Sunday, November 11, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: AND NOW THIS WORD FROM OUR SPONSOR

A middle-school teacher in the Midwest who teaches English as a second language was required to attend a training session. He'd get to meet 15 or so other ESL teachers from his school district, but mostly it was to be a presentation by an expert in the field. The teachers were told by the district's ESL coordinator that the presenter had taught ESL students in the past.

Fair enough. Fresh ideas for use in the classroom are always welcome.

When the presenter appeared, however, something seemed amiss. All of the teaching materials she presented, which it was made clear would be available for purchase after the seminar, were from a single company -- the company, as it turned out, for which the presenter worked.

"To me she was no more than a shill," writes the ESL teacher from the Midwest. "This was not a learning experience for us, but a sales presentation."

He's miffed that he went to the event expecting one thing but wound up with something wholly different. Nor was it without cost, he notes: Even if the presenter's company footed the bill for running the "seminar," the district still had to pay a chunk of change to hire substitute teachers to cover for the ESL teachers that day -- a waste of money, he thinks.

He believes that the whole setup was unethical, and wants to know what I think.

Unless the school district has a specific policy against having single-sponsored events like this, there's nothing inherently wrong with the setup. As public schools look to defray costs, product providers seem more than glad to pick up some of the slack. It's up to school officials to ensure that the content being provided is on the up and up and that the investment of the ESL teachers' time, in this case, is well spent.

In an ideal world the presenter would be an expert without a vested interest. That way, even if only one company's products were used, the presenter presumably would base her presentation on her expertise, not on a desire to move her company's products.

In this less-than-ideal world, however, a presenter with a vested interest is still acceptable -- so long as that vested interest is made clear in advance. That's where the district fell short in this case.

"We were not told that the presenter worked for a publishing company," the Midwest ESL teacher writes, adding that the teachers learned this only at the seminar, when the presenter started pushing her company's products.

Frankly, that's dumb. The right thing for the district to do would have been to tell the ESL instructors ahead of time about the presenter and her ties to a single company. The instructors then would have known what to expect. By concealing the fact that this was a single-sponsored event, and not a teaching session in the strictest sense, the district planners ensured that the ESL teachers would be irked, at the least, to find themselves attending a seminar that turned out not to be as advertised.

Offering a presentation from someone who clearly has a bias is not unethical, as long as nothing is done to try to hide that bias, and it may even be informative. But there's nothing ethical about misleading a group to persuade them to attend an event. If the deception was unintentional, the district should take more care in the future, so that days like this don't result in more raised suspicions than enlightened instructors.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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