How Do You Mold a Student Positively and Ethically: The Gray Areas of Education

by on March 7th, 2015
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Suspicious and strikingly positive school and student test improvements have been erupting regularly in many places and taken hold the national spotlight. Some have turned into scandals and criminal arrests.

How does a teacher positively mold a student, or add value(VA) to a student ethically? Where and how are the school, teacher, parent, and student ethical lines drawn? The future of the United States and other countries depend on the answers to these important questions.

Black Marks: School Cheating Scandal Updates

Atlanta, Georgia
A July 5, 2011 Georgia Bureau of Investigation report accused 178 Atlanta educators (including 38 principals) and 44 of 56 school of cheating. 82 persons confessed, after they were absolved of criminal charges. Suspicion first arose when a 2008 Atlanta Journal Constitution(AJC) newspaper analysis found statistically improbable score increases on the state mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test(CRCT) in 2 schools. In clearly illegal and unethical fashion, teachers erased and changed answers for students to improve their test scores. They then detected more changes on the 2009 CRCT at 12 schools.

Since then, 30 educators have resigned or left. Teaching certificates have been revoked for 8 teachers and 3 school administrators. Resolution of the scandal is progressing slowly, measured in days to years.

The Northeast United States have experienced similar scandals and investigations. Pennsylvania state and its Department of Education head Ron Tomalis are currently scrutinizing the 2009-2011 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment(PSSA) tests for shockingly positive results and exam erasure red alerts. The first to ask questions about the state’s 3300 schools were:

– the Philadelphia Inquirer ( )

Roosevelt Middle School, where the number of proficient 8th grade readers jumped from 28.9% in 2008 to 63.8% in 2009

- The Notebook (www.the Community Charter, where the number of proficient 8th grade math students jumped from 22% in 2008 to 65.4% in 2009
60 Philadelphia schools, including 22 District and 7 charter schools, were flagged

Currently, Pennsylvania(PA) has marked 28 Philadelphia district school for possible 2009 PSSA improprieties, with 13 warranting a closer look. Strikingly, Data Recognition Corp. (DRC) forensics technical report notes that the Roosevelt’s 7th grade reading test wrong-to-right erasure patterns could occur purely by chance in less than 1 out of 100 trillion results. On the other hand, the Philadelphia district has found no wrongdoing at Roosevelt or FitzSimons so far.

Nevertheless, if these suspicious schools were removed, the Philadelphia district still demonstrated 9 consecutive years of test gains, according to Francis Newburg, deputy chief of Philadelphia’s Accountability and Educational Technology. People interested in the welfare of these American schools and educational systems await further findings in the upcoming years.

Gray Areas of Education: How the Copier and Innovator Worked Well Together
As a private tutor in mainly one-to-one settings, I often ask myself: how do you add value to a student and his or her education? One time, a student who I started tutoring in algebra made a random comment to me, “You’re bad, we’re good.” As the tutor trying to help the student, I was amused by his comment. Since we were working on a math problems homework assignment, I followed up with a question, “How do you usually get your homework done?” He said, “I copy the answers from my friends.” I was further amused. Fortunately in the one hour session, we worked well together and he was able to “discover” the answers on his own, with my aid.

“You’re bad, we’re good.” At the time, I did not delve deeper into the comment, since we were making tremendous math progress in the limited time and did not want to be sidetracked. Afterwards, I thought more about it. What is good and bad, especially in education?

How this student completed the homework is in the gray area of education. If the student’s teacher did not explicitly say to complete the homework on his or her own, the assignment can be considered a solo or group project. The student can be free to complete the homework in any way the student chooses, which includes hiring a tutor. Did the student violate the spirit or intention of the homework? I, as a tutor, can ask the same question of myself.

Precise and accurate quality copying is an art and a skill, many times underappreciated. Introducing innovation can ruin a good product. After mass producing or copying the well-liked Coca Cola drink worldwide for 99 years, innovation in the form of a April 23, 1985 “newer, sweeter” version bombed and was removed after only 3 months. Netflix may be a more recent example.

I could have completed all the algebra problems and my student could have simply copied my work and answers onto the homework sheet. However, we did not do that. As the tutor, I hoped my student “discover” the correct answers, do well, get a 100% on his schoolwork, and learn more, for my value-added (VA) to the student contribution. My student could be the next Henry Ford , one of the innovators and mass producers of the Model T Ford vehicle.

Where are the Ethical Educational Lines?
In their December 2011 “The Long-Term Impacts of Teachers: Teach Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood” study, economists Raj Chetty (Harvard University), John Friedman (Harvard), and Jonah Rockoff (Columbia University) examined the impact of teachers with different value added(VA) ratings on students. The ratings were based on “the test scores and classroom and teacher assignments” of a large United States 3 through 8th grade urban school district.

Because teacher cheating does occur and would obscure the rating of supposedly ethical teachers, the authors decided to simply eliminate the top 2% VA rated teachers (above 0.21 in math and 0.13 in English) and their classrooms from their analysis. Their reasoning was “impacts on test scores appear suspiciously consistent with testing irregularities” for this group. Can teachers only achieve outstanding results via cheating?

The ethical lines of outstanding teaching, homework copying, and outside help are not necessarily clearly defined. Teachers can boost grades through extra credit, lenient grading, accepting copied homework, and “cheating” for their students, thereby receive better VA ratings than other teachers or schools who do not. Teachers’ jobs or salary raises can rely on their VA rating; consequently, they may try to increase it via any means. These factors may help explain a sudden positive student test score rise from VA teacher impact and subsequent drop after only one year, as described in the study’s Figure 2. These questions should be addressed in future VA evaluations.

Similarly, private tutors, parents, and other persons can have a profound positive impact on students’ school performance, especially if they help them out in the ways described previously. Students receiving help from highly educated persons can improve tremendously school wise and move to the top of the class. They would have received an educational advantage, in contrast to students who do not or can not receive such help. On the other hand, acting as substitute mandatory test takers (e.g. SAT, PSSA, etc.) has occurred (e.g. Great Neck, NY), would be clearly unethical and cheating, and defeat the purpose of the tests.

Aside from their jobs, teachers are incentivized to boost their VA rating as high as possible, since top teachers can receive large bonuses and permanent pay raises. Teachers who rated highly effective in Washington DC Impact Plus evaluation system receive $2400 to $25000 bonuses. Advocates promote these rewards to help retain excellent teachers.

Keep a close eye on this continuing important debate about the American educational system. Future innovators and mass producers, America, and the world depend on the answers.

(Disclaimers: this article contains the author’s own independent analysis; the author is not directly involved in the studies and investigations mentioned nor has received related compensation)

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