An Ethical Dilemma

This past week I attended an institute run by the Center for Social and Emotional Education. The best part of the three days was a workshop on using socio-moral dilemma discussions to improve engagement and the school climate.

I define ethics as the subjective application of morality in situations where there is no clear course of action, as when two courses that seem right are in conflict with each other. It is different from morality in that morals tend to be more absolute.

Ethics come into play when there are conflicts between:

Truth vs. Loyalty

Short Term vs. Long Term

Individual vs. Community

Justice vs. Mercy

All four factors came into play during a discussion among my colleagues a couple of months ago. The principal invited the teachers to join him for lunch and discussion. The question he posed was, “When you give a grade, what does that grade mean?”

To most people the grades that students get seem pretty straightforward. A, B, C, D, F; what can be simpler than that?

But what exactly do those grades tell another teacher or, perhaps more important, a parent?

There were about two-dozen teachers in the room. One was a rookie and another had over two decades of experience; the rest of us fell along a normal bell curve between those extremes. There were English teachers, math teachers, a science teacher or two, some 6th grade common branch teachers and a couple of social studies teachers. Five of us teach special education students and the rest don’t.

Discussion was spirited as we attempted to define what a grade of B means. Each of the ethical paradigms came into play.

Truth vs. Loyalty General education teachers argue that grades for all students should follow the same scale because, after all, a B is a B and its meaning should be clear. Special education teachers use different criteria because those students have different annual performance goals.


Short term vs. Long term
Each B being equal serves the short term goals of standardizing criteria for sorting students academically. Students who never earn high grades despite considerable effort often suffer feelings of inadequacy and failure which over the long term reduce effort and chances for success in non-academic areas.

Self vs. Community Which should take precedence: the need for standardized criteria facilitating clear communication between teacher and parent regarding academic accomplishment; or the need to acknowledge and communicate the work of individual students who make herculean efforts to pull a standardized criteria grade up from a D- to a C- ?

Justice vs. Mercy Some teachers believe that grades should be based on academic achievement only but others think that grades should be based on efforts made no matter the academic result. Trying to solve this dilemma some proposed grading on a combination of effort and achievement, how much weight teachers should give each factor was not settled.

We didn’t come up with generally satisfactory solutions for any of those paradigms. It became clear that despite efforts to teach to standards and standardize assessment, each teachers had his or her own definition of what each letter grade means and what a students need to do to earn them.

So here’s an ethical conundrum for you to work on in your spare moments at work, at home or lounging near water with beverage in hand:

Is it ethical to give parents report cards with grades that don’t mean anything in particular?

Let me know what you come up with because I know this is going to be the topic of the principal’s first luncheon in September.

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10 Responses to An Ethical Dilemma

  1. Michael J says:

    Lani Guinier and Susan Strum had an op ed in yesterday’s NYT that was just to this point. The focus was the Supreme Court decision about the Fire Fighters in New Haven. The larger point is understanding the limitations of a “score” to make fine distinctions.

    http://tinyurl.com/ng5gsp

    It’s also worth looking at their book “Who’s Qualified?”

  2. I have two suggestions: curriculum mapping and number grade system. Providing teachers with a curriculum map of concepts to be mastered in the course should be a good guide as to what is taught and learned. HOW they teach these concepts is purely an individual initiative. But teachers will know if the student is proficient in each the criterion.

    And I have always been opposed a letter grade system simply because one student can have an 89.5 average and another a 95.4 average, but both students receive an “A” on their report card. In addition, universities will always choose the student with the same GPA as another student if that student has a number grade average vs. a letter grade average.

    • Deven Black says:

      Curriculum maps are widely used in schools but they are rarely shared with students.

      I support the notion that there is knowledge essential for the continuation of our society and that without having that knowledge a person would find him or herself removed from the bulk of that society. I so not support the notion that there is a particular order in which that knowledge must be learned. Tell the students what they need to be able to do or what they need to know and let them set their own pace and priorities. Be there to help, to guide and to shepherd along, but release control.

      Number grade systems are the same as letter systems, only cut into finer portions. An 85 still doesn’t tell one much. Read my complaints about the letter system and just apply them to the number grade system. Narrative is the way to go. Tell the story of the student’s marking period or year. Doing so might actually be less work than maintaining the records required to slice the difference between grade of 83 and one of 85.

      • Devin, you have made some very interesting points when it comes to the grading system. When I mentioned curriculum maps, it wasn’t to say those concepts be in learned in that particular order, but simply that is what should be completed by the end of the of the course.

        As for me, the past few years I went to a stricly portfolio grading system that incorporated traditional teaching strategies (to keep administrators happy)as well as new and innovative asessments. The students have grasped the concepts much more readily and seem to enjoy applying themselves because they have the freedom to choose how to cover assignments or concepts.

  3. “Is it ethical to give parents report cards with grades that don’t mean anything in particular?”

    No, of course it isn’t ethical to give report card grade that don’t mean anything particular.

    Report card grades could mean something in particular if the grades were a function of standards based education and a competence-based classroom.

    At the beginning of the semester or year, parents and students would be given a course outline that explains what is essential for students to master in a given course. Students grades would reflect just how much of the essentials the students mastered.

    That would be ethical.

    • Deven Black says:

      I respectfully disagree with you, Elona. The problem with standard-based grading is the assumption that all students can reach the standard, that they will progress toward the standard at approximately the same rate and will reach some reasonable percentage of the standard at the same time. It is precisely the same thing as saying all 12-month-old children should be walking, all 18-month-old children speaking five word sentences, and all children should be potty trained by their second birthday, something that any parent would call patently absurd.

      I presume that under your system the 18-month-old who only used four word sentences would get a B, three word sentences a C and two word phrases a D. Children who just said “water” when they want something to drink would get Fs, as would deaf students who are unlikely to use any words at all. Do you honestly think that this is fair?

      Do you disagree that the C- student works extra hard and earns a B- by your standards actually displays more of the academic and socially necessary skills than the student in the same class who could easily earn an A but decides to coast and settles for a B? And if all you require is that a student meets some pre-determined standard, what do you do with the student who goes beyond — or could go beyond — the standard.

      How would your system treat a high school student like me who challenges the legitimacy of the standards, decides other information is more important to learn, learns it, demonstrates the learning and explains how it is applicable to that student’s life? Would that student fail because he did not meet the standard for that class?

      Standards and the grades associated with them are relics of industrial models for education. Those industrial models don’t even work well for industry anymore but we continue to apply them to schools and children. Rather than being ethical, standards-based education is unfair and damaging to society because it punishes individuals who do not fit the mold the standards attempt to impose.

      If everyone is taught to the same standard, learns to the same standard and develops the same set of skills, where will the creativity, the innovation, the poetry and the music our society needs to thrive come from?

      • Devin,
        OK. Tell me what your system would look like and work. How would it be managed? Life really isn’t an independent study unit even though I might wish it were. I hate math so why do I have to take it?I hate English so why do I have to takes it? etc. etc. etc. I’m 14 years old am I mature enough to now what I need? Does anyone know what we need? I’m having trouble seeing this system.

  4. Deven Black says:

    I did not say that all students should be able to determine the content of their education, only those who surpass the standards.

    You do ask one essential question, though. “Does anyone know what we need?” Excellent. Here’s another. Do people educated in the late mid part of the 20th century have any conception of what students who will start to work in the 2020s will need to know?

    To be honest, I don’t know what my education system would look like. I understand that society asks schools serve necessary purposes other than education, like child-care and keeping kids off the labor market.

    I do know from experience as a student and as a teacher that, as you state in response to one of my other posts, that for many students school is the only reliable structure in their life.

    I also know that most of the discussion about education ‘reform’ is aimed at tweaking the system as it is instead of reinventing education, and that it may not be possible to reinvent education on the large scale we would need to do it.

    But I also know that all of the above is no reason to stop asking questions, stop issuing challenges, or stop wondering if we can do what we do better by changing our assumptions.

    I get paid to teach, but I cannot do it without questioning why I do what I do the way I do it. I’m sorry that I do not have all the answers to the questions that I ask and I accept that there may be many answers, some of them distasteful to me. That’s no reason not to ask.

  5. Deven,

    I wonder what your thoughts on rubrics are. I use them for EVERYTHING! I find that I can adjust a rubric to meet a student’s needs. For instance, my students with IEPs receive different rubrics for the same project as their peers to meet them where they are and be fair and realistic about how much of the project they can complete, while still challenging them with a project that mirrors their grade peers.

    In PA we have grading rubrics for our open-ended responses and constructed responses–why can’t we use these more in the classroom? I think rubrics also keep teachers from falling into the Truth vs. Loyalty dilemma since they allow for definitive guidelines for grading while allowing for special education students to succeed according to their IEP goals.

    In regard to Justice vs. Mercy, a rubric given at the beginning of the project/assignment and reviewed throughout the completion process allows for the teacher to include effort into the grading process, and it also gives students every chance to succeed by telling them exactly how and what they will be graded on.

    What a great discussion you started! I can see that you are passionate about this topic. Thanks!

    Mary Beth
    (aka mbteach)

    • Deven Black says:

      Rubrics, especially the way you say you use them, are certainly a step in the right direction because what is being judged is made explicit in advance. This binds the teacher to a contract and gives the student information about what is required for success. I especially like that you make different rubrics for individual students. Whenever we can treat students as individuals instead of members of some arbitrary group it is a good thing. My main reservation about rubrics is that they tend to focus on the technical aspects of writing or a project instead of the learning involved.

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