What the Schools Have Forgotten

WILLIAM J. BENNETT

Earlier this month the top-rated elementary school in Montgomery County accepted the resignation of its principal and suspended a teacher for providing students with the answers on Maryland's state achievement tests.

Earlier this month the top-rated elementary school in Montgomery County accepted the resignation of its principal and suspended a teacher for providing students with the answers on Maryland’s state achievement tests. Their actions were discovered after fifth-grade students at Potomac Elementary notified their parents of their principal’s and teacher’s conduct during state exams.

The principal, according to media reports, encouraged some students to recheck their answers on questions they had missed, allowed extra time to complete the tests and even held up a map and pointed to the country about which the students were being quizzed.

Unfortunately, what happened at Potomac Elementary is not an isolated incident. In New York City 32 schools and dozens of teachers are currently under investigation for cheating. Similar incidents have occurred in Texas, Florida, Ohio, Rhode Island, Kentucky and Virginia.

It must be said that most public school teachers, including those at Potomac, are honest, hard-working and decent. But the fact that we have seen so many recent examples of educators acting dishonestly is telling — and it should be a cause for worry.

So, too, should the reaction we have seen from some quarters in response to the cheating scandals. “Perhaps this should be a warning to the county and state boards that they are putting too much pressure on schools for standardized testing,” one Potomac parent told The Post. Karl K. Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, blamed testing “hysteria” and the “celebratory way” the state releases test scores every year, which “encourages the competition.” And Alfie Kohn, a leading anti-testing advocate, argues, “We don’t have the luxury of piously condemning individual teachers when the real villain here is an overemphasis on test scores at the expense of real learning.” In other words, the blame should be placed not on those who cheat but on those who advocate testing and standards. It is true that in some schools there are too many tests, and it is certainly the case that not enough tests are of sufficiently high quality. But even a legitimate complaint about a particular testing regime cannot be used as a justification for cheating. The pernicious idea advanced by testing critics — namely, that holding people accountable to meet high standards permits them to act unethically — eviscerates the concept of moral accountability.

And consider the premise of the anti-testing critics: standards that push people to excel, and that might in the process cause anxiety, are inherently flawed. By this logic, we should do away with such things as driver’s license tests, gun permits, drug tests and medical school exams.

There is something larger going on here, however. During the past three decades or so, we have lost sight of the fundamental purpose of education and the key role teachers and principals have in meeting it. It is worth recalling that, beginning in the mid-19th century, a diverse group began to work for public support of what was then called the “common school,” the forerunner of the public school. The common schools were to be charged with the mission of moral and civic training; their advocates believed it was imperative that we have a common institution that inculcated virtue.

They believed that public education was about the architecture of souls. This ancient, honorable understanding is one to which we must repair. How is this to be done? First, teachers and principals have to be willing to articulate ideals and convictions to students. And, second, the character of a school, its ethos, has to be determined not only by the articulation of ideals and convictions but by the behavior of authority figures. Which means we must have principals and teachers who know the difference between right and wrong, and who themselves exemplify good character.

The first without the second is not sufficient. For example, if you walk into Potomac Elementary School’s front lobby, you will see displayed a “Character Counts Board,” which posts virtues such as “responsibility,” “self-discipline” and “honesty.” This is not sufficient. Beginning three decades ago with the “values clarification” movement, the professional education world has promoted a view of teaching that is devoid of large moral purpose. And while it is true that in recent years character education has made something of a comeback, in too many places it is still a token effort.

Thankfully, many principals and teachers continue to hold firm to the notion that educators must be good role models. They understand that authentic character education consists of much more than a special course or a few hands-on activities. They believe that a good school is bound by a set of moral ideas. And they recognize that a central task — perhaps the central task — of education is steadily leading the hearts and minds of students toward the good.

But unfortunately these estimable men and women have had to do so without the active support of much of the education world, where we still find perpetual moral tentativeness. Until that changes — until Jefferson’s belief that improving one’s “morals” and “faculties” once again animates our deep understanding of American education — we are likely to see many more Potomac Elementary School incidents.

The Potomac scandal is not a story without honor. During the past few years, inside the Beltway, we have seen prominent public figures demonstrate contempt for the truth. But in this instance we have six fifth-graders who told their parents, at some risk, that the popular principal of their school was cheating. These youngsters stood up for their convictions. So did their parents. All praise is due them. But this, in turn, raises a larger question: Do we really want to put 10-year-old children in a position where we have to rely on them to turn in dishonest educators?

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Bennett, William J. “What the Schools Have Forgotten.” Washington Post (June 22, 2000): A 25.

Reprinted with permission of William J. Bennett and Empower America.

THE AUTHOR

William J. Bennett is one of America's most influential and respected voices on cultural, political, and education issues. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Bill Bennett studied philosophy at Williams College (B.A.) and the University of Texas (Ph.D.) and earned a law degree from Harvard. He is the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, & a CNN Contributor. Dr. Bennett is the host of a nationally broadcast radio show from 6:00-9:00 a.m. (EST): Bill Bennett's Morning in America.

During the 1980s, Dr. Bennett served as President Reagan's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1981-1985) and Secretary of Education (1985-1988), and President Bush's "drug czar" (1989-1990).

Dr. Bennett has recently completed a two-volume history of the United States, entitled: America: The Last Best Hope, Volumes 1 & 2 — both New York Times Best-sellers. He has written and edited a total of 16 books, including What Works: William J. Bennett's Research About Teaching and Learning, The Educated Child: A Parents Guide From Preschool Through Eighth Grade, The Book of Virtues, The Children's Book of Virtues, The Children's Book of Faith, The Children's Book of Home and Family, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, and The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life's Journey. He, his wife Elayne, and their two sons live in Maryland.

Copyright © 2000 Empower America


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