The Moral Determinants of Learning

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Dr. Donald Berwick’s Moral Determinants of Health, presents the fundamental tenets of sound healthcare policy. It looks beyond healthcare infrastructure, such as providers, clinics and hospitals, when considering the variables that determine “health” by including conditions such place of birth and early childhood, education, employment, social circumstances of elders, community resilience (i.e. adequate transportation, housing, food systems, public safety, and a sense of community agency), and redistribution of extreme wealth and income to ensure social and economic security. These forces are what largely shape one’s physical and mental health. Other analysts have added gun violence, loneliness, environmental toxins, and a dozen more variables.

I’ve always been surprised by how Berwick’s determinants apply with equal measure to education and the raising of our children. In an earlier column I catalogued the many ways in which we’re letting our children down.

I’m also struck by the decision of many good healthcare and education providers to leave their professions citing “moral injury,” understood as a psychological response to having to act or witness behaviors in one’s profession that are inconsistent with one’s values and moral beliefs  ̶  often imposed by a broken system. Or  having to make decisions that affect the survival of others or where all options lead to a negative outcome.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress just published its annual report card on U.S. student performance in the 2022-23 school year and the results were discouraging, showing a 4-point decline in reading and 9-point decline in mathematics. It also compared these with the 2012-13 school year a decade earlier  ̶   well before Covid began in 2020. There’s a decade-long decline of 7 points in reading and 14 in math. This puts the lie to the contention of so many educators that the Covid pandemic is to blame. Since Covid, we’ve had a year with students back in the classroom and scores have continued to decline. Was Covid a factor? Unquestionably. Is it the defining factor? No.

There are three relevant areas of inquiry:

  • the socio-economic and environmental determinants mentioned above,
  • the function, governance, and culture in our schools, and
  • the integrity of our own parenting.

As to the first, if we correlate our “moral determinants of learning” with declines in educational performance the effects are clear. The socio-economic elements that determine whether a child has a secure enough sense of well-being that they arrive in school curious and eager to learn are evident…  as opposed to being distracted by destabilizing social and economic conditions that demand their focus.

The child living in the backseat of his or her single mother’s car, eating whatever’s available, does not arrive at school ready to learn to read or to solve math problems, nor does the child of an alcoholic, drug-addicted, or incarcerated parent. Nor does the child in a physically or sexually abusive household. Although some manage to survive,  a child subjected to any of these adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is rarely in any condition to learn. Their pain is their priority, not learning.

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We must also examine our educational institutions.

In the last three years, my wife and I have hosted two scholarship foreign exchange students from the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) Program funded largely by the U.S. State Department, One was from Moldova, often referred to as “the poorest country in Europe,” and the other from Serbia. Both of them attended our local high school, long considered one of the best in Vermont.

When the sad time came to leave us, after eight months as a member of our household, we had a lengthy discussion with each of them about their experience in the U.S., which for both was their first time outside Europe. In both cases, our students spoke glowingly of their experiences  ̶  the friends they’d made, the cultures they’d encountered, the new traditions and landscapes they’d experienced. But there was one common disappointment. That was our school system, which they both found very disappointing when compared with the education they had had in their home countries.

Other than  their American history course  ̶  and athletics  ̶   they felt they had learned little or nothing. They had already studied much of the math and science.

Our Serbian student arrived speaking three languages, her two native languages, Serbian and Russian, and was also fluent in English. Our Moldovan student spoke her native Romanian and Russian and was likewise fluent in English and had taught herself Italian. They began studying our language in the first and fourth grades. By contrast, our local schools no longer have any foreign language requirement.

Beyond the disappointment in pedagogy and course work, their biggest complaint was about the classroom culture, which they described as chaotic and hostile to learning. Their descriptions were consistent.

Students who wanted to learn sat in a horseshoe around the teacher’s desk, students in the next rows back might be texting or watching movies on their cellphones with earbuds, while the kids in the back rows carried on open conversations, entirely ignoring the teacher.

Unable to imagine this, I spoke with the principal of the school after the school year ended. We had a long and earnest conversation. I had not come to complain but to better understand what was happening in his classrooms.

We listened carefully to one another, but I came away with an intrinsically different understanding about how classroom culture, teacher leadership, and basic discipline make or break a learning environment. I was disheartened.

In 1968, I graduated from UVM with a degree in Romance languages, a wife, two young children and began a frantic job search. I found one teaching French in the newly opened Mt. Abraham Union Highschool where I taught six classes a day of French and had my own home room. It was made clear to me that I was responsible for maintaining order and a learning culture in my classes. I took that seriously and over my two-year teaching career never sent anyone to the Principal’s office.

There doesn’t have to be a conflict between treating our children with the dignity and respect they deserve in a classroom setting while holding them accountable for mutual respect and having clear rules of civility and academic accountability, tempered with each teacher’s understanding of a child’s innate capacity to learn.

Can the student with a cellphone in their hands and earbuds in their ears be paying any real attention to the rich worlds of history, literature, or scientific discovery or watch a lab experiment or immerse themselves in the demands of geometry?

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Finally, there is the culture in the home and community. Our children will not be who we tell them to be. They will be who we are. Child psychologists know that children learn primarily by example and less so by rule-making. If parents hold their schools in high regard and support shared standards of discipline and accountability, then chances are their children will as well.

But if the child sits at home and listens to their parents run down the school for whatever reason   ̶   demanding removal of certain books from the school library, lobbying to eliminate courses they don’t personally approve of, complaining about property taxes they pay to fund public education, for example   ̶   their animus against their child’s school and classroom will likely take root in the child and the child will have implicit permission to come to school laden with a variety of disrespects.

Two years ago, a good friend and thirty-year veteran of public education  ̶  then principal of one of our major and most respected school systems  ̶  called me to let me know he was leaving the municipal system. He said, “I’m no longer here as an educator. My office is overrun with young people in varying states of mental and behavioral stress and now I have parents in our hallways yelling about mask mandates, the courses we teach and demanding removal of books from our library. This is not education.” He said with great sadness.

And to add to the pressures on young people, according to the Washington Post, more than 360,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since  the Columbine tragedy in 1999.

As our homes and schools become the battlegrounds for our pathetic culture wars, should we be surprised that learning scores are in freefall?

We do not individually own our public schools, our communities do. They are there for our common good, the good of our children and of our democracy. Extremes of wealth and power and the outcomes they buy are weakening our system of self-rule, but one vital goal must be to keep our schools from becoming battlegrounds for our personal prejudices.


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