In my previous post on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, I argued that the common ways teachers manipulate students’ grades to portray a false sense of learning achievement is morally similar to teachers changing wrong answers on standardized tests, and therefore should also provoke moral outrage from the public. Here I will develop that argument further by explaining more how these more common practices violate the same moral principles that bear on the cheating scandal.
Governor Deal’s investigative report on the matter criticizes Atlanta Public Schools for “emphasizing test results and public praise to the exclusion of integrity and ethics.” In other words, educational leaders and teachers were more concerned about the appearance of student learning than actual student learning, and the ends of higher test scores justified the means of changing wrong answers in the minds of the violators.
I have seen this ethos at work in both public and private school settings. While teaching at a private school I received a steady stream of complaints from parents that their children were making C’s instead of B’s, or B’s instead of A’s. These complaints translated into trouble with the administration who criticized me for not having enough A’s and B’s. Ironically, I left public education to teach at a private school seeking more freedom to implement academic rigor and to seek grading integrity. Sadly, there was less freedom because the grades were even more scrutinized. I was given a number of specific directives (like assigning an easy extra credit project that would add 10 points to the overall grade) designed to transform F’s to C’s and C’s to B’s. The motivation for these directives was that my classroom grades created a bad image for the school – an image that students were not succeeding in science – that needed to be corrected. Upping the grades would portray an image of success.
My response was to admit that it was true that a significant number of students were not learning that much, though those that were making A’s and B’s were achieving a lot. I argued, with evidence to support, that low achievement in science was by not means unique to my classroom, but was a national problem especially severe in Georgia. What made me different was that I was not afraid to disclose this low level of achievement in my course grades, believing that was the only way the problem of low achievement could be corrected. To improve the problem it had to be acknowledged openly, not covered up by grade manipulation.
Yet the cost of attempting to bring to light a real problem was gaining a negative image, among some, of being an ineffective educator. My local leadership wanted me to change this image by changing grades (which would also enhance the image of the school) even though grade integrity would be compromised. In Gov. Deal’s words, what was happening was a concern for “public praise [image] at the exclusion of integrity and ethics.”
The preoccupation with image (the perception of being good) versus character (actually being good) is by no means just a contemporary malady. Yet I believe this mindset is particularly strong in an age where philosophically many have come to believe that “perception is reality” and its corollary that “reality is what we make it.” The postmodern worldview maintains that there is no reality independent of our perceptions. Therefore, we cannot make objective truth claims; rather, all truth is socially constructed. That means that it is up to human communities to determine what is accepted as true in that community: knowing truth apart from these constructions is impossible. Consequently, image is all we can ‘know.’
In a postmodern worldview the distinction then between image and integrity is meaningless, for the concept of integrity is based on the possibility of a real essence – a reality of being, a state of existence, that exists apart from how people perceive us. Denying the existence of such a reality, or believing that it is there but impossible to know, negates the very notion of integrity and renders the pursuit of it impossible. In the end this kind of metaphysics (beliefs about the nature of reality) justifies the kind unethical behaviors that put public praise before integrity and leads to grading practices that conveys an image of success without concern for real success in learning.
So far I have only diagnosed critically without offering any solutions. I’ll follow this post soon with thoughts about the biblical basis for integrity and helpful ideas for parents and educators about how to pursue greater integrity in education.