Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

Should I Tell on My Cheating Classmates? (Kwame Anthony Appiah)

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. He is the author of  “Cosmopolitanism” and “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.” He writes for the New York Times as “The Ethicist.” Many of the letters that come to Appiah deal with moral dilemmas where choices have to be made that cannot fully satisfy one or both of the values in conflict. The following entry came from a student’s question and the dilemma the student faced. Appiah’s answer appeared February 6, 2018.

In middle school, I witnessed three friends cheating on a test when a teacher was not in the room. I reminded them that we were not supposed to collaborate or use a computer to look up answers. They told me to “lay off.”

I was tempted to report them because I value being honest and because we were graded on a curve. But I was also hesitant because they were all admitted into prestigious high schools, and I was afraid that my middle school would have to report the cheating to those high schools. I was also afraid that they would know I was the one who reported them and that there might be consequences for our friendship.

There is no official honor code at my school, so I did not promise to report cheaters. Should I have reported them? Name Withheld


According to various experts, cheating has gotten worse in recent decades — in part because of increased pressure for good grades and scores among college-bound students — and less stigmatized than it used to be. What you’ve described fits that pattern.

If you’re out of step with your friends, it’s because you’re clear that cheating is wrong. Stick with that thought. Being honest is a good thing in itself. Your friends may think you’re a sucker. They’re wrong. And there are pragmatic considerations in favor of honesty too: Dishonesty is hard to conceal in the long run, and in nearly every sphere of life, having a reputation for dishonesty is a curse. In most circumstances, as a pragmatic matter, honesty really is the best policy. But an honest person won’t be honest for this reason. I’m sure that’s true of you. It’s an ideal you value, not simply a calculation you make.

As you also understand, people who cheat exploit the good faith of those who don’t, because cheating lets them represent themselves as better than they are, relative to noncheaters. (You mention that you’re being graded on a curve.) It’s a breach of their relationship with the teachers who trust them not to do these things, with the friends they disadvantage and with the parents they betray. And it’s bad for the offenders, because regular cheaters don’t do the work to understand the material being tested, depriving themselves of real learning and the opportunity for pedagogic correction.

People who cheat like this in middle school and who scoff at criticism of it are presumably going to go on cheating. And they may well get away with it. While certain forms of plagiarism are easier to detect than before (there are various online programs for this purpose), it appears that the rate of cheating is much higher than the rate of its detection. If your friends were exposed and learned that cheating is a serious matter, they might benefit in the long run. Certainly their peers, by learning from their example, could benefit.

Should you have blown the whistle, then? Maybe not. As you suggest, losing a place at a prestigious high school can be a big deal in our society, where educational opportunity is unfairly distributed. Adding to the current unfairness by cheating isn’t exactly helpful, of course, but that wouldn’t have occurred to your friends as they nursed their outrage at your tattling. And given how little cheating is caught, reporting them would have meant that they paid a penalty that lots of others ought to — but won’t — pay. Because many people in your generation don’t take cheating very seriously, your friends would most likely have ended up focusing on the unfairness of being singled out, not on their wrongdoing.

The intervention you were considering was likely, therefore, to be very costly to you. Whistle-blowers often suffer, sometimes more than those whose offenses they report. And the burden of dealing with cheating in your school shouldn’t fall on you. (I’m glad, as a result, that your school doesn’t expect you to report cheating. So-called honor codes mostly end up being ignored — thus increasing the general level of dishonesty rather than lowering it — while occasionally harming the honorable.) So I would not have recommended reporting these friends. Even if they did something wrong, your friendship, along with the probable costs to you, weighed against reporting them.

Some people, I realize, think that self-directed considerations don’t belong in the moral calculus. You can assess the consequence of your actions on others and on the world, in their view, but you’re not supposed to take your own concerns into account. They identify morality with the triumph over self-interest. This austerely demanding view is tempting but misguided. Morality should not be turned into something like the good china, which you take down from the high shelf only for special occasions. Ethics, in its classical sense, was about being a good person — and living a good life. (The first thing being part of the second.) It was meant for everyday use. The point is that you’re a participant in the situation you describe; your own prospects have to be considered, too.

And suppose that by turning in these cheaters, you became a pariah; would you have helped or hurt the social norm of honesty? Still, there may be things you can do. You might write to the head of your school board and say that cheating is happening and not being detected. (Consult your parents first, of course.) In an ideal world, students could be trusted to refrain from cheating because, like you, they value honesty. But we’re probably headed toward a world that’s simply less dependent on trust: no unsupervised tests, regular use of plagiarism checkers and statistical methods for detecting cheaters; stiff penalties for those who are caught. Given this reality, you might suggest some simple measures that could be taken. For starters, it’s not too much to ask that teachers stay in the room when an exam is being given.






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Managing Teacher Dilemmas: Algebra 2, the Gateway Course (Education Realist)

This post comes from the blog Education Realist. While I usually avoid postings from anonymous authors, this full time teacher who writes under the pseudonym of Education Realist is someone I have come to know and respect as a teacher and person. I have observed this teacher in math and social studies lessons; we have also met for lunches discussing many issues in public schools.

Rare it is that a teacher describes intra-department politics on a crucial policy question about how much advanced math should students previously identified as low-achieving and potential failures have access to. Education Realist describes such a high school department wrestling with this departmental policy dilemma and what position this teacher takes.

This post appeared January 28, 2018.

I’ve been teaching a ton of algebra 2 the past three years.  I squawk periodically, and the admins give me variety for a semester or so, but then the classes come back. Back in 2016, I taught 5 classes, all of them full, over the two semester block courses, or about 160 kids. Last year, I had just one course of 30 kids. This year, I’ve already taught three and one coming up.  I also get a steady flow of trigonometry classes–not as many, but three or four every year.  I’ve requested more pre-calculus every year;  they’ll give me one every so often, like a bone to a cranky dog.

In my early years here, I taught far more pre-calculus. From spring 2013 to spring 2014, I taught five pre-calc courses. From fall 2015 to now, I’ve had three.

Why? Because Chuck got his way. Chuck came to our school determined to upgrade the math department. He wanted to make it possible to get a committed kid from algebra 1 freshman year to AP or regular calculus senior year. As I pointed out at the time, this goal is incompatible with helping more kids attain advanced math. You can increase standards or increase inclusion, but not both.

Chuck knows this, and so every semester, particularly the midterm when we finish a “year” and do the turnover to new courses, he starts noodging us for the lists. Kids are often scheduled in two consecutive math courses, so Chuck wants to make sure that the kids who get Ds or Fs in the first course are removed and rescheduled into a repeat. Every year he sends out an email to the algebra 2 teachers, nagging them to give him a list of kids who are failing so he can get them rescheduled. Every year, I ignore him, because I find this activity unseemly and cruel.

I take this task on far more personally and by age. Seniors are given a C if they work hard but can’t pass the tests. Juniors get a choice: retake the course if I think they have the ability to learn more, or take our stats course  (which is designed for very weak kids, lots of project courses). All sophomores get this conversation: you don’t quite grok this material, and you should take it again. Ideally, with me, but either way, take it again. I’ll give a passing grade so you’ll get the credits. But you’re going to  fail if you move forward, and retaking trig is a waste of time, while you will learn more if you retake algebra 2.

But this year, Chuck turned into a wily bastard and instead of asking me for the list, got it from the counselors. He then emailed a list to me and  Benny , the other two teachers covering non-honors Algebra 2:

Hi, can you tell me which of these students won’t pass, so I can email the counselors?  Here’s all the algebra 2 non-honors students who either have a D or F right now, or who got an NOF [Notification Of Failure] at the last notification:

Benny (teaching one class of 30):
list of 12 students

Chuck (teaching one class of 30):
13 students

Ed (teaching three classes of 35, or 105 students):
15 students

(I don’t know why Chuck put his own students on the list, maybe to remind me that he was living by his own rules)

So a student in Benny or Chuck’s class had a 1 in 3 chance of failing algebra 2 with a D or F. In mine, their odds were 1 in 7. I was teaching three times as many kids but kept back half as many as they did combined.

Benny, Chuck, Steve, and Wing, the upper math teachers, complain constantly about the seniors they get stuck with, kids forced into a math class by the administrators, even though they hate math and don’t need the credits. The students sit in class every day and refuse to work. Their parents either support this choice or shrug in defeat. The kids have an F by the first quarter. They get bored and disruptive.  The kids waste an entire semester (our year) in their classes, sitting there doing nothing.

I find this akin to malpractice, and say so–well, I don’t say “That’s malpractice.” But I point out how odd it is that I never have this problem, despite being assigned many seniors with similar objections. Most end up like Wesley, learning more math than he ever dreamed.

I was reminded of this recently when going through my desk, cleaning out stuff for the new semester, and coming across Estefania’s note. I give an assessment test on the first day,  and discovered Estefania ignoring the test, writing on a slip of paper. I took the paper away from her, told her to give that test her best effort. I  was going to toss the note but then noticed it was a form of some sort, and opened it:

Estefania came up after class. “I tried on the test, but I didn’t know a lot of it. Can I have my note back?”

I handed it to her. “I don’t think you should turn it in. I think you should take the class.”

“I’ll fail.”

“No. You won’t. I promise.”

“Math teachers always tell me that, like I’ll finally get math and be good at it. But I’m not any good and I’ve already failed twice.”

“You don’t understand. Come to class. Try. I will give you a passing grade. I don’t care if you fail every single test. I guarantee you will get a passing grade. And odds are really good you’ll also learn some math.” I held out my hand for the note. She hesitated, and then handed it back. And stayed. She did pretty well, too, well enough that she smiled whenever I reminded her about that note.

When I found the note in my drawer, I looked up some of her work on the finals.

Exponential functions:




I forgot to take a picture, but she did quite well on the log questions, understanding that log base 2 of 16 is 4.

Here she is on quadratics, her best subject (she got an A, flat out, on her parabola graphing quiz.):


She received a 60 on the first part of the final, putting her in the bottom third (most of my fails were between 42 and 60). I haven’t graded the second part,  although she clearly knew the quadratics. Girl learned some math, y’know?

Chuck and my four colleagues sometimes suspect that I dumb down my course. In fact, thanks to the epic teacher federalism agreement, my course is considerably harder and more cognitively complex than it was three years ago.

A month ago, Chuck trumpeted the results of his project. Six students entered at Algebra 1 or lower in their freshman year, and succeed in taking  AP Calculus their senior year. (One of them was Manuel.) Eight students entered at the same level took regular calculus. So fourteen students were not identified as honors students, took no honors classes, yet had made it to calculus by their senior year.

Of those fourteen students, I’d taught ten of them twice in their progression through algebra two, trigonometry, and pre-calcululus. Two others I taught once. Of the fourteen, only two had never been in my classroom.

The  road to Chuck’s dream runs directly through Ed.

Now you know why I get all those algebra 2 students. Because our administrators want to sign up for Chuck’s dream, but they don’t want a bloodbath. No one says so directly. They don’t have to. My schedule says it all.

In prior years, I was teaching more precalculus for a similar reason, as far too many students who’d made it that far were wasting their last year of high school math. But when Chuck unrolled his initiative, my principal realized that algebra 2 was going to be the new choke point. Well, not so much realized it as heard it straight from Chuck’s mouth, as in “More kids will fail algebra 2 because it’s going to be a much harder course if we’re going to  achieve this goal.” Rather than tell Chuck no–because it is indeed a worthy goal–our principal threads the needle between achievement and equity by adopting Chuck’s goals but assigning me the lion’s share of students in a critical gateway–or gatekeeping–course.

If I want to teach more pre-calculus, I need more colleagues with my methods and priorities teaching upper-level math. I spent three years mentoring Bart to share the teaching load, an objective I made clear to both Bart and the principal. Bart liked that idea. The principal did, too. But Bart wanted to teach physics, too, and we have a new science initiative, and now Bart teaches freshman physics. I am still pissed about that, but hell, we drink beer together so I can’t kill him.

In the meantime, our department chair is retiring. So I need to request input into the hiring decision for his replacement.

Yet I pause just for a moment to celebrate the Estefanias in my world, and remind everyone again that as teachers, we owe our first loyalty to the students, not the subjects.

As Joe said in All That Jazz when Victoria wanted to quit:

Victoria: I’m terrible. I know I’m terrible. I look at the mirror and I’m ashamed. Maybe I should quit. I just can’t seem to do anything right.

Joe Gideon: Listen. I can’t make you a great dancer. I don’t even know if I can make you a good dancer. But, if you keep trying and don’t quit, I know I can make you a better dancer. I’d like very much to do that. Stay?

Or take this question, which I first asked four years ago::

If you teach at-risk, low-skilled kids and don’t struggle with this question, you aren’t really teaching them.


My standard disclaimer: all my colleagues are good teachers who want the best for the kids. I disagree with their philosophy. They disagree with mine. No criticism intended, other than, you know, they still kill the bulls to worship Mithras while I’m Zoroastrian. (Also, all names are pseudonyms.)

The great Ben Orlin recently mused on this, giving birth to my take. Robert Pondiscio argues that education reform’s “underperformance” lies in their assumption that policy, not practice, is the key to drive “enduring improvement”. I don’t know that reformers will get anywhere until they realize that the facts on the ground say we’re teaching kids at capacity and that “enduring improvement” is likely a chimera. (

Previously, I’ve described my outrage at college policies that abandon remediation, conferring college-readiness on people who can’t manage middle school math. Anyone want to know how I [thread] that needle with what I’m writing here? It’s an interesting question. I’ll get to it later.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Managing, Not Solving, Teacher Dilemmas (Part 1)

Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I want to dig deeper into one facing all teachers be they teaching kindergarten or Advanced Placement courses. Whether they are new or experienced, whether they are white, African American, Latino, or a first generation college graduate in their family they inevitably face a core dilemma built into teaching when they have to perform both an academic and emotional role in teaching five-year olds or fifteen year-olds.

Let me unpack first what I mean by  dilemmas. I mean situations where a teacher, principal, superintendent, school board member has to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing one ends up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value. One learns to compromise in negotiating between two things they want very much.

Image result for teacher dilemmas

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us faces is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices again.

Within U.S. age-graded schools, whether they are high schools or elementary schools, whether schools are in neighborhoods where wealthy, middle class, or poor families send their children, two imperatives face all U.S. teachers: know your subject (the academic role) and know your students (the emotional role). Teachers value both roles. Yet these two roles, valued highly by teachers, place huge demands upon them. The academic role requires teachers to maintain a certain social distance from students while the emotional role requires teachers to get close to students. And here is the dilemma.

In the academic role, teachers teach first graders to read while upper-grade teachers teach Algebra 2 or Biology. They convey knowledge and cultivate cognitive skills of students. Then these teachers have to judge the degree to which students achieve mastery of each. Evaluating achievement requires evidence of performance and social distance in treating all students the same in applying criteria –even if a teacher admires a hard-working, serious student who keeps failing key tests. Emotion is not supposed to sway a teacher’s judgment of students’ academic performance.

But U.S. teachers are also expected to get close to students. Professors, mentors, and principals urge teachers to know their students as individuals, their background, interests, shortcomings and strengths. Why? Because that personal knowledge will help the teacher draw students into learning what the teacher teaches, in hanging in when subject matter just seems to be too hard to grasp. In displaying sincere interest in students, bonds of affection grow.  The relationship, the emotional ties between a teacher and her students, then, becomes the foundation for learning.

Balancing these competing roles and the values they represent, however, is hard to do. Many teachers only embrace the academic role: “My job is to teach science; my job is not to befriend my students.” Other teachers clasp the emotional role to their heart wanting so much to be closer to their students that they whisper to themselves: “Like me and you will like what I teach.” Finding the right mix is very difficult.

There are, of course, teachers who figure out how to balance these competing roles artfully by developing a classroom persona that is a distinct mix of both values. Their voices, gestures, clothes, verbal tics–all are part of the daily performance. They blend the academic and emotional roles into a mix that appeals to and prods students at the same time–they are both sandpaper and a pillow. Students, who can easily smell a fake, come to appreciate such teachers’ head and heart.

The next post examines a math teacher wrestling with this dilemma of roles as it affects the future of students and the role the teacher plays in the department. Such dilemmas seldom gain the attention they deserve inside or outside school.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

The Dilemma of Preschools in the U.S.

I have yet to meet anyone publicly opposed to increasing the number of  three and four year olds going to preschool. Most parents, policymakers, and researchers broadcast the pluses of this early childhood experience and some call for universal prekindergarten as now exist in New York City, Oklahoma and other states and districts (for an exception, see Bruce Fuller’s Standardized Childhood).*

Sure, the reasons given range from the adult dividends that these four-year olds will accrue in high school and adulthood, reducing economic inequality, and giving working mothers and low-income families child care and job opportunities. While there are naysayers when it comes to these future outcomes, expanding high quality child care and education to young children is seldom questioned (see here and here).

Given there is near unanimity on the importance of pre-kindergarten, many states have mandated preschooling and many districts have incorporated these children into the system (and paid far higher salaries to credentialed teachers). Still only 40 percent of eligible pre-kindergartners have access to publically funded preschool. The rest are in private, for-profit settings and home care. Compare that to other nations.

The OECD made up of 35 economically developed nations in Europe, North America, and Asia ranked access to government financed preschools in 2015. For three- and four year-olds, the U.S. came in toward the bottom of the distribution.



When U.S. students score in the middle or bottom of rankings of results on international tests, mainstream media pays close attention to where the nation ranks. Not so for such rankings as these.

Rhetorical support for preschools in U.S. is way ahead of actions in enrolling prekindergartners across the 50 states as it is on the credentials and salaries of teachers who daily educate their young charges both in public and private preschools.

Consider the core dilemma that few members of education policy elites want to talk about much less tackle: with near unanimity on the importance of preschool to individual children, their parents, and society, those who teach preschoolers outside of public schools (predominately female) are paid just above the poverty level.

The facts are worrisome:

* Average annual preschool teacher salary in 2016 was just below $29,000. Poverty level established by U.S. government for a family of four in 2017 is nearly $25,000.

*Preschool teachers in school districts who have teaching credentials earn as much as elementary teachers, $55,000 (2016)

So what the U.S. faces is near unanimity on the economic and social importance of preschool experiences with noticeable shortcomings on, first, providing equitable access to all three and four year-olds as a nation and among the states, and, second, paying a workforce that is (97 percent female of whom most are low-income women of color with a high school diploma ) just above the poverty level.

Obviously increased spending for expanded preschool and teacher salaries has been and is a major stumbling block. Yet historical trends in expanding access to tax-supported schooling in the U.S. and rising teacher salaries offer a splinter of hope to those who take the long-term view.

First, adding new populations to public schooling has occurred time and again. Recall that kindergartens were late-19th century middle-class women’s private efforts to educate five and six year olds before they entered elementary school. Those model kindergartens were slowly integrated into public schools beginning in the 1880s and by the 1950s had become K-12 age-graded schools (see here).

A similar pattern is occurring with preschools albeit in a more accelerated fashion. Publicly-funded prekindergarten classes have been authorized by many states and exist in scattered big cities across the nation (see here and here). How soon, I cannot say, but I do see pre-K becoming integrated into nearly all public schools across the U.S.

As for the huge disparity in salaries for non-credentialed preschool teachers and those preschool teachers who work in public school systems with licenses to teach, that, too, I believe will move, again slowly, to narrow the salary differential that now exists. Preschool teachers getting associate and bachelor degrees in early childhood education through a growing array of online and on-site universities will increase, again slowly since the cost of taking courses and earning credentials remain prohibitive to single and working mothers who are a major proportion of those who staff preschools.

So the long-term view I offer here is optimistic as to the dilemma I see facing preschools in the U.S. But the long-term means years, even a few decades which is of little comfort to those who earn near-poverty level salaries and have to choose between providing essentials for their families and finding money to finance their quest for a teaching credential.

The gap between rhetoric and action when it comes to preschooling in the U.S. remains large.


*Rob Kunzman corrected me on my first sentence. He sent me a paper produced by the Home School Legal Defense Association that opposes federally funded preschool on the grounds that the research is far from definitive, the high cost of the program, and further erosion of parental rights (see here and here). Thanks, Rob.







Filed under dilemmas of teaching, school reform policies

Teaching To The Middle: Teaching as Mediocrity?

This time of year, when classes are over, but I haven’t yet graded, I start thinking about what I could have done differently. Inevitably, I think about the students I didn’t quite seem to reach, the ones I could have helped more. Inevitably, those are students at either end of the spectrum, the top and the bottom. Without intending to, I often teach to the middle.

Sure, the students could have done more themselves. They could have come to class more or pushed themselves more, but often, they don’t even know what to do. And that’s where I think I could step in more and offer more guidance….

The top students, I think, are less harmed by my inability to teach to them. They will push themselves anyway, if not in my class, in another class along the way. It’s the students at the bottom that I feel like I’ve let down. And some of them, frankly, are not motivated and would likely balk at my strategies for helping them, or they would do the tasks in a half-hearted way. I could insist and insist, but ultimately, it’s up to them to do the work. And, of course, that’s how I justify not putting forth the extra effort, thinking to myself, well, they wouldn’t do it anyway.

A middle school math teacher wrote this in 2005. It applies, I believe, to most public school teachers who face 25-30 students (or more) in an elementary school classroom and use ability grouping for about six hours or 150-plus students daily in 50-minute segments who are tracked into math, science, or history classes for a secondary school teacher.

It surely applied to me in the 14 years that I taught high school history and social studies between the mid-1950s and early-1970s and then in the mid-1990s. That I was doing so in schools where students were tracked by subject area was unclear to me in the early years of making lesson plans for my classes. But it became clear to me by the third or fourth year that I was doing exactly that. I had mentally divided up each class into top-of-the-ladder, middle rungs, and bottom of the ladder students. Sure, I varied my questions, activities, and assignments to get across-the-board student participation but my choice of content and skills aimed at the high-middle of my imagined distribution in performance across classes.

And this was true for me, as I suspect for others, who teach (or taught) classes tracked for similar abilities and performance. In Washington, D.C. in the 1960s where I served for a decade, the “track system” used group intelligence test scores to sort students into the “Honor,” “College Preparatory,” “General,” and “Basic” tracks.  For example, I would  teach College Preparatory and Basic Track classes and even in these classes, students ranged in performance and, yes, I would teach to the middle.

Like the above blogging teacher, she and I did a lot of things to mitigate the thrust of our lessons to the middle. We used small groups, set aside time to work individually with low- and high-performing students, offered extra credit for additional reading and projects, etc. ,etc. All well and good but within the confines of our limited time with the students and having a life outside of school and few additional resources, there was not much more that could be done.

What the blogging teacher and I faced was a dilemma anchored in the DNA of public schools. We prize the historic and pervasive American values of treating all students equitably, encouraging individual excellence, and building classroom communities. But all three values can not be achieved within age-graded schools where teachers teach mixed and same-ability groups of children and youth for four to six hours daily, are required to give letter grades to students, and have limited resources.

Recognizing this dilemma, then, I ask: Is teaching to the middle of class another way of saying teaching for mediocrity? No, it is not.

Mediocrity, as used in describing U.S. schooling means inferior quality of a product and performance. It is a slur slung at those who are “average” or in the middle of a distribution–the C student or the girl who finishes 15th out of 40 in the 100 meter dash. Both tried hard but came up short in earning that C or finishing in the middle of the pack in the race. And it is unfair.

Why unfair? Two reasons.

First, few policymakers, administrators, and practitioners acknowledge, much less recognize, the inherent dilemma of crafting compromises–you sacrifice to satisfy–to achieve some version of these prized values embedded in the American ethos. A prime example is the value of excellence–creating a meritocratic ranking of excellence (e.g., A-F letter grades, honor roll societies, class valedictorians)–yet parents, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners believe in their heart-of-hearts that only a few grab the high letter grades and achieve excellence as defined by the school while most others fall in the middle.

Such teacher decisions (including mine for many years) are an open secret that often goes unmentioned by current practitioners. As a result, ignoring the dilemma faced by all teachers, decision-makers see the situation as simply teachers not delivering high-quality lessons, not fulfilling what they should be doing. Teachers then are mediocre.

The second reason are social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve. Teachers see the distribution of students in classrooms as “natural” and a fact of life anchored in the socially-constructed bell-shaped curve. Most policymakers and practitioners accept the distribution of intelligence and performance as true and use it as basis for ability grouping within a class and tracking in a school. Surely, varied talents (e.g., artistic, athletic, cognitive) are distributed unequally across individuals. In a competitive society where individual performance and equal opportunity are prized everyone can not get As or win races.  The middle is shunned because “average” and “middling” have become synonyms for mediocrity in American society.

The larger issue of fairness is whether the purpose of the school is to continue reproducing the societal inequalities embedded in the grading system and through ability and tracking policies or embrace a belief that the primary purpose of the school is to reduce–not reproduce– racial, ethnic, and class inequalities through restructuring the age-graded school and its schedule, grouping policies, letter grades, and other initiatives aimed at breaking the iron cage constructed by social beliefs in the bell-shaped curve and the existing age-graded school.

But a teacher now faced with the practical issue of a class of students with varied talents, motivations, interests, and performance–whether it is a class sunk in the bottom quintile or Advanced Placement students–wants to be fair and equitable to each student. She wants excellence and a classroom community. She wants all students to achieve. But she cannot because of insufficient personal and organizational resources and the existing structural trap within which administrators require the teacher to grade students and assign groups of varied individual students to her classroom who must follow a rigid daily schedule, do homework, take tests, and receive report cards. The steel-lined beliefs held by so many educators about the “natural” distribution of talent and achievement plus the inherent dilemma facing all public school teachers working within the structures of age-graded schools, in effect, may help to explain why so many teachers teach to the middle.






Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

A Memoir’s Humble Tale of Teaching (James Forman Jr. and Arthur Evenchik)

I have not published a book review on my blog in the eight years I have written posts. Usually I read the book and mention it in a post.

This particular review of a novice teacher re-connecting with her students as a lawyer years after her brief stint in a Helena (ARK) alternative school is unusual in its candor about relationship with students, and its insights into the linkage between schooling and poverty. Inspiration, dedication, and humility–particularly the latter–seldom appear in such books written by former teachers.

I have not yet read Michelle Kuo’s Reading with Patrick but am moved to do so after reading this review. Perhaps (or perhaps not) others might reach a similar conclusion.

The two authors of the review are former teachers in a Washington, D.C. charter school. James Forman Jr., who teaches at Yale Law School, is the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.; Arthur Evenchik is the coordinator of the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University.

The review appeared October 20 on Atlantic Online


In books and films about failing schools attended by poor students of color, a suspiciously upbeat plotline has become all too familiar. A novice teacher (usually white) parachutes in, overcomes her students’ distrust and apathy, and sets them on the path to college and worldly success. Such narratives are every kind of awful. They make the heroic teacher the center of attention, relegating the students to secondary roles. They pretend that good intentions and determination have the magical power to transform young people’s lives, even in the most adverse circumstances. And they treat schools as isolated sites of injustice, never connecting educational disadvantage to other forms of inequality.

Michelle Kuo is a writer who resists the mythmaking impulse, with its clichés and wishful thinking. In her penetrating, haunting memoir, Reading With Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship, she confronts all of the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?

Her credibility stems, in part, from her willingness to make her misjudgments and failings an integral part of the story she tells. At age 22, after graduating from Harvard, Kuo frustrates her immigrant parents’ ambitions for her by joining Teach For America. She takes a job at an alternative school in Helena, Arkansas, a blighted Mississippi Delta town populated by the descendants of black families who stayed behind during the Great Migration. By her own admission, her first year in the classroom is a disaster. She arrives hoping to teach African American literature to her eighth-grade students, but she blinds herself to the fact that most of them read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level, and so they are bored and frustrated by her lessons. She wants the students to know “their history,” by which she means the history of racist violence in the Delta. But she knows nothing of the trauma they have inherited; when she passes around a picture of a lynching, a boy named David brings her lesson to a halt by putting his head on his desk and muttering, “Nobody want to see that.” Instead of defying her school’s authoritarian culture, Kuo initially succumbs to it. Once, she recalls, “I tore up a student’s drawing, which I’d thought was a doodle, in order to jolt him into paying attention; he never forgave me, and I will regret it forever.”

Eventually, Kuo does begin to reach some of her students, but she gives them most of the credit for their progress as readers and writers. When they perform A Raisin in the Sun in class, she looks on, amazed, as they compete for the part of the matriarch Lena Younger—a character they admire because “she don’t play.” When she creates a classroom library and schedules silent-reading periods, she sees their adolescent restlessness give way to concentration. Before they relinquish the books they like, the students inscribe endorsements on the inside front covers. Until now, Kuo points out, they had never been handed a play or allowed time to read books of their choice. Just look, she seems to say, at what they make of these opportunities.

Her descriptions of individual students are unusually perceptive and moving. A boy named Tamir, asked to write a poem about himself, looks afraid “and peers at a classmate’s paper, as though this was the kind of assignment one could copy.” A girl named Kayla, who had been removed from the district’s regular high school for fighting, writes herself a letter that says, “I hope that when trouble come your way, you would just hold your head high and walk away with a smile on your face.” Patrick Browning, a student with a history of absenteeism, seems lost as he starts eighth grade, “as if he’d gotten on the school bus by accident.” He sits at the back of Kuo’s class, quiet and easily overlooked. But over the course of his eighth-grade year, he develops eclectic tastes in reading—everything from Langston Hughes and Dylan Thomas to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—and wins the schoolwide award for “Most Improved” student. When rainwater leaks through the classroom ceiling and destroys much of the book collection, it is Patrick who says to the other students, “Stop crying, y’all,” and fetches a bucket and mop.

After two years in the Delta, Kuo decides to leave her job and go to law school. (“With a law degree, you can multiply your impact,” a friend assures her. And her parents are thrilled.) But what might seem the natural ending to her story proves not to be an ending at all. Kuo returns to Helena three years later when she learns that Patrick has been arrested and charged with murder. She begins to visit the county jail where he is awaiting trial, bearing books and writing assignments. Her account of the seven months she spends as his tutor and fellow reader occupies the heart of the book, and it unfolds with all the starkness and immediacy of a two-character play. Scene by scene, it asks what brought them to this place and what can come of their time together.

The night Patrick was arrested, he had gone out looking for his younger sister, but he couldn’t find her. Then she arrived on the family porch with Marcus, a man she was dating. Marcus was drunk and belligerent, and when Patrick ordered him to leave, he started talking loudly and acting aggressively. Believing that Marcus was armed, Patrick picked up a knife he had left on the porch earlier in the day. He just wanted to scare Marcus, he says, but then they fought. He can’t remember the fight itself—just the sight of Marcus limping away and then falling to the sidewalk.

Patrick doesn’t realize that he has a plausible self-defense claim. A white man fending off an intruder on his property could invoke principles such as “stand your ground” or the “castle doctrine.” But Patrick is a black man in the Delta, and the prosecutor goes for a massive overcharge: first-degree murder. There is no question of bail: for sixteen months, Patrick awaits his trial in a jail so unsanitary and poorly managed that the state of Arkansas later shuts it down. And though his public defender eventually gets the charge against him reduced, they never meet until Patrick has his day in court.

The first time Kuo comes to the jail, Patrick blurts out, “Ms. Kuo, I didn’t mean to,” in what she calls “a tone of supplication.” But she soon realizes that he feels an intolerable sense of guilt. Patrick imagines that all the mistakes he has ever made led inexorably to the act he is now locked up for. He is haunted by a litany of wrongs he has no way to redress. “The problem,” Kuo writes, “was not that he wouldn’t confess but that he had confessed too much; it wasn’t far-fetched to think he might spend the rest of his life confessing.”

And yet maybe he needed his guilt; otherwise the death would have happened for no reason, a result of senseless collision—of mental states, physical impulses, and coincidences. He needed, for his own sense of meaning, to knit his failures into a story. “Cause and effect,” as he put it. The thread was that he messed up by ignoring God.

But I didn’t believe the story he told himself. I wanted to break it. For me to do that, we needed to forge a connection. But what did I have that I could share with him?

All I could think of was books. There were other things he liked—he’d tended lovingly to his go-cart and said once that he wanted to be a mechanic. I didn’t believe that reading was inherently superior to learning how to fix a car, or that reading makes a person better. But I did love books, and I hadn’t yet shared with him anything I myself loved. Had I known how to sing, I would have had us sing.

The bond they establish during their jailhouse sessions eases his torment, as Kuo hoped it would. Yet Patrick never ceases to hold himself responsible for Marcus’ death. After he takes a plea deal and is convicted of manslaughter, Kuo asks him, “Do you feel guilty?” and he replies, “I know I guilty.” It’s not the answer she wanted. But she comes to see that if she had undermined his sense of himself as the agent of his own actions, she would only have deepened his despair. No teacher can “break” a student’s story, his understanding of his life, and replace it with her own.

In other ways, too, the course of the relationship between Kuo and Patrick diverges from her original intention. When she discovers that his literacy skills have deteriorated, she promptly resumes her English-teacher role—marking every last error in his writing, assigning “extra homework to eliminate future mistakes.” This makes her sound overzealous, and sometimes she is. Yet Patrick, who at first dismisses the idea of homework (“Nah, it’s over with,” he tells her), makes greater progress than she had anticipated. “For me and perhaps for him,” she writes, “the task of making a sentence perfect had the effect of containment: It kept unbearable emotions at bay.”

Once they begin reading, Kuo is continually surprised by Patrick’s responses. When she gives him C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, for instance, she thinks of it as a diversion: “a magical book, where the heroes were children, and children on the side of good.” But Patrick doesn’t see it that way. He is drawn to the character Edmund, who acts wrongfully but makes amends, and who grows stronger and wiser in the process. The story matters to Patrick because it allows him to envision the possibility that a person can change.

Similarly, Kuo is not prepared for the intensity of Patrick’s reaction to Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. He reads it in a concrete stairwell at night, away from the other inmates, and persists even when he finds himself painfully identifying with the slaves Douglass describes. She half-expects him to deride the exuberance of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, but instead he writes lines imitating it, picturing landscapes and cities he has never seen. At such moments, Kuo recalls, “he appeared to me anew, as a person I was just beginning to know.”

For one of his final assignments, Patrick composes a letter inspired by a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead. Addressed to his baby daughter, it describes a journey they might one day take together. The writing is so evocative that it humbles Kuo to read it. “I was searching for myself,” she admits, “for deposits of our conversations, memories he’d shared or words I taught him. But I was barely there. Each word felt like a tiny impulsive root, proof of a mysterious force that exceeded me.”

* * *

Back when she was a classroom teacher, Kuo engaged in a sort of triage. “There are just certain kids for whom you bring all your hope,” she writes, and Patrick was one of them. It makes sense, then, that news of his plight would have drawn her back to the Delta. But Kuo doesn’t allow us to forget that his tragedy is not the only one. She hears, soon after her return, that her former student Tamir is living on the streets in Little Rock, a crack addict begging for money. On a school-district report listing the students who dropped out of school in Helena the year after she left, she recognizes a long series of names along with Patrick’s. And when he finally appears in court, she sees many of those names again on the crowded docket of criminal cases:

I tried to count the number of black males of my sixty-something students over two years who had at some point gone to jail, and I ran out of fingers. The docket was the coda to the STUDENT DROPOUT REPORT—the county jail was where the dropouts landed. There were no jobs in Helena. They had no skills. Most had a disability or an emotional or mental disorder. Where else had I thought they would go?


Nothing Kuo has done for Patrick frees him from this dynamic. After the plea bargain, he is sent to an overcrowded prison. Two and a half years later, when he is paroled for good behavior, he returns to Helena with all the liabilities that come with having a violent felony on his record.

By then, Kuo is working as a public-interest lawyer in California. “I begin to think,” she confesses, “that those seven months didn’t really happen, that I had imagined the mystical silences we shared while Patrick wrote. I must have dreamed the poems we memorized, because I cannot remember the lines anymore. On the way to work, holding the metal bar of a subway, I wonder what it was all for and consider the idea that once you stop thinking about something, it disappears.”

But this is not her final word on the subject. If Kuo distrusts the romanticism of the teacher-as-savior narrative, she also resists the kind of fatalism that would have prevented her from becoming a teacher in the first place. She does wonder sometimes what would have happened had she never left Helena. Could she have kept Patrick from dropping out of school or confronting Marcus? Not likely, she says. Besides, she is wary of talking about Patrick “as if I think I could have saved him, as if I think I’m so important in his life. It’s not like that.” But then, exhibiting the kind of impassioned writing and hard-earned wisdom that set her book apart, she adds:

Or maybe it is, in the sense that the alternative, the rational thought, would be to say to myself, You can’t do that much, you’re not that important, there are so many forces in a person’s life, good and bad, who do you think you are? That’s what I said to make myself feel better after I left the Delta, and sometimes I still say it. But then what is a human for? A person must matter to another, it must mean something for two people to have passed time together, to have put work into each other and into becoming more fully themselves.

Maybe there are prospective readers who noticed Kuo’s memoir on a bookstore shelf, leafed through its pages, and put it back, saying to themselves, “I know this story already.” But in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like Reading With Patrick.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

Classroom Teachers are Policymakers

Note that no question mark follows the title. Teachers make policy.

Historically, the object of policies descending from the U.S. Congress, state capitals, and district school boards to the classroom, teachers are the ones who put policies into practice. As object of policy, however, school observers either forget or choose not to acknowledge that teachers also craft policy for their students in taking those policies that appear at their threshold and adapt them to their students. The title, then, is a fact.

Those classroom rules often listed on bulletin boards and walls are policies that the teacher makes for her students.

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Beyond the classroom walls,  however, those very same teachers take what federal, state, and local policies officials send to their classroom (e.g., teachers have to use high-tech devices to teach, they are required to “personalize” their teaching) and bend, squeeze, and adapt those policies to the contours of their classrooms. In doing so, they not only guard the gates of their classrooms but become policymakers in what they accept, amend, and reject. From demanding that teachers use cooperative group work to differentiating instruction to integrating digital devices into their daily lessons, teachers, constrained as they are by the “grammar of schooling,” nonetheless determine what and how they will teach.

Metaphors for policy implementation in schools and districts

Watching a policy travel from the White House, a state capitol, or a big city school board to a kindergarten or Algebra teacher has been compared to metal links in a chain, the children’s game of Telephone, pushing spaghetti, and street-level bureaucrats.

Classroom teachers at the end of the iron-forged links in a chain convey military images of privates saluting captains and duties getting snappily discharged. The telephone game suggests miscommunications that ends up in hilarious misinterpretations of what was intended by the original policy. Pushing strands of wet spaghetti suggests futility in getting a policy ever to be put into practice as intended in classrooms. Street-level bureaucrats suggests that teachers working in rule-driven organizations have discretion and choices in making decisions. I need to elaborate this last comparison because I think it best captures the fact that teachers are, indeed, policymakers.

Street-level bureaucrats are police officers who decide whether or not to give a traffic citation, social workers who determine what kind of help a client needs and where to find that help, emergency room nurses who decide which sick and injured need immediate attention and which ones can wait. Include also teachers who determine whether to stick with the lesson plan or diverge when an unexpected event occurs.

All of these professionals work within large, rule-driven organizations but interact with the public daily as they make on-the-spot decisions. Each of these professionals are obligated to follow organizational rules yet have discretion to make decisions.  They reconcile this dilemma of choosing daily between obligation to the organization and professional autonomy by  interpreting, amending, or ignoring decisions handed down by superiors.

In short, teachers are policy gatekeepers determining what enters the classroom and what gets into the daily lesson.

How about an example that illustrates these metaphors?

Consider kindergarten teachers. Most primary teachers have been trained to see young children holistically as growing human beings needing work, play, and nurturing as necessary ingredients to develop into educated and healthy youth. Teaching the whole child has been a guiding principle central to early childhood programs for nearly a century. Since the early-1980s, however, the standards-based curriculum, increased testing, and accountability policies have flowed downward pressing early childhood educators to make kindergartens into boot camps for 1st grade and preschool programs into learning the alphabet and counting numbers.

In the policy-to-practice metaphor of the linked chain, one would expect that most kindergarten teachers, feeling strong obligations to school superiors, would have altered their child-centered pedagogy and embraced the new policy by relying on direct instruction while abandoning learning centers, comfy reading corners, and free choice time.

For the metaphor of the telephone game, one would expect most kindergarten teachers to have received instructions on implementing standards-based and testing policies from top officials, district supervisors, and school principals. Those instructions and guidance on their journey to kindergarten teachers would have gotten increasingly distorted. These distortions would result in huge variation among kindergarten teachers in implementing these policies ranging from major shifts in pedagogy to minimal alterations in daily lessons to outright mistakes.

The metaphor of pushing wet spaghetti raises different expectations. Because of the futility of the task, adopted policies meander in and out of schools occasionally entering classrooms. Here, kindergarten teachers are fully autonomous and once they close their doors, they do as they please.

None of these metaphors from complete military-like attention to rules to complete freedom to implement a policy capture most kindergarten teachers’ practice at a time when they must cope with dilemma-filled tensions arising from reconciling their obligations to implement state standards-based policies and their beliefs in child-centered practices. And here is where Lisa Goldstein’s study of street-level policy enters the discussion.

Goldstein’s research on four kindergarten teachers in two high performing urban schools within a Texas district details their different actions in coping with state curriculum standards stressing academic preparation for first grade, annual tests that specifies what kindergarteners were to have learned, and their professional and personal beliefs about what five year-olds should be doing and learning.

What did she find out after observing and interviewing the teachers for two years?

“From Ann’s refusal to use the language artsworkbooks to Liz’s holiday celebrations
unit and from Jenny’s either/or literacy block to Frieda’s commitment to her
students’ self-esteem, all of these teachers’ curricular and instructional decisions
were actively shaped by personal understandings of the state standards and DAP
((Developmentally Appropriate Practices derived from the National Association of Early Childhood Education), informed by strategic knowledge and careful thought, and considered in relation to the needs of the particular children in the class and other contextual
factors. Every policy decision was unique and deliberate and reflected attention
to obligations, desire for autonomy, and the use of professional discretion.”

These kindergarten teachers blended developmental practices they had done for years while attending to what their district and state standards required five year-olds to learn by the end of the year. They translated their beliefs in the whole child and many experiences with primary children into hybrid practices that mixed “developmentally appropriate” activities with direct instruction. In short, these four teachers in two schools made policy by creating mixes–they were street-level bureaucrats that hugged the middle.

Goldstein’s study is only one qualitative study of four teachers. There are others that make a similar case that teachers exert autonomy in deciding what and how they teach and thereby make policy (see here, here, here, and here).





Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach