity, and the moral imperative of doing right by the next generation of Americans.

I think most of my faithful readers can guess what I’d say in answer to Professor Levinson’s question at the end of this particular case study. But I didn’t post this story to offer my opinion. Rather, I thought it would be a good opportunity for you to reflect on the often distressingly complex issue that is “doing the right thing” in education.

So put on your philosopher hat, you’ve got some thinking to do.