School & District Management

Schools Are Full of Ethical Dilemmas. Can Ethicists Help?

By Benjamin Herold — May 19, 2023 8 min read
We need to be honest about the complexity of these decisions" facing schools, said Harvard University political philosopher Meira Levinson, right, during a May 2023 conference on educational ethics.
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(Disclosure: The author spoke at the conference described in this story as an invited panelist whose travel expenses were paid by Harvard University. The panel he served on is not featured in this story.)

From responding to public pressure over school mascots to navigating parent complaints about LGBTQ-themed library books, the staff of the 3,200-student Guilford, Conn., school district must confront a steady stream of ethical quandaries.

So, Superintendent Paul Freeman decided to call in the experts.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re an elementary teacher supervising indoor recess or a physics teacher at the high school, things will come up,” Freeman said earlier this month at a Harvard University conference intended to spur the formal establishment of a new field of educational ethics. “We were looking for somebody who could help teachers feel competent and confident in having these conversations.”

That person turned out to be Harvard political philosopher Meira Levinson, the driving force behind the effort to help schools better manage vexing situations in which it’s impossible to satisfy everyone’s wishes without compromising someone’s core values. The goal is less about giving recommendations than encouraging thoughtful deliberation around general principles that can be applied to real-life situations as they arise.

Professionals in numerous other fields work with ethics experts in such a manner. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, hospitals and public health agencies had bioethicists on call as they worked through wrenching decisions about allocating ventilators and distributing finite supplies of vaccines. In the K-12 world, however, school boards, superintendents, and state education leaders were often on their own when making similarly tough calls about reopening schools and requiring masks—not to mention confronting a raft of other concerns around everything from bathroom access to artificial intelligence.

The barriers to Levinson’s vision are numerous. At the Harvard conference, for example, historian Jarvis Givens questioned whether any widely agreed-upon ethical principles are possible in a nation where many states criminalized teaching and learning in Black communities for decades, resulting in alternate visions of what’s right and just that are sometimes at odds with the priorities of existing school systems. The leadership of the nonprofit American Principles Project, meanwhile, told Education Week that any effort toward a field of educational ethics would need to prioritize parental perspectives and respect conservative moral values in order to gain widespread support.

With public education now such a hot-button political issue, many key stakeholders are also more interested in imposing their own preferred solutions than in seeking consensus. And Superintendent Freeman, Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang, and New York City special education student support lead Khalya Hopkins were among the K-12 practitioners at the Harvard conference who raised practical questions around everything from staffing to funding.

Still, Levinson is convinced that an ethical lens can be a powerful tool for educators in the hot seat.

“We need to be honest about the complexity of these decisions,” she said.

The value of studying realistic ethical dilemmas

The most important tools used by educational ethicists are called “normative case studies.”

These short write-ups describe realistic situations in which relatable protagonists must navigate moral gray areas. Trained facilitators then lead discussions designed to help participants consider the situation from every angle. So far, Levinson and her team have developed roughly four dozen such case studies. Many are available online.

One scenario featured at the conference is called “Talking Out of Turn.” It explores the complexities of political speech in schools through the stories of real-life educators including David Roberts, a substitute teacher in California who was banned from subbing at Clovis West High School after wearing a Black Lives Matter pin at school, and Tim Latham, a history and government teacher in Lawrence, Kan., who claimed his contract was not renewed because he’d criticized presidential candidate Barack Obama in class and because he maintained a website containing patriotic and military material.

Inside a Harvard classroom, a mix of college professors and K-12 educators drew easy connections between the details of the case study and their own fraught experiences planning social studies curricula and responding to colleagues who refuse to use students’ chosen pronouns.

Much of their dialogue focused on identifying underlying themes, such as the tensions inherent in protecting rights of teachers who are politically out of step with the communities in which they work.

That’s what educational ethics aims for, Levinson told the conference attendees, saying that educators need to be prepared in advance with an “ethical repertoire” they can lean on in the heat of the moment.

“The same way you might say, ‘This calls for a turn-and-talk, but that calls for a small-group discussion,’ teachers should have a set of ethical options already in mind,” she said.

‘We found ourselves at the center of a maelstrom’

During the fall of 2022, Levinson’s team walked Superintendent Freeman and more than 300 Guilford educators through Talking Out of Turn and another ethical case study during a series of professional development days.

The district’s troubles began with a school-mascot renaming controversy, then intensified with fights over social-emotional learning and a graphic novel in the school library that featured a gay character. Things boiled over when Freeman started referencing the work of such left-leaning antiracist figures as Ibram X. Kendi in his public remarks. Last September, with help from a conservative Idaho-based advocacy group called We the Patriots USA, a group of local parents filed a lawsuit accusing the Guilford district of pushing a “radical racist agenda.”

“Somehow, we found ourselves at the center of a maelstrom,” Freeman said. “I didn’t even know what critical race theory was until I was accused of teaching it.”

Dedicating a day to discussing case studies didn’t solve the Guilford district’s problems. But the superintendent said teachers appreciated the chance to think through options for balancing their sometimes-competing desires to teach social justice-themed material, ensure that conservative students still feel free to speak in class, and avoid being targeted on social media.

“The feedback was, ‘We feel seen and heard today,’” Freeman said.

But while the ethical case study model has promise, K-12 education has been slower than many other fields to integrate the principles and processes employed by professional ethicists.

Khalya Hopkins, the administrator who works with special education teachers in New York City, highlighted some of the day-to-day challenges. The reality is that her district creates many of the ethical dilemmas she and her colleagues must face daily, Hopkins said, citing as an example difficult decisions about whether to compromise one’s personal integrity by signing documents promising services that are unlikely to get delivered effectively.

That’s why the details of any formal push to bring education ethicists into schools matter greatly, Hopkins argued.

“The biggest issue is who’s going to be doing this,” she said. “I don’t want only older white men making decisions or determining what is ethical for poor Black and brown people.”

Establishing a more formal academic field of educational ethics

Though dozens if not hundreds of professors from disciplines as diverse as philosophy and public policy are interested in issues related to educational ethics, Levinson said they currently lack many of the key facets of a formal academic field, such as dedicated tenure lines and journals.

There are, however, recent signs of movement. The Spencer Foundation, a major education-philanthropy, provided financial support for the Harvard conference. (The Spencer Foundation helps support Education Week’s coverage of educational research.) Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean Bridget Terry Long has also thrown her support behind the effort.

Still, given the contemporary political climate, the K-12 sector isn’t exactly flush with faith that even the most well-intentioned outsider can play the role of honest broker in heated debates about issues such as schools’ treatment of transgender students.

“We do what’s right for children,” said Freeman, who described his district as committed to supporting and celebrating trans kids. “That doesn’t mean we have a political agenda.”

“How I see it is that I’m also working to protect kids who identify as transgender from being exploited through expensive medical treatments,” said Terry Schilling, the president of the American Principles Project, who describes the push to recognize non-traditional gender identities as undermining a shared sense of reality and thus “inherently divisive.”

For Levinson and her team, however, such diverging views are precisely why ethicists are needed throughout the K-12 world.

“By 2050, I hope that teachers and professors, school principals and university provosts, PTA presidents, central office administrators, school boards, Head Start directors, charter network CEOs, learning technology providers, after-school partners, and even students think it is totally natural that they can call on education ethicists whenever they face an ethical dilemma or conflict they feel ill-equipped to resolve on their own,” she said.

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