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What it the richest feedback we can offer teachers in an #evaluation?

March 25, 2015

A national conversation continues to take place about teacher evaluation systems, especially in states that submitted a Race-to-the-Top proposal, an Obama Administration initiative designed to fuel innovation in schools.  This competitive grant program required states to submit a plan for how they would retool their current evaluation system, making greater use of student achievement data.  If you follow this extensive body of literature, then you know that value-added models for using student achievement data, the exact percent that student achievement data would count in a teacher’s evaluation, and whether a teacher’s cumulative score would be made public have created all types of conversations, arguments, and potentially lawsuits.

Kate Taylor, in a recent New York Times article entitled, Cuomo Fights Rating System in Which Few Teachers Are Bad, tells the story of the battle between Governor Cuomo and the state’s teachers’ union.  Cuomo wants an evaluation system that tightly aligns a teacher’s performance rating to his or her students’ test scores.  The teachers’ union doesn’t believe this system can give a fair assessment of a teacher’s performance.  She writes:

Around the state, administrators, teachers and parents have been protesting the governor’s proposals, which would both increase the weight of test scores, to 50 percent of a teacher’s rating, and decrease the role of their principals’ observations.

Cuomo, other governors, educational policy makers, and other political leaders believe that a system that closely ties students’ achievement scores to a teacher’s evaluation rating is a more effective way to commend good teachers, provide growth plans for average teachers, and weed out those that are not effective.  Of course, there has been extensive research and commentary on whether value-added models for aligning student achievement data to a teacher’s performance are truly valid models given the plethora of variables that impact student achievement.

One thing is universally true about school districts that have had to retool their evaluation systems under Race-to-the-Top, they have not been very creative in designing their evaluation systems.  They all look pretty much the same, with a few minor tweaks.  They might count student achievement scores 25% instead of 40%.  In fact, they are designed off of previous models with slight variations.

Another article that appeared in the New York Times, Grading Teachers by the Test, written by Eduardo Porter, suggests that according to Goodhart’ Law, an economic principle related to incentive design that sounds a lot like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in physics:

A performance metric is only useful as a performance metric as long as it isn’t used as a performance metric.

The idea in education being that if we rate teachers according to their students’ test scores do we run the risk of “fudging” the data to achieve what we want to achieve.

If we want to study organizations that are innovating their way to an evaluation system that meets the needs of their employees, then we have to go to the business world.  We won’t find it in education.  But I would argue that education has a lot to learn from the way some creative businesses approach giving constructive feedback to their employees.

In Harvard Business Review, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall write about the changes taking place at Deloitte Services LP in the article, Reinventing Performance Management. They describe how Deloitte is “rethinking peer feedback, and the annual review, and trying to design a system to fuel improvement.”  It strikes me that if we speak with most educational administrators they would say their hope is that their school’s evaluation system would fuel improvement as well.  Of course, the data shows that most teachers don’t believe their school’s evaluation system “fuels their improvement.”  In a study done by Weisberg, Sexton, Mulhern, & Keeling (2009) called the Widget Effect, the authors write:

In districts that use binary evaluation ratings (generally “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”), more than 99 percent of teachers receive the satisfactory rating. (page 6)

If 99% of teachers are seen as satisfactory, then great teaching might go unrecognized while poor teaching does not get addressed.  Another piece of data from the study shows that:

In fact, 73 percent of teachers surveyed said their most recent evaluation did not identify any development areas, and only 45 percent of teachers who did have development areas identified said they received useful support to improve. (page 6)

So the bottom line is that most of our evaluation systems do not “fuel improvement.”  Not only are there flaws in the design of how we evaluate but there are also flaws in the way we go about implementation of the model.  However, there is good data that suggests faculty believe that their principal’s feedback is important but it depends on whether principals are well-trained, understand the instruments they’re expected to use, understand their role in the process, and have confidence in differentiating for individual teachers’ needs.  But some school systems, like New York State, are trying to deemphasize the principal’s role in the rating system.  For that reason, and others, I think the Deloitte study is interesting for us to consider as a prototype for a new way of thinking about giving effective feedback to teachers.

Here is a high-level comparison of their old and new system.

 Old system  New system
 Objectives  cascading performance & strength oriented
 annual reviews  Yes  No
 360 degree tools  Yes  No
 Rating system  Yes  No

In moving to their new system they used data from research, an understanding of their organizations needs, and a commitment to fuel the growth of their employees.  The science of rating systems shows that “62% of the variance in the ratings could be accounted for by individual rater’s pecularities of perception” (page 43).  What they concluded from looking at the research is that ratings do not measure the performance of the ratee as much as they reveal the biases of the individual rater.  So they moved away from ratings.  They also moved away from annual reviews to weekly and quarterly feedback based on team projects because their focus was on “spending more time helping their people use their strengths and we wanted a quick way to collect reliable and differentiated performance data” (page 44).

What Deloitte realized from a study done by the Gallop Organization on strengths-based leadership, as well as their own research using their high-performance design teams, is that if an evaluation systems focuses on strengths the person being evaluated invests more heavily in the process.  Buckingham and Goodall write:

It found at the beginning of the study that almost all the variation between high- and lower-performing teams was explained by a very small group of items. The most powerful one proved to be “At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.” (page 44)

So if we work to align a person’s job responsibilities to their strengths, then we maximize opportunities for that person to be successful in their work.  In the Deloitte study, here are the three items they found had high correlation with high-performing teams:

  1. Co-workers on the team were committed to doing quality work.
  2. The company’s mission inspired members of the team.
  3. Members of the team have a chance to use their strengths everyday.

When they designed their new system they had three objectives to fulfill.  They were:

  1. The new system would allow them to recognize performance, particularly through variable compensation.
  2. The new systems had to facilitate ways in which they could CLEARLY SEE each person’s performance.
  3. The new system had to be able to fuel changes in performance.

I found it interesting that to achieve the second objective they redesigned the system and redefined the questions they asked of people being evaluated.  First, they made their system highly relational, encouraging and creating expectations and time for each person to be in conversation with his or her immediate supervision or team-lead.  To move away from rater reliability issues, they asked the team leader to use a set of four questions that focused more on the future relationship of the leader to the person being evaluated.  The four questions were (page 46):

  1. Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus.
  2. Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team.
  3. This person is at risk for low performance.
  4. This person is ready for promotion today.

“In effect, we are aksing our team leaders what they would do with each team member rather than what they think of that individual.”

I find it interesting that they pivoted 180 degrees with their questions.  So in education, what if the principal was required to answer the following questions:

  • Would you recommend that your child be taught by this teacher for a full year?
  • Would you pick this person to serve on your leadership team for building an ideal school?
  • Would you pick this person to lead a new initiative in your school that requires an innovative leader?

Finally, in order to shift the responsibility from the team leader to a team member being evaluated, they set up a system where the person being evaluated identifies their strengths through a self-assessment tool and then shares those with other team members, the team lead and the organization.  They have found:

that if you want people to talk about thow to do their best work in the near future, they need to talk often (page 48).

So their new system facilitates frequent conversation between team member and team lead about personal and professional strengths and progress towards goals.  They designed for these conversations to be simple, frequent (weekly), quick and engaging.

As they have developed experience with their new system, there is a shift in the question that drives their work: from “what is the simplest view of you to what is the richest view of you?

So unlike evaluation systems being designed by state departments of education, or for that matter evaluation systems that exist in almost all public and private schools, we should be designing systems that provide for the richest view of our teachers.  The richest view will not come from assigning 50% of the rating score to student achievement results.  A teacher is a more complex professional than the results his or her students achieve on an imperfect standardized test that measures only a very small snapshot of what the student knows, understand and can do.

As educators, we have to be bold, creative, and thoughtful as we attempt to co-create the systems that will be used to evaluate our work.  Our voice must be at the table in designing the process if it is going to succeed and fuel our improvement.  Some answers to our questions are right before our eyes in the processes used by other organizations.  Let’s learn from each other.




Fascinating Video on Properties of Water & Propylene glycol

March 23, 2015

Check out this fascinating video about the properties of water and propylene glycol.  The interaction of the two in a mixture.  As one vaporizes in the mixture it influences the behavior of the drop and an adjacent drop.  This could be a very interesting inquiry activity for physical science, chemistry, or physics students.
The Physics of a Water Droplet

#STEAM can be more than STICKERS!

March 22, 2015

STEAM picture

There is an interesting article in the recent edition of Harvard Education Letter, STEAM Not STICKERS, by Edward P. Clapp and Raquel Jimenez.  The authors discuss the importance of looking for authentic and intellectually justifiable ways to integrate art into the STEM disciplines.  They looked at a variety of STEAM (A for Arts) projects in various sources that promote integration of arts into STEM.  What they discovered was that many of these projects or initiatives do a disservice to the arts.  They see two “prevailing trends” from their research:

  1. STEM activities or initiatives that call themselves STEAM but are no more than decorating STEM projects and calling it art.  Hence the STEM with Stickers Effect.
  2. STEM activities or initiatives that call themselves STEAM but are no more than arts and crafts projects that appear to blend a S, T, E, or M with A.  Little learning of art or of the other discipline.  Hence the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect.

From my experience at the Center for Teaching, working with a variety of schools on STEM or STEAM project development, I would strongly concur with what Clapp and Jimenez have discovered.  There is very little authentic work going on to integrated the theory and practice of art in the theory and practice of the STEM disciplines.

Here are a few essential questions on my mind:

  • How does the theory and practice of one field inform or enrich the theory and practice of another field?
  • How do we help teachers develop the understanding and mindset to design curricula that integrates these disciplines?
  • How do we build into the curricula we design the knowledge, skills, and understanding that teaches students how to associatively think across disciplines?
  • How do we keep STEM or STEAM from becoming the next bandwagon to jump on and then jump off in a few years?

With regard to the last question, it won’t happen if we only design curricula for students that is either the STEM with Stickers Effect or the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect.  We have to be creative and invent new ways of teaching and learning that use substantive and intellectually demanding knowledge and skills from all these disciplines.

SteaM.001STEAM curriculum could be based primarily on science concepts with art woven in (purple graphic).   It could be any of a number of the following permutations (cap letter being the dominate discipline in the curriculum or project).  Maybe the most ideal scenario is one in which knowledge and skills from all five disciplines are used “equally;” STEAM.


Regardless of the disciplines used to build the curriculum, the designer (teacher) needs to do justice to the knowledge and skills that serve as the foundation for the discipline.  What we should aim for is the development of STEAM experiences that are authentic and that require students to use the knowledge and skills that an artist, scientist, engineer, or technology expert, or mathematician would use in his or her work.

At The Westminster Schools (@WestminsterATL) in Atlanta, GA, we have been engaging in these conversations over the past two years.  Our K-12 teachers have formed a professional learning community across the disciplines.  We call it our STEAM PLC.  This is a group of 18-22 dedicated teachers representing these disciplines who are committed to figuring out how to design and implement STEAM curriculum in their classrooms.  They meet one a week for the entire school year to discuss, share, and plan curriculum.  Some of their STEAM work is implemented solo in their classrooms, while other projects are cross-disciplinary and collaborative.  Each year, their work has culminated in a K-12 STEAM exhibit showcasing the projects that have come from different classrooms.  The work of this PLC has energized the school community, students, teachers, and administrators, to think beyond single disciplines.  We are starting to envision curriculum that incorporates the knowledge and skills of different disciplines into a more holistic framework.  I wouldn’t say we have arrived, but I would say that we are making great strides to design curricula that is not STEM with Stickers Effect or the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect.  (the slide show below shows some of the work from the 2015 exhibit)

Here are some of the curricular ideas built into our STEAM exhibit (for more information contact or

  • 1st grade bee project…science of bees, science of bee collapse syndrome, stories about bees, art projects built around studying bees, design thinking or maker activities like building a 3-D scale model of a bee.
  • Geometry and art
  • Architecture, 3-D printing, and design
  • 3-D printing and sculpture
  • Designing a logo for iSummit (event held on Westminster’s campus)
  • Masks, art, and interactive display
  • Science (ecosystems), water, and art installation on STREAM of Conscious
  • Building a City, a 3-D design project in Middle School to build a city
  • Geometry installation in Middle School to build a 3 x 3 cube using large blocks according to the instructions provided

If we want students to learn important knowledge and skills from different disciplines, along with 21st Century skills like critical and creative thinking, communication and collaboration, and use their understandings to solve complex problems we will have to think seriously about the type of curricula we design.   STEM with Stickers Effect or the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect curricula might be fun to do but it’s entirely possible it will not leave students any better prepared to design creative solutions to problems like global warming, scarce water supplies, pollution problems across the globe, or barbarous treatment of our fellow humans.





Mountain Park making changes that inspire collaboration through @AK12DC

February 28, 2015

K12_Logo_FINAL copy

I recently visited one of the eleven schools that are part of Atlanta K12 Design Challenge (@ak12dc).  Mountain Park Elementary, the Mustangs (@MPE_Mustangs), is a Fulton County School north of the I-285 loop.  I met with Stacy Perlman, the school’s principal, and Wendy Kelly, the school’s project-based learning coach.  After our meeting they took me on a tour of first grade classrooms and a number of TAG classrooms.  It was a very inspiring meeting that provided a window into the school’s work since spring 2014.  Both of them expressed great satisfaction with the AK12DC program and what the Design Team and faculty have been able to accomplish at Mountain Park.

In AK12DC, schools have learned and implemented a design thinking process modeled after work at the Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design to tackle a school challenge identified in Phase I of our project.  After collecting empathy from their user, Mountain Park faculty, the school’s Design Team came up with the following point-of-view statement:

  • we met…several hardworking Mountain Park teachers who hold themselves to
    extremely high standards
  • we were amazed to realize…how much they feel like their day-to-day schedules
    and tasks prevent them from making the most of the time they have with their
    students and colleagues.
  • it would be game changing if we…staffers had clarity, confidence, and ownership
    to implement school-wide enrichment to help students become real-world problem

One of their tasks in the spring of 2014 was to create a new schedule that would faculty to implement the school’s enrichment program with greater fidelity.  In particular, they were interested in launching some project-based learning in their science and social studies classes at different grades.  The following slide shows their first prototype of a new schedule which they tested in  spring 2014.

MP schedule

They use the enrichment block built into the schedule for teachers and students to design, implement and showcase different PBL units that engage students in more open-ended, student-centered learning.  The following slide illustrates a few examples of what they have been working on.

Mountain_Park_enrichment block

It was clear from my visit that the faculty has embraced using the enrichment block to experiment with some new ideas and curriculum.  This year, they have been working on iterating their prototype and collecting more empathy data from their user to go a little deeper into their work.  The following slide illustrates some of their project unknows and big questions that they are exploring.  As Mountain Park’s Design Team goes deeper into addressing their point-of-view statement they are learning a great deal about their faculty culture and what it takes to promote innovation in their school.  The following two slides illustrates their design-thinking action plan, with unknowns and questions to answer, as well as a glimpse at the concept map that guides their work.

Mountain_Park_2015-01_AP.slide 2

File Feb 28, 11 22 47 AM

Mountain Park’s work is just one example of what is happening in Atlanta K12 Design Challenge in Atlanta, GA.  Ten other design teams from four more Fulton County schools and a group of six independent schools are working hard to use design thinking as a process for initiating and support innovation in their schools.

If you want more information about AK12DC follow us on Twitter @ak12dc or email me at

From #Strategy to Execution: What are the Myths?

February 25, 2015
A recent article in Harvard Business ReviewWhy Strategy Execution Unravels—and What to Do About It, written by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sill demystifies the beliefs we hold about how to implement strategic thinking or planning.  Here are the five myths the authors discuss and demystify.
Myth 1: Execution equals alignment
The authors point out that typically leaders in charge of implementing strategic plans organize objectives and create a scorecard approach to tracking progress.  Their goal is to keep alignment of activities and objectives throughout the organization.  They indicate that their research supports the fact that organizations approaching strategic thinking this way have sound and coherent processes in place.  Their question is why then do most companies struggle with implementation of strategies?  They believe the answer lies in lack of coordination across units or departments in an organization.  Thirty percent of leaders surveyed believe that lack of coordination across units is at the center of strategic failure.
In schools, this could look like a strategic plan that is not well-coordinated across divisions or is only being implemented with fidelity in one department within the school, while being ignored in another department.
Myth 2: Execution Means Sticking to the Plan
In many strategic plans there are elaborate action steps that spell out exactly how the plan is carried out and who is responsible.  Again, the authors point out that having a detailed plan is not a bad idea, but religiously sticking to the plan may not get the organization to the promise land.  The authors write, “managers and employees at every level need to adapt to fact on the gourd, surmount unexpected obstacles and take advantage of fleeting opportunities.” [1]  Successful implementation of strategies requires that an organization adapt to information in real-time, “seize opportunities that support the strategy.” [2]  The concept they promote in their article is that organizations need to be agile while in the midst of strategic implementation.  Leaders have to be able to “read the tea leaves” and adjust to data coming in to the organization about how things are going.  Adjust strategic thinking based on incoming data if it seems important.
In schools, the ability to be agile requires that we collect real-time data to inform us of our users’ experiences so that we can make adjustments to our strategic thinking.  Do we collect enough data about student experiences in school?  Do we collect data from parents?  If we do, are we prepared to objectively analyze it and adjust our approach to better meet the needs of all students?
Myth 3: Communication equals Understanding
When organizations are in a strategic frame of mind, they often communicate their direction in all kinds of ways.  They communicate about their strategic priorities extensively within the organization, as well as externally to their constituents.  In their research, the authors have discovered that communication, the amount and quality of it, is usually not the problem.  What they have found is that most people within the organization when surveyed, are unable to explain what the strategic priorities are?  “Not only are strategic objectives poorly understood, but they often seem unrelated to one another and disconnected from the overall strategy.” [3]  The point being that many people within an organization do not understand the big picture, nor do they understand the basic structure of the strategic framework.  The authors suggest that we should not measure the effectiveness of our communication of strategies through number of inputs (like emails), but we should measure it through the ability of internal and external stakeholders to express their understanding of the organization’s strategic vision.
At Westminster Schools, we have a very detailed and elegant strategic plan (click here) that is in its third year of implementation.  There are two parts to the plan: (1) the Learning for Life Vision; and (2) For College and for Life (the plan itself).  In addition, we have been working on a research study with The Center for Education Integrating Science, Math and Computing (CEISMC) at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  CEISMC has been our partner for three years studying the impact of our strategic initiatives on student learning and faculty development.  Click here for an explanation of our work with CEISMC.  This partnership is a bold and courageous attempt by Westminster to get reliable and actionable data on whether we are hitting our mark.
One of the preliminary results of their study is that many faculty on campus report that they know very little about our strategic planning process.  The implication is that we think we have communicated the vision and direction of our work very well, but the reality is that many faculty do not understand the plan or what is expected.  Communication does not necessarily result in understanding!  Communication to disseminate is different from communication for understanding.  In successful strategic implementation we want to execute for the later, therefore, we need activities that build understanding of strategic priorities, and then we need to measure for whether we achieve those outcomes.
What do you see in your schools?
Myth 4: A Performance Culture Drives Execution
The authors discuss the idea that in many organizations people are rewarded for performance, how well they do their jobs or how well they execute strategic activities.  Their data suggest that many organizations struggle with this idea of rewarding performance or not rewarding underperformance.  “A majority of the companies we have studies deal action (33%), address underperformance inconsistently (34%) or tolerate poor performance (11%). [4]  It is a myth that “high performance leads to successful execution.”  They point out that “a culture that supports execution must recognize and reward other things as well, such as agility, teamwork, and ambition.” [5]  Do we place enough emphasis on rewarding people in our organizations that can successfully adapt to changes?  Adaptive people are generally people who are willing to experiment or take risks?
In schools do we reward our faculty who are risk takers?  Do we promote those faculty that show a high capacity for responding to changing times?  Faculty who experiment with new ways of teaching to meet the needs of all learners are likely to be faculty who will try to understand and integrate the school’s strategic direction into their classroom practice.  Do we reward these people for these skills, communicating to the broader culture that we value this approach?
Myth 5: Execution Should be Driven from the Top
In the past, we thought it was up to strong, visionary leaders to single-handedly move organizations through their strategic plans.  The authors write, “Top-down execution has drawbacks in addition to the risk of unraveling after the departure of a strong CEO.” [6]  They suggest that as strategic thinking becomes more complicated in a globally-connected world, an organization’s adaptation to change requires orchestrating complex decisions at all levels.  Decisions are being made both vertically and horizontally within the organization.  The authors believe that “concentrating power at the top may boost performance in the short-term, but it degrades an organization’s capacity to execute over the long-term.” [7]  The goal is to build the capacity of people throughout the organization to understand the strategic vision and work collaboratively in support of its implementation.  They advocate a distributed leadership model as a way to promote strategic execution.  What drives success from their perspective is if “execution is driven from the middle, and guided from the top.” [8]
In schools, this means that we must invest in the leadership of classroom teachers.  Without their support, involvement, and critical eye it is likely that strategic implementation will falter.  What does school look like if leadership is distributed to faculty for executing the strategic vision of a school?  What does their day-to-day life look like?  Are they working harder than usual or are they working smarter?  What type of support do they need from their administrative team to be successful in their implementation?  The concept of collective leadership rather than individual leadership is promoted by Nick Petrie in his article, Future Trends in Leadership Development.  I reported on his work in a previous blog post (click here).
If we address this five myths by designing strategic solutions that foster agility, distributing leadership, rewarding qualities other than performance, communicate for understanding of the vision, and coordinate both vertically and horizontally within our organizations, we will optimize for successful implementation of our strategic initiatives.
[1] Why Strategy Execution Unravels–and What to Do About It?, by Donald Sull, Rebecca Homkes, and Charles Sull, Harvard Business Review, March 2015, page 61.
[2] ibid, page 61.
[3] ibid, page 63.
[4] ibid, page 64.
[5] ibid, page 64.
[6] ibid, page 65.
[7] ibid, page 65.
[8] ibid, page 66.

#leadership development: stay the course or try something new?

February 22, 2015
I read this interesting article, Future Trends in Leadership Development, written by Nick Petrie.  He proposes four trends for the future of leadership development.  (see page 6 for a summary, the whole article is about 30 pages)
  • More focus on vertical development
    • horizontal development focuses on specific competencies of individuals whereas vertical development focuses on developmental stages that people need to move through.
  • Transfer of greater developmental ownership to the individual
    • “People develop fastest when they feel responsible for their own progress.”
  • Greater focus on collective rather than individual leadership
    • Petrie envisions us transitioning from a time when leadership resided in an individual or role, to a new phase where leadership resides in a “collective process that is spread throughout networks of people.”  Reliance on a team instead of an individual!
  • Much greater focus on innovation in leadership development methods
    • Models of leadership that attend to developing a collective process or network don’t exist.  Petrie believes we need to rapidly innovate ways of thinking about leadership development.  “Organizations that embrace the change will do better than those that resist it.”
If you’re curious, add this one to your pile of things to read.

Is teaching ethics the responsibility of schools?

February 8, 2015

With all that is happening around the world to challenge our sense of what is right and wrong, I wonder if schools are taking their rightful place in the conversation, doing what we can to advance a deeper understanding of the moral and ethical questions before us.

The Oxford Dictionary defines ethics “as moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.”  If we dig a little deeper into the definitions of moral principles we find: 1) moral is “concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior;” and 2) principle is “a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior.”  Are there fundamental truths of right and wrong that govern all human behavior?  If so, what are they?  This very idea has been debated in philosophical circles for many years with little resolution on the horizon.  Moral relativism surfaces when a variety of philosophical positions, centered around differences in moral judgments with people from different cultures, makes it challenging to come to a shared understanding of right and wrong.

With recent events unraveling in war-torn Syria, there is no better time to engage in conversation about ethics and moral responsibility.  The Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS) has created chaos in the region and around the world with their blatant disrespect for human life through beheadings and burning their prisoners alive.  I think outside ISIS’s members or sympathizers we could all agree that the moral principle of “valuing human life” has been terribly violated.  There is expressed outrage around the world for these events.  Why doesn’t ISIS see human life in the same way as the rest of the world does?  Is this an example of moral relativism?  Do they believe that it is OK to sacrifice innocent people as an act of war against what they perceive to be their “aggressors?”  I can’t imagine how they would justify such acts, and yet they must believe that they are justified to carry them out.  Does justified equate with them believing it is morally right to do so?

The Washington Post ( February 5) reported on President Obama’s recent speech on ethics.

His latest challenge came Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. At a time of global anxiety over Islamist terrorism, Obama noted pointedly that his fellow Christians, who make up a vast majority of Americans, should perhaps not be the ones who cast the first stone.

He continues by challenging us to think beyond ourselves.

“Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history,” he told the group, speaking of the tension between the compassionate and murderous acts religion can inspire. “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

President Obama was widely criticized by many politicians and pundits, especially from the conservative right.  But I wonder if what he was doing was pointing out that throughout human history we have been divided on the moral principle of “valuing human life.”  There is a certain moral relativism that exists when we look closely at the ethics of “valuing human life.”  Should it be so?  I personally don’t think so, but then again I was not raised in a society where I was oppressed for decades, seeing my own life not valued by those around me.  Some from the Christian right may not like how Obama opened the door on the question of the moral relativism of human life, but he was speaking the truth.  Can we face the truth?

Maybe we have to go back to the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you!”  Would any of us want to be burned alive?  I don’t think so, at least not if we had the choice.  Maybe that could answer the question for ISIS members and their sympathizers.

Albert Schweitzer was quoted as saying:

The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings. (click here)

He seems to be implying that unless we sit down and gain empathy with our fellow human beings, we will struggle developing a universal moral principle that all human life is valuable and should be respected.  Solidarity with our fellow human beings requires that we build trust and credibility with them so that we can honestly dialogue around life’s challenging issues.  Clearly, this is not happening almost anywhere in the world today.  Certainly not on the world’s political stage.

Our individual and collective reputation is dependent upon our ability to build trust and credibility.  We need to be perceived as honest, fair, and trusting.  If not, then our ability to openly dialogue is compromised.

It is so important that we begin the teaching of ethics early in a child’s schooling.  Students need to develop the knowledge, skills, values, and experience discussing these important challenges we face.  While we don’t have to teach a specific set of moral principles, we should be teaching students how to analyze and evaluate their beliefs and those of others from different cultures.  In truth, few decisions are completely right or wrong.  For many challenges we face, there are two sides to every issue.

When we look at a typical student’s course of study in public or private school, we will generally find no curriculum dealing with ethical decision-making or “leading the good life.” (see an excellent post on Brain Pickings, February 8)  While some teachers may venture into conversations ethics, it is true that it depends on the school you attend, the teacher you have, or the course you are taking.  Luck of the draw!  To me, random chance isn’t good enough given the high-stakes we face in our chaotic world.  We will need educated, empathetic, patient and thoughtful students to think their way towards better solutions.

Here are some issues our students will face:

  • a world population that cannot feed all of its members.  “According to the most recent estimates, in 2011, 17 percent of people in the developing world lived at or below $1.25 a day. That’s down from 43 percent in 1990 and 52 percent in 1981.”  (World Bank)
  • a changing climate that presents with drastic weather changes impacting billions of people.
  • managing freshwater supplies on the planet so that we all humans have access to drinkable water (National Geographic’s water crisis)
  • managing our energy supplies so that developing nations have the opportunity to bring a higher-quality of life to their people.  The United States has fewer than 5% of the world’s population but accounts for almost 20% of the world’s energy consumption. (United States Energy Information Administration)
  • honesty, transparency and accountability in financial, corporate and non-profit organizations (StockPickSystems, the collapse of the housing market in 2008 due to financial and corporate greed)

Of course the list could go on-and-on.  The point being that if we want students to be educated to deal with our complex and ever-changing world, they will need the ethical decision-making skills to understand, manage, and responsibly deal with these and other issues.  This will only happen if we expect them to grapple with them now within the context of learning about ethics, moral principles, and moral relativism.  While some of this education happens in their family, school can be a more objective place to engage in the learning and dialogue.

As educators, can we honestly say that our students are well-educated unless they graduate with a firm understanding of ethical behavior?  I don’t think so.

As educators, the implication for us is that we have to be good role models for openly addressing the moral principles present in modern society.  Is our leadership in classrooms and schools showing students what ethical behavior constitutes?  Like the society at large, some educators are good role models and some are definitely not (Cheating scandal in Atlanta Public Schools, AJC report).

As educators, we should take an ethics inventory of our curricula and our school programs.  Do we support ethics education throughout our curricula or are we so obsessed with coverage of content that we fail to integrate ethics into our work?  Do we have advisory programs that are vehicles for ethics education and are we developing our faculty to deliver the programs effectively?  How are we handling cyber-ethics in our schools?  Do we only deal with it by punishing those who abuse our policies or do we have an integrated curriculum that helps students manage the complex world of the internet?

These and other questions are on my mind as I think about our responsibility as educators to help shape the next generation of ethical citizens.  When we look across the landscape, there are definitely beacons of hope; however, it is discouraging at times to see how poorly we treat one another, look no further than our public officials.  And it is equally discouraging to see how utterly disrespectful we are of human life, look no further than ISIS burning or beheading its prisoners.  Some would criticize me for putting those two examples in the same paragraph, like the criticism Obama received after his recent speech, but I would ask the critics isn’t it possible that the first example could eventually lead a person or group to manifest behaviors that were morally irresponsible?  History is full of examples I think.

So let me leave you with the question: What is a school’s role in teaching ethics?






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