Moral cowardice and the educational policy we deserve

We call it by many names: drawing lines, making judgment calls, exercising discretion, setting limits. As human beings, we’ve got an inborn tendency to want routines — rules that we can follow to minimize the amount of time we spend making decisions. If we had to actually decide, consciously, whether to stop at each and every red light, our lives would be unbearable.

But we also are a pretty smart species, which means that we know that our general rules don’t always apply. So we make judgment calls, we make exceptions. We use “common sense”, which Descartes claimed was the best-distributed thing in the world. If we’re being chased by a car full of murderers, we don’t stop at the red lights.

The social institutions that we build also follow rules. We “set policy”. But whereas as a species we have a pretty good handle on how to bend the rules on an individual basis, as a society we really don’t have a handle on striking the balance between giving discretion in the execution of policy on the one hand, and avoiding the sort of corruption that can arise from unfettered discretion on the other.

My favourite example of this is “zero tolerance” policies, about which I’ve written extensively in the past. But the mindless application of policy can take other forms, just as intellectually and morally offensive, and even a bit macabre:

Blind, severely disabled boy forced to take standardized test.

Michael is nine years old. Born prematurely, he weighed four pounds. He has a brain stem but, according to doctors, most of his brain is missing.

No problem, says the state. An alternative version will be sent—pictures that Michael can describe.

Unfortunately, Michael is blind.

No problem, says the State. There’s a Braille version.

Michael doesn’t know Braille, and is unlikely to ever be able to learn it.

The first thing I want to do is point out about this situation is that “the State” never said a damn thing. Some individual person, acting on behalf of the people of the State of Florida, made these decisions.

Now, that person probably doesn’t think that he or she has done anything wrong: after all, policy is policy, and the people of the State of spoken in passing the laws that they’ve passed, and in appointing the people they did to write the regulations that were written. Who is this sole individual to take it upon him or herself to contradict the “wisdom” of publicly-announced policy?

This is, of course, the dilemma. As a representative of the people, are you entitled to make your own decisions about such things? And if you do, don’t you risk being wrong? Couldn’t some judge somewhere decide that you weren’t applying the law equally? Better to just follow policy — at least that way you won’t have made any sort of mistake for which you can be held accountable.

Through intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy, along with meticulous efforts of his Hospital/Homebound teachers for the past seven years, Ethan has achieved very limited and rudimentary communication skills. He has a very slight thumb lift with his left hand to indicate ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

Ethan has been required to take the Florida Alternate Assessment for the past two years, and in addition to the questions being entirely inappropriate for his level of cognition (he cannot comprehend questions about math, staplers, clocks, shoes, or even food) there is no way to accurately assess his understanding of the material being presented… Additionally, the testing procedure is extremely physically taxing for him, requiring him to sit in his wheelchair for long periods of time and focus on black and white pictures which are difficult for him to perceive at best… After the testing sessions, he is physically exhausted and often develops pressure sores from sitting in his wheelchair. He also has developed respiratory infections from fluid pooling in his lungs from the long testing sessions.

Ethan’s mother managed — after immense bureaucratic hassle — to get a waiver, good for one year.

I initially thought I’d blog about this article because it’s catchy and exciting and filled with all sorts of easy, low-hanging outrage.

And yes, it’s easy to point at these cases and accuse the state officials of being idiots. I know it’s easy; I’ve done it a lot. But it’s also, I’ve decided, the wrong thing to do.

The administrators who make decisions like this, who make decisions like suspending students for Pop-Tarts or poems, who make other sorts of jaw-droppingly stupid decisions… are not idiots. I don’t doubt for a second that, in most cases, if they believed that they wouldn’t be punished or criticized for making exceptions, that they would go ahead and apply policy in a common sense manner, giving exceptions to students like Michael and Ethan.

What they are is adept bureaucrats, with a cunning sense of survival. They are also moral cowards, after a fashion. And yes, that’s a failing. But we get the government we deserve. We get the policies we deserve. We get the bureaucrats we deserve. We’ve put a premium on moral cowardice; it’s rewarded.

If we want a school system that makes sense, a school system where wise administrators make wise decisions… then we need to be open to the possibility that this might require us to actually give the administrators some play on their leashes. And that might mean having to deal with some bad decisions from time to time; it might mean having to deal with a bit of corruption, racism, or sexism.

I don’t want to read any more stories about kids getting suspended for Pop Tarts. I don’t want to read any more stories about Michael and Ethan. I’d rather live in a world where even our officials are given room to make a few mistakes in judgment — because that means that they’ll be given room to do the right thing, too.


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    There is more here than cowardly bureaucrats. I very much suspect that Michael and Ethan are having much of their therapy paid for by their respective states as part of their right to an education.

    If they can’t take the tests, and if in fact it is ridiculous to have them take the tests, it is similarly ridiculous to describe what they are getting as an education. But that would mean no money, and bad publicity, and probably a lawsuit.

    We want to be nice. We want to say, “of course, they deserve an education.” But when we go down that road, we have to pretend that they are actually getting an education and thus that they have to be tested just like everyone else. If we say, “Of course they don’t have to be tested; they aren’t actually learning anything,” well, that’s mean.

  2. Miller Smith says:

    The moral coward here is not the admin. The coward is the mother for refusing to allow the admin to do this to her child. No! Is an acceptablr response.

    They can’t refuse to provide services to the child just refuse to graduate him. Heck, we have “normal” kids who refuse to
    Take or even sit for the state high school exams and all that happens is they finish their senior year without a diploma

    Besides, there was not a single indication of any “force” being used at all.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      When you have a kid with a disability it’s incredibly difficult to swim against the tide and reject the “system”. Experts and other parents are full of advice and certain expectations. If you can’t afford to work outside the system then you basically need to rely on the kindness of bureaucrats and strangers. You jump through whatever hoops needed to get “services”. Sometimes even when the quality of those services are questionable.

      My youngest son is an Aspie and after dealing with public education and what is generously called “pediatric neuropsychology” in his early years, because we had the financial resources to do so, we choose to work outside the system: private speech and occupational therapy, first homeschooling then a private school.

      I have tremendous sympathy for parents who can’t escape the system. It’s a stupid, inhuman system that poorly serves those in need and is riddled with hypocrisy.

  3. “if they believed that they wouldn’t be punished or criticized for making exceptions, …they would go ahead and apply policy in a common sense manner”

    I think these decision makers should face a moral dilemma on every decision. If they blindly follow the zero tolerance rules, they may be safe from legal repercussions, but they face the danger of losing their job. Immediately. With no recourse. That the pop tart suspension decision-maker is still employed is outrageous. Perhaps if they had to make the decision based on the moral dilemma of “ignore zero tolerance and face legal repercussions, or follow zero tolerance and face being fired immediately”, they would finally have to step up and use common sense, as everyone else in the world is expected to do one the job every day.

    • Miller Smith says:

      Zero tolerance at my school comes from the Office of the State’s Attorney General…as it does in almost every state. Teachers are following their orders in order to keep their jobs.

      I live 0.8 miles from Park Elementary in Anne Arundel County Md. There is a reason the teacher still is employed. The teacher’s principal told her to do it AND it was the principal who suspended the boy. The principal had to have the suspension reviewed by her area superintendent and was supported by same. Then the superintendent of schools-KevIn Maxwell, a man who hired me twice when he was admin in PG County-reviewed it and supported it as well. Why?

      THE STATE COURTS have held all school system employees strictly liable for all harm caused by a child who expressed ANY type of violence or violent ideation IF that employee did not report it immediatly.

      Folks, where are we getting the idea that teachers are making these decisions on there own?

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Miller. I think Michael was talking about ‘crats in general. Don’t think he mentioned teachers.
        If you want to accuse the ‘crat mindset of going up to the state AG, I don’t suppose there’d be much contradictory evidence.

        • Miller Smith says:

          Lawsuits won and teacher’s and admin lives destroyed lead to zero tolerance. Zero T was not some random whim of some crat who was bored looking at his pen set all day, the parents and childen harmed by other children took teachers and school systems to court and convinced judges and juries that the teacher failed to report a “warning sign” of potential violence.

          If the “Pop Tart Kid” had later that day harmed anOther kid-especially one he had “shot” earlier that day-ya’all would be demanding the head of the adults who did not report or intervene. I have seen time and again parents and the public see schools do A and call us stupid when we responded with B. And the very next day when we don’t do B when A hapPens and the C happens ya’all want us keelhauled.

          So long as I am responsible it is I who is in charge. It will be my way as I see fit. Want the stupid to stop? Pass teacher and admin shield law preventing any lawsuits against us. Then we’ll relax. Until then I’m not losing my home and livelihood over a damned pop tart

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            …which is why I said we have the school policies that we deserve.

            You seem, Miller Smith, to think that we disagree about this.

          • The pushback has to start somewhere. Investigate everyone all the way up the line, including the b-crats who started the policy and the lawyers and insurance companies who thrive on the (imaginary) threat of massive lawsuits. ZT is the tyranny of the minority. It is time for voters to stop taking nonsense from b-crats, and I think ZT may be the issue that starts the snowball finally rolling, because it operates at a level that voters can actually sink their teeth into. Some brave teacher has to be the new Rosa Parks and just tell the bus driver to STFU. Then her principal needs to support that response and so on up the line. Are all teachers simpering fools who refuse to stand up to idiots?

      • where are we getting the idea that teachers are making these decisions on there [sic] own?

        When the teacher (and others) insisted that the Pop-Tart that the child described as mountain-shaped looked like a gun instead.

        • "Richard Aubrey says:

          Correct. If the moron hadn’t decided this piece of pastry, nibbled to an indeterminate shape, looked like a gun–see Thematic Apperception Test–we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
          That said, if you look at it carefully, it looks like a B2 bomber. Those suckers are nuclear-capable. No wonder the kids were traumatized. Did anybody tell the kids they were traumatized?

      • So you are choosing the Nuremberg Defense? Nice. It fits so well.

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        By the way, Miller Smith… I need to ask. When you say “strictly liable” — do you mean that Maryland has *STRICT LIABILITY* in the legal sense for all damages arising out of a failure to report any violence or violence-related behavior whatsoever, no matter how inoccuous?

        Because, although I’m not licensed to practice in Maryland, I find this extremely hard to believe. At best, this sounds like the sort of made-up crap that one runs into from time to time with bureaucrats and HR types who think they know what the law is because they know what their policy *concerning* the law is.

        There is, though, the possibility that Maryland really is, as a State, absolutely bat$#!+ crazy enough to implement something like this. It’s unlikely, but possible.

        That’s why I ask.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    Sounds like the administrators flunked the so called “21st Century Skills” of critical thinking, reasoning, etc. they are charged with making sure are taught to the kids…

  5. Elizabeth says:

    The one major education reform over the past several decades I truly applaud is the recognition and treatment of kids with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD. In the past these kids were pretty much ignored and lumped together with retarded (oops, developmentally delayed) kids. That being said, there are kids that really can’t learn much, and it is unfair to devote so many resources as well as keep up the hope for their parents that they ideed have a “normal” child. I guess it makes to much sense to take a balanced approach – either we abandon kids who are perfectly capable with some additional help, or we try heroically to educate kids without a complete brain.