Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

Teachers need, deserve support to do their jobs

 By   Andrew Fiala

 Fresno Bee 2011-08-27

This summer, the Atlanta public schools were caught up in a cheating scandal that involved 44 schools and 178 educators. While the scope of the Atlanta scandal is appalling, such scandals are not new. Cheating scandals have plagued schools across the country for many years. If teachers cheat — either by coaching students or by erasing and correcting student answers — then we’ve got a serious problem. Even the most rigorous system of education is only as good as the educators who control it.

It is not difficult to imagine how the pressures of today’s high-stakes testing environment create a recipe for moral failure. In a low-performing school, in a context in which job security depends on easily manipulated standardized test scores, it is not surprising that some teachers are tempted to cheat.

This is no excuse for cheating. And we should establish safeguards to prevent cheating. But we also need to consider cheating as a symptom of an environment that is not conducive to moral development. If we expect teachers to teach better, we must change these conditions so that teachers can thrive.

I discussed these issues recently with Jack Benninga, the director of the Bonner Center for Character Education at Fresno State. According to Benninga, the key to moral schools is a safe, nurturing environment. Indeed, he argued that there is a connection between a supportive moral environment and academic achievement. Students learn better when they are not worried about being bullied or assaulted.

The same idea applies in the lives of teachers. Teachers teach better when they are provided appropriate support, mentoring and a sense of job security. Benninga pointed out that the moral and professional development of teachers depends upon a caring and humane environment. He explained, “A significant problem in schools today is that the environment is less focused on the development of children than on the skills needed to score well on high stakes tests. The U.S. Department of Education that mandated this approach in 2001 now realizes that its direction was a wrong turn for children and the adults who teach them.”

In a forthcoming article that he shared with me, Benninga and his co-authors conclude that classrooms today, “are tightly controlled, focused on students’ skill development, and are places where teachers are regularly monitored and publicly held accountable for student performance on high-stakes tests in just a few skill areas. This is not an atmosphere that encourages moral sensitivity or moral judgment.”

We do need to hold teachers accountable. Educational and behavioral standards do matter. The key to excellent performance in any field is to create conditions that make success possible. Cheating is more likely to happen when the stakes are high, when resources are scarce, and when caring and sustained mentoring relationships are replaced by a mechanical system of rewards and punishments.

This is true in sports, in science, in business and in academics — each of which have seen cheating scandals. Athletes use steroids and scientists fudge data. The individual athlete or scientist is obviously to blame. And so is the social environment that encourages winning at any cost or that demands “publish or perish.” We want athletes, scientists and teachers to strive for excellence. But competition leads to cheating when success is emphasized without proper training, mentoring and moral support.

Aristotle suggested that teachers deserve more honor than parents. Anyone can give birth to a child. But only an excellent teacher can prepare that child for a good life. And only an excellent society can train and nurture excellent teachers. Indeed, one test of a society’s well-being may be to consider how well it treats and trains its teachers.

Shrinking budgets and increasing class sizes do not help teachers; and they do not reflect well on our values as a society. Teachers do the essential job of nurturing the next generation. We need to create conditions that, in Benninga’s words, encourage educators to develop “moral sensitivity and moral judgment” as well as academic proficiencies.

Fortunately, there are many more excellent teachers than there are cheaters. Most teachers are sincerely dedicated to the academic achievement and moral development of the youngsters in their care. As the school year begins, let’s make sure that they have the support they need.