July 2006 Ethics Dunces

Cape Coral High School Teacher Sue Propert and the Southwest Florida News-Press

Read also: Ethics Dunces Reconsidered: Cape Coral High School Teacher Sue Propert [RETRACTED] and the Southwest Florida News-Press [AFFIRMED]

Be wary of journalists when they start pontificating on ethics. They think they know a lot about the topic, but too often they do not. An example recently surfaced in Lee County Florida, served by the Southwest Florida News-Press. The New-Press published an editorial entitled "Ethics Lesson" about the dropping of ethics charges against Sue Propert, a language teacher at Cape Coral High School who had been chosen as the district's 2006 Teacher of the Year. In 2005 Propert was displeased with the performance of then-principal Charles Dailey, so she asked her students to write essays about what the school was like under his leadership. The papers, which described the school in overwhelmingly negative terms, then became weapons in the political battles over the principal's tenure, and Propert was charged with violating the employee ethics code for her provocative class assignment.

Dropping the charges was appropriate, said the editorial, because:

"Being reprimanded for encouraging students to tell the truth is an outrage beyond any educational standard anyone wants to quote."

The Scoreboard has no idea why the charges were dropped; there are a lot of possible reasons, valid and not. Nonetheless, the editors of the News-Press apparently wouldn't know an ethics violation if it sat on them. Of course what Propert did was unethical!

Disagreeing with administrative policy and the leadership of the school, she decided to throw her students into the crossfire and exploit them as tools in her own cause. It isn't proper or responsible or ethical for teachers to manipulate their student's assignments for their own professional or personal objectives. It is not professional or ethical to choose topics according to whether they might be useful in a power struggle between dissidents on the staff and their boss. Students are not in class to be pawns in a teacher's personal crusades, no matter how well intentioned or justified.

Nor is it likely that Propert was paying proper attention to matters of truth and fairness. If Propert was in a dispute with the school over her attire, would it be ethical for her to assign her class papers on how teachers should dress? No, and one reason it would not be is that she would have an obvious bias toward their responses that would be very likely to influence her grading decisions. The students would know what she wanted them to say, just as Propert's students probably knew that she wasn't looking for odes to Principal Dailey's wisdom and skill. The students weren't being "encouraged to tell the truth." They were being encouraged to take her side, which is something entirely different, and entirely unethical for a teacher to require of her students in an internal policy dispute.

Listen to Propert, quoted in an earlier article by the News-Press. "Someone at Cape High needed to speak up at the time," she said. "Our school was quickly going from a C school to a D school, and many of us could see it. I spoke up about it. I got in trouble."

"I spoke up about it"? How about, "I made my students speak up about it" ? The Scoreboard believes it can add cowardly to manipulative, exploitive, unprofessional, and unfair in the catalogue of Propert's abuses. Stand up for what you believe as a concerned employee by all means, but don't let your students do your fighting for you.

The News-Press, meanwhile, did a disservice to its readers by headlining an editorial "Ethics Lesson" when the argument it puts forth is careless, ethically ignorant, and indefensible.

UPDATE 7/1/2007: Ethics Dunces Reconsidered: Cape Coral High School Teacher Sue Propert [RETRACTED] and the Southwest Florida News-Press [AFFIRMED]




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