Class Notes

Devil’s Bargain

By Paula Marantz Cohen | July 3, 2012


A friend who teaches math in an impoverished inner-city high school recently described an intractable ethical dilemma. In her school, she said, teachers are encouraged to pass kids through to the next grade. But because my friend flunks students who do not do the work, her pass rate is low. This doesn’t sit well with the administration, and her merit raise suffers accordingly. But this problem also feeds into a more complex one, for it seems that many of her worst students—those likely to flunk—are also the most disruptive. They make it difficult for the other students to do well. As a result, the scores of even the serious students in her class aren’t as high as they could be. Again, the administration penalizes her for this.

According to my friend, a number of teachers in her school have addressed this problem by making a deal with the failing, disruptive students, promising to pass them if they will keep out of the classroom. This way, it becomes possible to teach the students who want to learn without interference, assuring higher scores, while keeping the overall pass rate high. My friend refuses to play this game, and I applaud her integrity. But I don’t know if I would do the same in her situation. I wonder what readers of this column would do.

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