Re-Claiming a Moral Profession in Unethical Times

In these dire times of unethical decision-making by policy makers, it's important that teachers remain grounded in moral principles that have proven timeless in preserving the promise of public education. It has been painfully evident that union leadership has settled for political maneuvering rather than unwavering principle.
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A bitter irony unfolded in New York's budget process this year as Governor Cuomo, in his allegiance to hedge fund campaign contributors, managed to push through ethics reforms alongside an education reform package that stands as the most unethical affront to public education in recent memory.

The Governor openly shirked his constitutional obligation to provide equitable school funding as set forth by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York ruling. The $1.4 billion increase is short of the $2 billion recommended by the NY Board of Regents and well short of the $5.6 billion cited by the Campaign for Educational Equity as necessary for constitutional compliance. The Campaign for Educational Equity has written a scathing rebuke of the 2015-2016 state education budget:

Among the egregious violations of constitutional requirements that the 2015-16 state budget perpetuates are the following: It continues to defer full foundation funding for the costs of a sound basic education; it reverts to the notorious "shares agreement" for funding New York City schools; it continues the unconstitutional gap elimination adjustment; it revives the teacher evaluation penalty provision that threatens essential school aid; and it fails to provide appropriate funding for pre-K.

The governor's decision to emphasize test scores in teacher evaluation presents a glaring disincentive for teachers working in schools with high concentrations of students who have historically performed poorly on standardized tests including students living in poverty, English language learners, and students with disabilities. The Governor is denying equitable funding to the most under-resourced schools while bending school policies toward test preparation and away from enriching curriculum. Schools already struggling are being set up for charter school takeover, an outcome actively pursued by the governor's most notable campaign contributors.

The governor's political process set a new standard for evading democracy. Eleanor Randolph of the New York Times referred to the final budget negotiations as "New York's All Male Oligarchy." Randolph was criticizing the antiquated "three men in a room" culture in Albany, but just as accurately could have been referring to the oligarchy of hedge fund managers responsible for financing and overseeing the Governor's education policies from start to finish.

A Quinnipiac University survey conducted during the budget negotiations measured the governor's approval rating for handling education policies at 28 percent (approval) to 68 percent (disapproval). Despite staunch opposition from parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents, the governor's policies emerged from budget negotiations virtually intact. The concessions made by the state legislators diverged so significantly from the will of their constituencies that they made a mockery of representative government.

Given their omnipresent role in education legislation, Governor Cuomo has positioned hedge fund managers as the new stewards of public education. Will hedge fund managers, with their vision for a profitable public education market, foster policies that provide quality, equitable education for students?

The greatest education reforms of our time have been born when society is galvanized by questions of moral importance, not business efficiency. What is the role of public education in a democratic society? Is "separate but equal" a justifiable doctrine for public education? How can we ensure equitable education for all?

Teaching is an innately moral profession. Teachers carry an incredible burden in making ethical decisions on a moment-to-moment basis in schools. One year ago, two of my colleagues and I formally refused to administer the Common Core state tests as an act of conscience. We articulated our belief that market-based reforms threatened public education and undermined our pedagogies. Since that time, teachers in New York and across the country have taken similar stances in what has come to be known as the Teachers of Conscience movement. Public school parents have similarly taken a moral stand to preserve public education by mounting a historic campaign of civil disobedience in the form of the national Opt-Out movement.

In these dire times of unethical decision making by policy makers, it is important that teachers remain grounded in moral principles that have proven timeless in preserving the purpose and promise of public education. It has been painfully evident that our own unions have struggled to find that moral footing across the last decade of market-based reforms as union leadership has settled for political maneuvering rather than unwavering principle.

In 1990, Kenneth S. Goodman wrote "A Declaration of Professional Conscience For Teachers" as a way of establishing some measure of ethics for the teaching profession. His writing is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. I would like to honor and expand upon Goodman's vision by proposing "An Ethic for Teachers of Conscience in Public Education." It is one way to differentiate our work from the political gamesmanship and corporate greed that has enveloped our profession for far too long. This is a working document, open to debate and amendment, but it is a conversation on ethics in public education that is long overdue. I welcome public comment on this set of ethics. It is my hope that teachers can continue to shape these ethics, paving a way for their general adoption.

An Ethic for Teachers of Conscience in Public Education

A moral imperative to attend to the development and well-being of our students

  • We develop strong relationships with students and their families, built on mutual respect and trust. We respect the abilities, cultural identities, languages, and values that our students come to us with.
  • We devote ourselves to fostering the cognitive, academic, social, emotional, and physical development of our students.
  • We foster students' inherent desire to learn and help to develop the skills and dispositions necessary for lifelong learning and effective community and civic engagement.
  • We support students in developing their creative potential and offer robust experiences with the arts.
  • The welfare of students in our schools is paramount. We protect students from violence and all forms of mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation.
  • We work against discrimination and and injustices that affect students and that are present within our educational institutions.

A moral imperative to know our students well and understand their learning

  • We give our students opportunities to present and reflect on their learning through multiple modalities.
  • We use multiple methods of assessment to know students well and to understand their learning.
  • We are discerning when considering the biases, reliability, and validity of assessment methods and in evaluating the information that those methods reveal.
  • We require assessments to be transparent and to have a direct application to teaching and curriculum development.
  • We do not generalize or make high-stakes decisions based on a single method of assessment.
  • We do not define students, or encourage students to define themselves, by their assessment results.
  • We do not carry out assessments with the primary purpose of ranking and sorting students or bestowing statuses upon students.

A moral imperative to serve our communities

  • We will welcome and teach all children without prejudice -- regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, language, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or citizenship.
  • We value diversity in our public school communities and believe that integrated schools are fundamental to an integrated society.
  • We believe that teaching students to understand and value diversity contributes to a viable democracy.
  • We consider public schools to be a part of the commons. We will work to make our schools spaces that support the learning, health, and the democratic participation of our local communities.

A moral imperative to promote learning in service of the public good

  • We teach students literacy and the fundamental skills necessary to advance learning and pursue their full potentials.
  • We teach students to think critically and problem solve.
  • We teach students to apply their learning to issues of social justice.
  • We teach students to work collaboratively toward a common purpose.
  • We teach students to be stewards of the natural world around them.
  • We teach students civic engagement and democratic values.
  • We teach students social ethics and how to work through conflict constructively.
  • We are committed to our own development as teachers, including but not limited to trainings, coursework, observations and exchanges, descriptive reviews, and teacher-led inquiry and research.

A moral imperative to preserve public education

  • We believe that students have the right to equitable resources through public funding.
  • We believe that public education must remain democratically governed and in service of the public good, not private interests or for-profit businesses.
  • We believe that policies that divert public funding to privatized alternatives to public schools, undermine the purpose and potential of public education.
  • We believe that public schools must remain accountable to institutions that are publicly controlled and democratically governed, including parent associations, school leadership teams, school boards, and local, state, and federal governments.
  • We believe that public agencies and governing bodies must conduct their business transparently, maintain public records, and seek ways to involve the public in decision-making processes.
  • We believe that the implementation of standards, assessment systems, curriculum materials, and teaching programs must be done in consultation with teachers and democratic governing bodies. Implementation must not be driven by private profit or through the decision making processes of private entities.
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