Moral Ambiguity in Education: Philosophical Reconsiderations on Grade Retention

by Linda M. Fairchild & Brad C. Wedlock - April 18, 2017

The authors critically examine the constructs of morality and value in regards to education.

The field of education is riddled with moral dilemmas, but the troubling question is “How do educators determine the morally correct decision?” A critical examination of the concepts of morality and value and how the two are interwoven is necessary to make decisions. Moral education has been the backbone of Greek pedagogy (Norton, 1992), and its educational philosophies have influenced some of the most powerful nations to date; therefore, it is critically important to keep morality at the center.


A fundamental difference exists between that of moral ideas and ideas about morality. This essay addresses the decisions that must be made about grade retention in education, hence moral ideas about the subject. Moral ideas are ideas of any sort that take into account conduct and improve it for the better (Dewey, 1909). In terms of education, it is the responsibility of educators to ensure ideas that could affect educational outcomes are carefully considered.




Moral ambiguity is the perception of behaviors projected from individuals whose basis of morality is incapable of being established as morally wrong despite the appearance of the contrary. Behaving morally reflects the logic of social understanding and self-evaluation of one’s own values; morality is key to the construction of an individual. Values are one of the most defining elements of human nature, and as such, humans feel ashamed if they have not lived up to prescribed values. Nevertheless, values are not universal. Take the example of liberal democracies in comparison to cultural conflict. Liberal democracies do not fight with one another, as their belief on human rights is applicable to all. Cultures fight as values can only be asserted to others through triumph (Bloom, 1987), asserting that their perception is better than the opposing.


Slater (2014) notes that values are comprised of two components: conceptualization and desire. Depending on the culture, values can be more rationally driven than emotionally driven or vice versa. Hence values are fluid in the power that drives them. Slater continues in that the term conceptions indicates the rational aspect of values or the reason that must play when individuals engage in the act of valuing, whereas desire indicates the emotional aspects incorporated in the conception of values. Therefore, values are the result of a fluid balance of the respect and admiration that people expect from others and for themselves. This frame of thinking aligns with that of Allan Bloom. Values are not completely rational and fail to be grounded in the nature of those subject to them and therefore must be imposed (Bloom, 1987). The production of values and believing in them are acts of sheer will.




Differentiating values present a multitude of issues in society, perhaps the biggest being a democracy (Slater, 2014). Teachers must be sensitive to this notion as their values are expected to reflect the condition of American society and can be transpired to the youth. Unfortunately, ethical dilemmas in teaching practice still arise. The teaching profession is undoubtedly governed by politically driven policies and decisions that are detrimental to the students in which it serves. Darling-Hammond (1985) extends this view in stating, “it is unethical for a teacher to conform to prescribed practices that are ultimately harmful to children. Yet that is what teachers are required to do by policies that are pedagogically inappropriate for some or all of their students” (p. 213). Practitioners of education commonly work under the conditions of high stress and tension (Colnerud, 2015) partially due to the changing standards at the federal level.


Ultimately, politically driven policies that govern education have given rise to what is termed moral stress. Moral stress is typically caused by the moral dilemma of an individual knowing “the right thing to do, but institutional constraints make it nearly impossible to pursue the right course of action” (Jameton, 1984, p. 6). This stress is considered moral as the behavior generated from this stress affects the well-being of another (Lützén, Cronqvist, Magnusson & Andersson, 2003).




Moral dilemmas constitute a majority of societal decisions, if not all. Concerning education, there has been a revival of a controversial method of remediating poor academic performance: grade retention. Grade retention, as defined by Warren, Hoffman, and Andrew (2014), is “having a student repeat a grade in school due to a lack of academic progress” (p. 433). When the National Commission on Excellence in Education released the report, “A Nation at Risk,” education policies such as social promotion and grade retention were suddenly at the forefront (Range, Dougan & Pijanowski, 2011). Stakeholders wanted to outshine international competitors and standardized testing became the norm (Huddelston, 2014). Social promotion became the scapegoat for the United States’ academic performance (Range, Dougan & Pijanowski, 2011). Subsequently, in the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton resolved to end social promotion and integrated more standardized tests in the K-12 educational system. Various states began administering “high-stakes” tests: assessments that students must pass in order to be promoted to the next grade level (Madaus, 1988, p. 87; Marsh, Gershwin, Kirby, & Xia, 2009; Range, Dougan, & Pijanowski, 2011). With the onset of the accountability systems outlined in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, these high-stakes tests counted not only for the student’s retention but also for federal monies to schools and their districts.


Whether this student is retained because of socio-economic, cultural, behavioral, or academic reasons should not matter; the student did not master the academic concepts of a particular grade. While specific retention policies may hinder the social and academic progress of vulnerable populations such as males, racial or ethnic minorities, students who live in the Southern United States, and students with socio-economic factors, this does not negate the fact that these students still did not master concepts (Warren, Hoffman, & Andrew, 2014; Huddleston, 2014; Range, Dougan & Pijanowski, 2011).


Regarding learning outcomes, Sociocultural theory (Vygotsky, 1978) and Bioecological Model of Development (Bronfenbrenner & Cesi, 1994) have the notion that learning outcomes, positive or negative, are expected with grade retention or promotion when the learning environment is aligned with a child’s “zone of proximal development.” Opponents of grade retention argue that this method restricts a student from meaningful challenges while disrupting academic skills and stilting self-regulation (Morrison, Alberts & Griffith, 1997). The learning process is used to acquire knowledge, which the concept of grade retention hinders. Norton (1991) asserts that knowledge, specifically knowledge of ideal goods, must be acquired through formal and experiential knowledge. The experience of struggle can be more enlightening to a student than success in that it promotes self-knowledge. Norton (1991) continues in that it is a mistake the hide the “real world” from students if they are expected to manage it and further, manage themselves in it. Excessive policies and procedures used to protect students from the harsh realities of life are the results of a myth education has created. A myth that assumes students are incapable of learning from struggle and natural consequence. These natural consequences afford students to develop their moral systems (Rousseau, 1955). It is here that grade retention is most beneficial.




National standards and accountability have increased the importance of school test grades and student retention. While grade retention should not rely on test-based policies, the onus should be on the student for his or her effort, maturation, and desire to learn. When a student has a choice to either work hard or not at all, while still receiving a promotion to the next grade, it is here is that education has failed. Education should contain not only factual knowledge but also the chance for students to succeed through struggle, even if that struggle takes an extra year.




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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 18, 2017 ID Number: 21926, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 4:55:07 PM

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