School Climate & Safety Opinion

Ethics and Academics in 21st-Century Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 08, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Can academics be taught without simultaneously teaching ethics? We think no, they can’t. Ethics has not been a front burner conversation of late. In fact, it seems that the erosion of ethics might become a characteristic of our culture going forward. Certainly our attention for the last decade has been captured by federal and state requirements for assessment and evaluation of students, teachers, and principals. If there was any energy left, it went to figuring out how to acquire the funding that would let us do the work we knew was needed.

Who Has Time to Think and Talk About Ethics?
Teachers and leaders think about it when a student, or sadly faculty or staff makes an unethical decision. Schools can revisit the place ethics has when the top of the stove gets hot. The marriage of ethics and academics is increasingly significant as science and technology push us into new territories.

We can no longer make an assumption that ethical decisions and choices will be made given the complexity of our world. So, what do children need? They need experience in making choices and they need a construct about ethics. Then they need to practice. And the more schools lean into problem based learning and STEM education the greater the opportunities for this kind of practice. We tend to think about practice in athletics and in music but it applies here as well. Listen to famed musician Itzak Perlman as he describes the role of practice for quality under the pressure of performance.

Consider the proliferation of 3 - D printers and how they are revolutionizing what students are able to produce. Along with this increased capacity comes the question of who benefits in the end. How do we frame access of life changing things like artificial limbs? Are they for the young or old, for the rich or poor? Consider the recent news about drug companies. There are new drugs that make a critical difference in the quality of life for those with chronic illness. But the cost is so high they are prohibitive for many who need them. The companies rewarded CEO’s for profit creation without considering the social impact of the decisions made. Without an investigation of ethics for the young, we rely on government to create policy and regulate our values. That hasn’t gone really well. Can we incorporate into our teaching and learning, conversations about choosing between right and wrong and right and right and the individual and community?

As 21st century changes arrive in curricula, manner of teaching and assessing, it is time to pull ethics out of the shadows and make it part of the content, practice and actions of adults and of our teaching. It is still assumed in many places that ethics are taught elsewhere...in families and in churches. But, we know how the lives of our students are changing and models of ethical choices are missing for so many of them. Yet, public schools have moved away from these issues. It appears that ethics may be organizationally choked quiet and left to individuals to develop on their own. Like everything else we strive to do well, improving individual and institutional ethics takes planning and practice.

In his 1992 book, Moral Leadership, Thomas J. Sergiovanni calls on the thinking of contemporary philosopher William K. Frankena (1973) when he wrote specifically about two moral principles:

The principle of justice is expressed as equal treatment of and respect for the integrity of individuals. Accepting this principle means that every parent, teacher, student, administrator, and other members of the school community must be treated with the same equality dignity, and fair play. The principle of beneficence is expressed as concern for the welfare of the school as a community. Accepting this principle means that every parent, teacher, student, and administrator is viewed as an interdependent member of the school as covenantal community and that every action taken in the school must seek to advance the welfare of this community (pp.105-106).

We agree. Justice and beneficence should be part of every conversation as the capacity of this century unfolds. There are no easy steps to offer because each school community is different, each leader, each teacher, each school culture, all have uniqueness. But, the adults, too, need to practice, not being ethical but having conversations about it. Here’s a thought for a beginning. Meira Levinson, a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and one of her doctoral students are authors of the recently published book, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries. It presents case studies and suggestions for exploring the ethical perspectives on each. Using this as a kick off to discussions in the school community might open the doors to investigating the ethical choices and decisions being made locally. Even if that doesn’t happen, it minimally allows us to practice having the conversations. Then, we’ll be better prepared to have those conversations with our students.

Sergiovanni, T.J. (1992). Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement. Hoboken, N.J.: Jossey-Bass

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.
School Climate & Safety Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents
A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence.
Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
2 min read
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
David Keene, the former president of the NRA, promoted gun rights in a speech he thought was a rehearsal for a commencement address to graduating students in Las Vegas. The invitation to give the speech was a set up by Parkland parents whose son was killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP