Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Rip In The Moral Fabric

I am pleased that Los Angeles schools Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines rediscovered his ethics at the end of last week. God knows we don’t need another school official demonstrating moral bankruptcy; students can see enough of that on the internet beginning with Tiger Woods’ robotic apology. (Is he sorry for his transgression or simply sorry he got caught?)

Superintendent Cortines is paid $250,000 a year by the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to the Los Angeles Times, “below average for a leader of a large school district.” I don’t feel too bad about that when I see how many teachers were laid off at the end of last year due to budget constraints.

In addition to his regular salary, Scholastic Inc. paid him more than $150,000 to sit on their board. That company “received more than $16 million over the last five years from contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District,” again according to the Los Angeles Times. Of course, Cortines did not come to his mea culpa on his own; his moral transgression became public knowledge when the Los Angeles Times reported it in a recent article. A few days after the story broke, Cortines resigned from the board. According to the paper, “Cortines said he stepped down ‘to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest as I carry out my duties as superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school district and to reaffirm my commitment to our students, parents, teachers, and administrators.’”

Scholastic Inc. released a statement by their Chief Executive Richard Robinson: “We will miss [Cortines’] wise counsel and his deep understanding of the critical issues we face as a nation in our efforts to improve the quality of education for all children.” I am sure they are also worried about continuing to win contracts from L.A. Unified without the superintendent in their pocket.

Being a teacher is not just about knowing a subject. To be a teacher requires that one model the life of a moral, learned person. The obligation to model moral behavior is just as important as knowing the subject matter.

Over the years, I have encountered many teachers who haven’t a clue about being a role model for their students. I have had to tell teachers in departments I have supervised to stop tutoring their own students for a fee. They either could not understand, or feigned ignorance that this instruction for money could be construed as a bribe to raise a child’s grade. The worst case of this was the teacher who told me, “Of course I make these kids pay me for tutoring. How do you think you can make a decent living as a teacher?”

Others tried to put me off with the defense that they would never compromise their objectivity and grading for the students they were also tutoring. I have no doubt that many of them were not giving preferential treatment to their tutoring clients, but it is the appearance of an ethical breach that must be considered. This they could not understand. Appearances count for something, and teachers must avoid even the appearance of an ethical error.

As for Cortines, I have never met the man, but I know from experience that many administrators lack an understanding of what happens in the classroom, even if they used to be teachers. They are politicians, trying to please everybody and pacify their constituencies. My biggest problem with this is that decisions within a school should be made in the best interest of the child. That is the only criteria.

In a private school, it is easy to adopt the attitude of keeping the customer happy. Schools are not businesses, and students and their parents are not customers in the same way supermarket shoppers are. Parents pay tuition for their children to be educated, challenged, and encouraged to achieve at the highest level of their capability. Often that is a contentious process requiring that the teacher be demanding and uncompromising with his expectations. To weaken and pander is to undermine the education of the student, and that is exactly what administrators often do.

I have had administrators who could not understand that allowing one student to participate in a sports program with deficient grades because of special circumstances is an affront to all the other students who are doing what they are supposed to do, as well as those who were penalized for similar problems. In education, one cannot give preferential treatment to a student, nor can a single student’s situation be given precedence over the other students in the class. To paraphrase the cliché, the education and well-being of the majority of students outweigh the special treatment of a single student. Sometimes, we must remove a student from a class, suspend her from a team, or not allow her to attend a dance when she has fallen below acceptable academic and behavioral standards. To make an exception destroys credibility, and that is what many people in education do not understand. We must embrace our role as moral educators no matter what subject we teach.

In his position as school superintendent, Ruben C. Cortines should use his office to model the proper behavior of an educator with ethics and morals. He has failed in that regard, and apologizing for his mistake after he was caught is disingenuous and unprofessional. Like Tiger Woods and a host of other public figures lately, these ethical and moral violations only serve to demonstrate that the rip in the moral fabric of our society is a poor example for our kids, and further evidence of the corrupt nature of those who take advantage of their position with blatant disregard for the message they send.

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