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In 2007 I turned down a high-paying job in engineering to become a public school science teacher. I believed that making a difference in the lives of kids and maintaining the tradition of Western civilization would give my life meaning and value that money couldn’t measure. But I soon discovered that my ideals were often at odds with the school administration’s priorities. I wanted to teach; my administrators wanted to get the maximum number of students a diploma with the least amount of friction. 

The conflict between the bureaucratic, managerial priorities of school administrators and the moral ideals of teachers has characterized my seventeen-year teaching career. It is also a major reason why teachers are fleeing public schools. The public school accountability system, by relying solely on quantitative metrics like graduation rates to gauge educational quality and to evaluate administrators, frustrates teachers’ ability to truly teach and care for their students and look out for their long-term well-being. 

The first shock to me was the “make-up work” policy. My school let students skip assignments and miss deadlines until the end of the semester, then let them do the work at the last minute to avoid a failing grade. When I objected, stressing the importance of personal responsibility, the assistant principal replied, “Is it your job to teach chemistry or to teach responsibility?” She didn’t care to hear my answer: “Both.”

Next came the “curving” practice, which dictated that I convert a raw score on a test by multiplying the square root of it by ten. Hence, a score of forty-nine, an F, would be “curved” to seventy, a C minus. When I refused to curve grades, the principal had my department chair make the changes covertly. When I found out, I objected once again, and the principal rebuked me for “denying these children the opportunities all of us had.”

These were both cases of what Michael Polanyi calls “moral inversion”: a presumed moral duty to do immoral actions. This tacit duty to the immoral means that teachers who exercise integrity by refusing to go along with these policies are perceived as the bad guys. Never would an administrator acknowledge the bureaucratic purpose of these policies, which was to keep the wheels turning and money flowing. A failing student is a wrench in the system. He lowers the graduation rate, and the school looks bad. The bureaucracy rationalizes that the students will be better off with a diploma. But if they aren’t learning, their futures are being compromised.  

My next moral conflict with administrators put me in a position to blow the whistle on a practice called “online credit recovery” (OCR). I was teaching the two-year Theory of Knowledge course in the International Baccalaureate program, a kind of honors school-within-a-school. Top students in the school could enroll, and so could students from nearby schools who wanted vigorous college prep. 

This created a different kind of bureaucratic incentive. The more quality students who enrolled from other schools, the better our school’s state ratings looked. “Come to us and we will get your kids college-ready,” was the call. But the greater enrollment meant that half of the kids didn’t belong there and couldn’t handle the workload. All of us felt the pressure to lower the bar to keep the kids around. We couldn’t evaluate them accordingly. If we graded them by IB yardsticks, students would drop away, and the school’s ratings would fall. I wouldn’t go along. I graded them as I always had, some of them did leave the program, and the administrators pulled me from Theory of Knowledge to teach science and an online credit recovery course (OCR). 

Students took OCR courses to earn credit for courses they’d failed. My job was to support them in maintaining at least a B average, so that if they failed their state exams at the end, which was common, they would still get the credit and graduate. The program appeared to be a winner at the time I started in 2016. The previous year the district’s graduation rate had jumped an astounding nine percentage points. School leaders basked in the praise, and politicians loved it. The reality was that the courses were rigged by the district and the private vendor that provided the online software (Edgenuity) to enable students to pass by guessing. The kids took multiple-choice assessments to prove their progress. Teachers actually told students after they’d taken a test which questions they got wrong before the score was submitted for a grade. This enabled test-takers to change their answers, a kind of do-over behind the scenes. If a student still failed, the online program would allow yet another chance, repeatedly mostly the same questions. My trainer proudly declared that this was “all about doing whatever it takes to get them to graduate.”  

I refused to go along but instead documented how little the students were learning and how easy it was for them to guess their way to a diploma. To their credit, district administrators held a couple of meetings to address my concerns. They allowed me to present to other OCR facilitators the shockingly low scores of our OCR students on state-mandated exams, which had been buried in a digital folder in the district’s database. I was shouted down by a few of them, but the district did in the end eliminate the “answer check” practice. I reported problems with Edgenuity’s assessments to the accrediting behemoth, Cognia, after journalists published my data, but Edgenuity has retained its accreditation. 

I ended up leaving the education system for some time to homeschool my children. I returned in 2021 to a moral environment that had further deteriorated. At my new school, I had a deja vu encounter with OCR: I found administrators were allowing OCR students to cheat on online exams to maintain over a 90 percent graduation rate. A week into my OCR course, I inquired why six of my registered students never showed up for class. I was told they didn’t attend because they were taking the course at home. They were also able to take the exams at home, unsupervised. I asked my principal about it, and he shrugged and muttered that everybody in the district does it. When I went over his head to the district leadership, they replied that “remote assessment is here to stay.” 

When I tried to document how students were cheating (by simply pasting questions into Google) and brought this evidence to every educational authority I could find—the federal Department of Education and the Georgia Department of Education; the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement and the OCR accrediting agency Cognia, as well as state ethics investigators—none acted, either because they lacked a legal mandate to do so or because they themselves were complicit. 

Public schools have betrayed public trust by compromising academic and ethical standards to increase graduation rates, all while concealing from parents how little students are actually learning. These compromises not only affect academic achievement, but they also inculcate immoral habits in the next generation of citizens.

While graduation rates have climbed steadily over the past twenty years, indicators of actual student achievement have stagnated or declined, leaving only a minority of graduates prepared for college-level studies and the rest largely unprepared for anything else. An accountability system that focuses only on measurable outcomes has produced a utilitarian, “anything goes” approach to education. This system suppresses the kind of moral and philosophical discourse needed to correct the flawed ideas and immoral practices. We need a system that holds administrators accountable. To restore a public school culture in which teachers are allowed to care for the long-term welfare of their students rather than the short-term school ratings, we must invert the moral inversion.

Jeremy Noonan writes from Atlanta, Georgia.

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Image by Harrison Keelylicensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.  

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