A Sacred Right of Teachers

Aug 29, 2019 by

Four months after being removed from his leadership position for tampering with teacher-given student grades without their prior knowledge or consent, a Palm Beach, Florida high school principal was recently returned to his post.

It’s not clear whether the principal’s actions had merit, but since the judgment of many teachers was superseded and because this was done without the courtesy of informing them, there is a strong suggestion of impropriety, despite it technically being in the the scope of his authority.

In New York, it is rare for a teacher’s grades to be altered in this surreptitious manner.  When supervisors claim there are extenuating circumstances, it is usually a cover for a motivation unrelated to merit predicated on reasonable criteria.

Often it involves pressure from outside sources or is in some way links to personal self-interest.

When a supervisor tampers with a subject teacher’s grading of a student, it is a grave trespass on the teacher’s prerogative and an implicit insult to their professionalism. It adds insult to injury when they do so without even the principal bothering with a formal, close-minded gesture of consultation.

Principals that feel they must rule by fiat are insecure in their own skin.

The power of principals should exist almost entirely as an abstraction and exercised only as a fluke.

At the start of the school year, teachers should clearly lay out to students and their parents the basis on which grades will be decided. Although some flexibility is necessary because of the complex nature of individual learning, there must be general adherence to those guidelines and no grade should come as a complete surprise to attentive students and their engaged parents.

Criteria for grading should not be handed down in absolute form by school administration but rather should allow for personal instructional preference. Teachers should act in a way that will allow them to confidently articulate, if necessary, the basis for their student evaluations. 

Standards should not be dictated by school management and certainly not imposed without at least the advisory, if not decisive, input of classroom teachers.

Whatever the criteria are, it must be demonstrable that they have been fairly and consistently enforced for all students.

With this in mind, teachers should have almost total discretion over student grading, and as long as the measures that they establish conform to these parameters and do not deviate markedly among teachers of the same curriculum with similar students ( the word “similar” can be tricky and lends itself to convenient misapplication), their autonomy should be sacrosanct and inviolable.

Boundaries for assessment that fall into the generally recognized boundaries of independent professional judgment can be  broadly but not rigidly set. There should be balance between objective benchmarks and subjective assessment. 

The percentage of the grade based on tests, homework, class work and participation should be broken down and clearly explained and remain under the aegis of the teacher. Those percentages need not be equal but they should not be lop-sided.

It should not be in the interest of teachers to misrepresent what their students have actually learned They are  advocates for their students but not automatically their apologists,

Teachers must fight all efforts of school management to justify student grades on any basis other than the merits of their productivity. They must not get embroiled in school politics or entangled in bureaucratic machinations.

They bear the brunt of the responsibility to their students but too often must also bear the crucible of career jeopardy as a result.

Here in New York City, principals don’t second-guess their teachers as much as they do in Florida, which doesn’t have the strong self-respecting teachers union we have here. Still, it is not as uncommon as it used to be prior to former Mayor Bloomberg’s total and blind endorsement of executive authority.

Principals can overrule grades, but they shouldn’t fiddle with them.

They are supposed to give their reasons in writing.  In cases where they don’t, teachers are well-advised not to demand a justification. Doing so may result in their possibly winning a battle but definitely losing the war.

In some future time and way, they are likely to pay a heavy price for challenging the principal.

There are times when one must be mindful not to gratuitously exercise one’s integrity.

Teachers nearly always know their students best. There are some egregious exceptions. But New York City is not Palm Beach. As regards education, that’s very much a good thing. 

Except that no principal would ever be disciplined for doctoring a teacher’s grades.

Ron Isaac

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