I wrote last year about the Justice in Education project at Harvard, which has developed a series of case studies posing difficult moral questions concerning educational decision-making. Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay have just published a brilliant volume, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, containing 6 cases, with 6 responses to each case by a variety of authors – most of them academics (from a variety of disciplines, and including Howard Gardner, Mary Patillo, Diana Hess, Tommie Shelby, Christopher Winship, and Elizabeth Anderson) but also by teachers, administrators, and one legislator.
Last fall I based a course on the manuscript of the book. Its always hard to tell why a class works brilliantly well – this one was small (25), and had a great mix of students, who were as ideologically diverse as it gets at Madison (I loved the fact that two girls, one a very conservative Republican, the other a very liberal Democrat, became inseparable friends during the course), but also a perfect mix of science, social science, and humanities majors, and of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. And all of them seemed willing to work hard, and seriously. But the conception of the course was pretty good too. When I first thought about it I planned to spend the first half of the semester reading theoretical and empirical literature about education, and then spend the second half on the cases. But I quickly realized that would establish a bad dynamic (me talking too much) and would load a lot of reading upfront. So I scattered the cases throughout the course (and added a couple more).
The first case in the book concerns social promotion. It takes the form of a debate among a group of teachers, some giving reasons why a particular girl should graduate from middle school (appealing to evidence that children who are held back drop out at high rates; that her academic failure is not really her fault because i) her science class, which she failed, was taught by a sub who was, by his own admission, incompetent, for most of the year and ii) her family circumstances essentially made learning impossible); others giving reasons for holding her back (she’s not ready for the academic demands of high school; it sends a bad message to both her and other students if the school graduates students who are known not to have reached the minimum academic threshold needed to pass their classes). It doesn’t require a huge amount of background knowledge in order to generate intelligent discussion. So that was a good starting point, and, in fact, my students came up with good points on both sides that I had never thought about, despite having read the commentaries and discussed the case several times.
Three of the other cases concern in-school dilemmas about special education, discipline, and grade inflation: again, the cases for, and against, a particular course of action are made pretty forcefully, in a way that should make most readers who come to the issues without strong pre-existing biases see them as real dilemmas. The remaining two are more policy-focused. One describes the Academy of the Pacific Rim charter schools in Boston, providing a fair amount of detail about the academic success of students who attend those schools, and making the case that the (disadvantaged) children who attend these schools benefit considerably, but also that they are less disadvantaged than students who are served by district schools (and who may be served worse by those schools than they would be if charters didn’t exist because of the skimming that the charter schools effectively do). It then describes a bill that came before the Massachusetts legislature which aimed to limit the expansion of charter schools by requiring that charter schools achieve the same demographic mix, and the same attrition rates as surrounding district schools (it is widely thought that one reason charter schools like Academy of Pacific Rim are successful is that they, unlike surrounding district schools, can easily expel students for disciplinary infractions, and induce students who are unsuccessful to leave—and they do, typically, have high attrition rates); and asks the reader whether they would support the bill. The other policy-oriented case concerns the Boston Public Schools parental choice plan which deliberately and explicitly panders to middle class parents in order to keep them in the district (described here, see also this paper). I kept these cases for later in the course, after the students had picked up more knowledge of the way the American education system works.
The commentaries are interesting, short, and diverse: The editors selected people from a wider range of political viewpoints than is common in a volume emanating from an school of education, and the authors responded by not trotting out a party line, but really thinking about the details of the cases. And it is a rare volume which has been edited with ruthless discipline, so not a word is wasted (this includes my own contribution, which was edited several times, and is far better than it would have been if they had taken what I gave them). I got the students to read each case and discuss it at considerable length before reading the commentaries, after having done so, and written about the case themselves, they got to discuss the commentaries – which, I thought, worked well, especially because they got the affirmation of finding thoughts in the published commentaries which they had, themselves, arrived at independently. The format of the book also creates natural assignments – commentaries are all 1500-2000 words, so it is natural to ask students to use those commentaries as a model for their own writing.
And, as suggested by LFC the final project was to develop a case study of their own. The results were terrific, even though I screwed up in a number of ways. My screw ups: i) making the groups too big (6 or 7 students is too many, because coordinating outside-of-class time for even 3 or 4 students is very difficult); not giving them enough time in-class to work on it (I gave them just one class session – should have been 3); not giving them enough in-class time to present them to one another; and not requiring a draft due 3 weeks before the final assignment was due, so they didn’t get systematic feedback from me on their drafts (this last failure didn’t affect the quality of what they did, but it did make them much more anxious as they proceeded than was necessary).
I’ll finish with a quote from a former student of mine which I should have suggested to the editors and publishers as a blurb, which shows why every prospective teacher should read the book, and why every teacher education program should adopt it in a compulsory class:
“I wish they would give us more readings like those in my school of education, they are much more realistic than most of the readings we do, which are more idealistic… Actually I think that tension is something I struggled with a lot throughout the program-but didn’t fully understand why it was so frustrating to me. In my practicum I would see my teachers facing problems like this one [the social promotion case] and the other behavior case every day-multiple times a day. Then in our content classes these very real problems were almost watered down, and approached in terms of ideal theory. We talked about the benefits of all-inclusive classes, being preventative, and reflecting in action. But we never really had conversations about how this looks in imperfect practice”