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.
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