Why Teachers are Fleeing Public Schools

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.

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.

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