Values and Evidence in Education Reform

by Harry on November 6, 2006

Education Week is currently hosting an open house; well worth visiting for anyone interested in ed policy issues in the US. It also gives me a chance to link directly to an essay of mine they published a few weeks ago, concerning the role of value considerations in evaluating educational reforms. The essay is a distillation of some of the points I made in a much longer talk I recently gave at the Spencer Foundation conference on Values and Evidence in School Reform, and I’m very interested in what other political and moral philosophers and applied ethicists (whom I’d like to encouage to do more work on education issues) think, especially about the analogy I make with the philosophy of health policy. When I talk to education scholars I often encounter a fair amount of resistance to the project of justifying objective moral values (as I do, with specific reference to education, in On Education). Some low-level variant of moral relativism or, perhaps to put it more fairly, a deep suspicion of moral realism, is quite entrenched among some education scholars, so my guess is there is a bit more resistance to the bigger project I suggest in the essay than philosophers would encounter in medical ethics and health policy.



Kent 11.06.06 at 3:49 pm

Interesting article, thanks for the link.

I used to do ethics, and I think I can still put on that hat. Hopefully the following won’t be completely worthless.

I don’t think that philosophers’ alleged disinterest in being constrained by questions of feasibility can be the difference. Feasibility questions arise just as strongly in medical situations.

I think there may be other reasons why there is a professional field from which philosophers may aspire to make a living called “medical ethics,” but not one called “educational ethics.”

The cynical explanation would be financial. We simply value (and/or are willing to pay for) medical care more than we value education: we pay doctors the big bucks and teachers not so much. Hospitals have more dollars rattling around that can be paid to ethicists than do ever-strapped school boards.

To move somewhat away from the cynical, here’s another difference. Medical ethics debates specific issues that come up in medical practice. There are a whole bunch of issues, from living wills/DNR/etc. to distribution of economic resources, etc., etc. Many of the issues are patient-specific, and lead to complex conclusions: “do X in case Y, but do not-X in case Z, with the relevant differences between cases Y and Z being a, b, and c.”

In educational ethics, it seems like the big issues are more large-scale. “Should district X adopt policy Y?” Little, detailed prescriptions or proscriptions about how to handle specific cases … well, I suppose those could come up, but your essay doesn’t mention them. But I suppose one could imagine saying: we want to educate student Adam via method Y, but we should educate student Bill via method Z. (But would those be “ethical” decisions? Or would they not more likely be purely “educational” decisions: “Unlike Adam, Bill learns better this way than that way”?)

If the major educational moral decisions, unlike the major medical decisions, are really decisions about “how we want society as a whole to be,” then in a sense they do not fall under “educational ethics” so much as under political ethics or social ethics more generally. To take your Turkish example: “Facilitating greater equality of opportunity” versus “Promoting respect and tolerance for diverse ways of life” is a big question. I doubt that someone working for a school district would be likely to consider him/herself to have either the capacity or the social mandate to try to answer it.


Peter Levine 11.06.06 at 9:20 pm

Thanks for a wise and thoughtful paper. Because you think philosophically, you remind us of certain aspects of education that we tend to forget when we focus on strictly empirical questions. For example, we usually think of the effects of various educational policies on student outcomes, forgetting that school is also a place where people must spend many thousands of hours; it should be intrinsically satisfying. Even standard policy arguments–that X should be implemented so that students learn Y–always rest on moral premises that should be clarified and defended. Philosophy is helpful for this purpose if it is grounded in empirical information and experience.

I think Kent is right to note the issue of scale, which partly explains why philosophers have mostly overlooked educational policy. “Ethics” usually involves decisions that individuals make in respect to other individuals (e.g., physicians’ treatment of their own patients, or teachers decisions in grading their students). This is the smallest possible scale. Meanwhile, political philosophers emphasize what Rawls called “the basic structure of society,” which is the biggest scale of all. But so many important issues involve the middle range. For example, how should hospitals be regulated in our partially unjust society? And, should schools be allowed to choose their students?

It’s my sense that medical ethicists used to focus on individual, ethical choices (for instance, abortion, suicide, euthanasia). But there is now a substantial body of writing on what you call “health policy ethics,” which concerns medium-scale issues in an imperfect world.

We need exactly the same kind of work in education, where the moral issues are not limited to individual decisions that arise within a classroom, nor to questions of universal rights. (Indeed, almost everyone endorses a right to education.) Instead, the interesting issues are the ones you concentrated on in your conference: systems of standards and testing; various forms of choice among schools; and the wisdom of replacing large, “shopping-mall” high schools with small institutions that have coherent themes.


Dirk 11.07.06 at 2:30 pm

Just wanted to mention one of my favorite Crooked Timber posts:

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