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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

What Is Educational Ethics? A Teacher Turned Harvard Prof Explains

It’s about more than just cheating
By Rick Hess — June 29, 2023 11 min read
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Meira Levinson is the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While we disagree on much, I’ve always found her provocative, insightful, and wonderful company. We first met maybe 20 years ago, when she had only recently left teaching middle schoolers in Atlanta and Boston. Since that time, she’s become one of the nation’s most influential education philosophers. In recent years, she’s been working to develop the field of “education ethics.” It’s an intriguing endeavor, which raises all kinds of questions about what that even means, if it has any practical value, and whether it can be in a way that isn’t political? The summer seemed like a good time to sit down and chat with Meira about all this. Here’s what she had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Meira, you’ve been working to build out the field of educational ethics for a while, but it’s probably new to a lot of readers. So, let’s start with the basics: What exactly is educational ethics?

Meira: Think about educational ethics as a field that is analogous to bioethics but focused on ethical questions that arise in educational policy and practice rather than on ethical questions that arise in medicine, public health, and biomedical science. Like bioethics, educational ethics provides theoretical, pedagogical, and policy-oriented tools to help practitioners and policymakers identify, analyze, discuss, and enact the ethical dimensions of their work in more complex ways.

Rick: What got you interested in this work?

Meira: As a middle school teacher, I faced ethical dilemmas on a regular basis and I never really knew what to do with them. It felt shameful to bring them up with colleagues: “Hey, do you feel like sometimes that you find yourself not living up to your values and being unfair to kids, or is it just me?” And then when I turned to the ethics literature, I couldn’t find anything helpful, either. This isn’t because I didn’t know where to look. I have a B.A. in philosophy from Yale and I got my doctorate in political theory from Oxford before I became a middle school teacher, so if anyone should have been able to find answers or reason their way through these dilemmas, it should have been me. But the philosophy I read was about things like utilitarianism versus rights-based reasoning or what the basic structure of justice looked like, and the ethics books for teachers were telling us not to steal the copy paper or ever give a kid a hug, and the education for social-justice literature was all about overturning the system and starting totally afresh. None of what I could find would help me figure out whether it was ethical to relax my grading or disciplinary standards for a kid whose parents were going through a nasty divorce, or how often I could ask a student who was far ahead of their peers to tutor during class without being in dereliction of my duty to her as her teacher.

Rick: I’ve always felt like there’s a widespread habit in education of imagining that our views are not only sensible but morally absolute. I could imagine that being a challenge when trying to help your students wrestle with complexities of grading or school discipline. What have you found?

Meira: When I started teaching at Harvard Graduate School of Education, students would troop through my office and say, “Professor Levinson, I’m so glad you’re here, because I believe in educating for social justice,” and they would think they had told me what their views were about charter schools, or high-stakes tests, or the Common Core, or teacher certification. Of course, I had no idea what they thought about any of these topics! Some favored charter schools on grounds of parental and educational freedom of choice, and others opposed them on grounds of democratic control and equality. Some students were excited about high-stakes tests as means to promote the values of transparency, accountability, and equity, while others opposed them because they believed in teacher and student autonomy, deep learning, and a different conception of equity. And on and on. So that was the other motivation: I wanted to help our graduates recognize that the ethical dimensions of their work are important and complex and that you can’t just say, “I believe in social justice,” or “I’m for educational equity,” or “I’m an anti-racist educator” and think you’re done.

Rick: Educational ethics isn’t a big field today, is it? Who else is doing this besides you?

Meira: It is and it isn’t. If you were to go around the world and ask educators, philosophers, policymakers, researchers, and so forth, “Are you an educational ethicist, or do you know anyone who is?,” you’d basically hear a chorus of “Huh? No. What even is that?” On the other hand, if you were to ask, “Do you research and write about values and moral principles in education or do you think carefully about the ethical dimensions of your work in education?,” a ton of people would say, “Absolutely! That’s central to my work!” So in part I’m just trying to name something that a lot of people already identify with and care about. But it is also true that I’m trying to recruit people to the field. Even though many people care about the ethical dimensions of educational policy and practice, many fewer are working directly with educators, school and district leaders, state policymakers, nonprofits, ministries of education, and the like to help them reflect upon and address the specific ethical issues they are wrestling with in their work. This is different from a field like bioethics, where every major hospital in the U.S. has bioethicists on staff or on call as consultants, and most major policy decisions say about kidney-distribution policies, vaccine mandates, or end-of-life care directives include bioethicists among the consulting stakeholders. I don’t know of any major school district, charter network, or education agency that has educational ethicists on call, so I’m trying to change that!

Rick: Given that, can you say a bit about your EdEthics project at Harvard?

Meira: Absolutely! It’s been going for about a decade now, supported by a really wonderful mix of graduate students, alumni, faculty colleagues, and partner schools and districts. We are trying to grow the field on both the supply and the demand side. With respect to supply, we generate new theory as well as teaching tools and personnel. Our “normative case study” teaching tools are probably the most fully developed: Across our books and website, we offer more than 50 richly described, realistic accounts of complex ethical dilemmas that arise within practice or policy contexts, in which protagonists must decide among courses of action, none of which is self-evident as the right one to take. These are designed so people can read them quickly and then immediately start having nuanced discussions with one another across lines of difference. On the demand side, we have been partnering with a range of schools, districts, and teacher and leadership education programs to help them figure out what needs they have with respect to ethical reflection, learning, and action, and how we or others can help them address these needs.

Rick: Can you give us a sense of what this looks like in practical terms?

Meira: Yeah, we have a lot going on! Last month, we hosted a workshop on EdEthics in Action followed by an interdisciplinary Educational Ethics Field-Launching Conference that drew over 400 in-person and online attendees from at least 20 countries. We just wrapped up our first run of a 12-week online course on Promoting Powerful Ethical Engagement with Normative Case Studies and we’re enrolling a new cohort to start the course in September. Our main website, Justice in Schools, gets 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a month; these visitors have downloaded our case studies about 35,000 times, which we estimate translates to about 750,000 total users. One of the cases on the site, an immersive digital ethical simulation called “Promotion or Retention?,” has won national and international awards and is being used in dozens of districts, colleges, and universities. We have also published two books: Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries and Democratic Discord in Schools: Cases and Commentaries in Educational Ethics and we have two new books of global “cases and conversations” coming out next year: Civic Contestation in Global Education and Educational Equity in a Global Context. We have a great partnership with Ethical Schools to produce a video podcast, What Would You Do? and we have also been working with Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery to produce materials that help people grapple with the complex ethical dimensions of universities’ entanglement with slavery and colonialism. As I mentioned earlier, we also have ongoing partnerships with schools and districts and we have trained over 30 case-discussion facilitators to support this work. Finally, we have started up a stream of empirical research about educators’ and school and district leaders’ ethical perspectives, ethical challenges, and ethical learning, which I’m really excited about sharing over the next few years.

Rick: In a polarized time, and especially when it feels like a lot of ed. school scholarship leans very much to one side of our cultural divides, I can’t help but wonder whether the attempt to promote ethical inquiry could play out as an effort to promote a particular ideological agenda. How do you think about this and how do you navigate these tensions?

Meira: This is the reason to have a field of educational ethics, so we can point out that ideology is not equivalent to ethics—and also that just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they are unethical or have no values! This is the problem with people who think that declaring their belief in “education for social justice,” “educational equity,” “anti-racist education,” “parents’ rights,” or “academic freedom” is the same as declaring their substantive views about particular policy questions. It’s just not. This is also why we design our normative case studies the way we do. Each case focuses on a truly hard decision about which there is no one clearly right answer—though there may be some wrong answers; we aren’t relativists. Each case also represents multiple divergent perspectives in a way designed to present each stance in its own best light. And we write the cases in ways that are designed to keep people off-balance about what they believe should be done, so that the conversation can focus on complex questions about values and principles, rather than reverting to virtue-signaling and identity-based ideological performances.

Rick: What kind of research or evaluations have been done on this work and field?

Meira: The click data and open-ended journal reflections we collect from our digital ethical simulation, combined with a range of surveys and case-discussion transcripts connected to the PD sessions we run, offer us a wealth of insight into how educators, educational leaders, and teachers-in-training think about and enact the ethical dimensions of their work. Educators have been really enthusiastic about having the opportunity to discuss ethical dilemmas in education: 98 percent of the educators we worked with in Chicago said they would recommend the PD to their colleagues, with a surprisingly large number in fact then inviting us to help them plan and/or run case discussions at their schools. A large majority of Chicago educators reported that they were still reflecting on the PD and applying it to their own work three months after it occurred. We also found through analyzing their case-discussion transcripts that educators really deepened their own ethical reflection and understanding. Our research has also enabled us to answer questions posed by our district partners, including about how teachers from different teaching and demographic contexts compare when they discuss ethical issues. In this case, we found that educators did not differ in significant or predictable ways by context or background, which was a bit of a surprise, but also reinforced the effectiveness of the case designs in helping people think and talk in complex ways.

Rick: This is all fascinating stuff but, done poorly, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a risk of cultivating groupthink—if the cautions about allowing for multiple right answers could get lost, especially if this is carried on primarily by progressive education faculty in progressive schools of education. How are you all working to avoid that?

Meira: On the teaching front, by representing multiple conflicting but principled viewpoints in every case we develop and by testing them in diverse contexts. This is also why our case books include an array of commentaries or conversations following each case, to model productive dialogue and disagreement among diverse interlocutors. On the field-building front, by emphasizing the multidisciplinary and multiperspectival nature of the field of educational ethics. Last month’s conference, for instance, featured speakers from philosophy, political science, history, public policy, psychology, law, bioethics, journalism, medicine, sociology, computer science, pediatrics, and education. Our speakers also included a university president, a special education teacher, a school principal, a teacher and instructional coach, and the leader of a local teachers’ union. Conference-goers were definitely exposed to a range of not-always-compatible viewpoints, and a couple of the panels even got a bit spicy! We work to achieve this kind of diversity for all of our events, programs, and scholarship.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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