Dilemmas of Educational Ethics

by Harry on April 21, 2016

I wrote last year about the Justice in Education project at Harvard, which has developed a series of case studies posing difficult moral questions concerning educational decision-making. Meira Levinson and Jacob Fay have just published a brilliant volume, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, containing 6 cases, with 6 responses to each case by a variety of authors – most of them academics (from a variety of disciplines, and including Howard Gardner, Mary Patillo, Diana Hess, Tommie Shelby, Christopher Winship, and Elizabeth Anderson) but also by teachers, administrators, and one legislator.

Last fall I based a course on the manuscript of the book. Its always hard to tell why a class works brilliantly well – this one was small (25), and had a great mix of students, who were as ideologically diverse as it gets at Madison (I loved the fact that two girls, one a very conservative Republican, the other a very liberal Democrat, became inseparable friends during the course), but also a perfect mix of science, social science, and humanities majors, and of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. And all of them seemed willing to work hard, and seriously. But the conception of the course was pretty good too. When I first thought about it I planned to spend the first half of the semester reading theoretical and empirical literature about education, and then spend the second half on the cases. But I quickly realized that would establish a bad dynamic (me talking too much) and would load a lot of reading upfront. So I scattered the cases throughout the course (and added a couple more).

The first case in the book concerns social promotion. It takes the form of a debate among a group of teachers, some giving reasons why a particular girl should graduate from middle school (appealing to evidence that children who are held back drop out at high rates; that her academic failure is not really her fault because i) her science class, which she failed, was taught by a sub who was, by his own admission, incompetent, for most of the year and ii) her family circumstances essentially made learning impossible); others giving reasons for holding her back (she’s not ready for the academic demands of high school; it sends a bad message to both her and other students if the school graduates students who are known not to have reached the minimum academic threshold needed to pass their classes). It doesn’t require a huge amount of background knowledge in order to generate intelligent discussion. So that was a good starting point, and, in fact, my students came up with good points on both sides that I had never thought about, despite having read the commentaries and discussed the case several times.

Three of the other cases concern in-school dilemmas about special education, discipline, and grade inflation: again, the cases for, and against, a particular course of action are made pretty forcefully, in a way that should make most readers who come to the issues without strong pre-existing biases see them as real dilemmas. The remaining two are more policy-focused. One describes the Academy of the Pacific Rim charter schools in Boston, providing a fair amount of detail about the academic success of students who attend those schools, and making the case that the (disadvantaged) children who attend these schools benefit considerably, but also that they are less disadvantaged than students who are served by district schools (and who may be served worse by those schools than they would be if charters didn’t exist because of the skimming that the charter schools effectively do). It then describes a bill that came before the Massachusetts legislature which aimed to limit the expansion of charter schools by requiring that charter schools achieve the same demographic mix, and the same attrition rates as surrounding district schools (it is widely thought that one reason charter schools like Academy of Pacific Rim are successful is that they, unlike surrounding district schools, can easily expel students for disciplinary infractions, and induce students who are unsuccessful to leave — and they do, typically, have high attrition rates); and asks the reader whether they would support the bill. The other policy-oriented case concerns the Boston Public Schools parental choice plan which deliberately and explicitly panders to middle class parents in order to keep them in the district (described here, see also this paper). I kept these cases for later in the course, after the students had picked up more knowledge of the way the American education system works.

The commentaries are interesting, short, and diverse: The editors selected people from a wider range of political viewpoints than is common in a volume emanating from an school of education, and the authors responded by not trotting out a party line, but really thinking about the details of the cases. And it is a rare volume which has been edited with ruthless discipline, so not a word is wasted (this includes my own contribution, which was edited several times, and is far better than it would have been if they had taken what I gave them). I got the students to read each case and discuss it at considerable length before reading the commentaries, after having done so, and written about the case themselves, they got to discuss the commentaries – which, I thought, worked well, especially because they got the affirmation of finding thoughts in the published commentaries which they had, themselves, arrived at independently. The format of the book also creates natural assignments – commentaries are all 1500-2000 words, so it is natural to ask students to use those commentaries as a model for their own writing.

And, as suggested by LFC the final project was to develop a case study of their own. The results were terrific, even though I screwed up in a number of ways. My screw ups: i) making the groups too big (6 or 7 students is too many, because coordinating outside-of-class time for even 3 or 4 students is very difficult); not giving them enough time in-class to work on it (I gave them just one class session – should have been 3); not giving them enough in-class time to present them to one another; and not requiring a draft due 3 weeks before the final assignment was due, so they didn’t get systematic feedback from me on their drafts (this last failure didn’t affect the quality of what they did, but it did make them much more anxious as they proceeded than was necessary).

I’ll finish with a quote from a former student of mine which I should have suggested to the editors and publishers as a blurb, which shows why every prospective teacher should read the book, and why every teacher education program should adopt it in a compulsory class:

“I wish they would give us more readings like those in my school of education, they are much more realistic than most of the readings we do, which are more idealistic… Actually I think that tension is something I struggled with a lot throughout the program-but didn’t fully understand why it was so frustrating to me. In my practicum I would see my teachers facing problems like this one [the social promotion case] and the other behavior case every day-multiple times a day. Then in our content classes these very real problems were almost watered down, and approached in terms of ideal theory. We talked about the benefits of all-inclusive classes, being preventative, and reflecting in action. But we never really had conversations about how this looks in imperfect practice”



joe koss 04.21.16 at 11:41 am

Thanks for this update Harry. The case studies sound fantastic, and any book that has both you and Diana as contributors is one to own.

The tension noted in the final quote was talked about quite a bit in my SoE friend cohort as well. I remember once having a couple of teachers come into our methods class to do a round-table discussion about differentiation, real vs. ideal, and it being one of the more dynamic learning moments for us prospective teachers.

I also remember talking to the methods professor at the time about trying to get more opportunities like that, and with her usual pragmatic approach, completely agreed and then mentioned how hard it is to facilitate those types of discussions with real teachers because of the very real constraints of scheduling (being a teacher now myself for 6 years I completely understand this point). These types of case studies might be a great middle ground.

One final tangential comment. A few articles have came out that have caught my attention about the state of privatizing educational opportunities in some of the most disadvantaged countries in the name of educational equity/equality. This recent Wired article has been the most in-depth so far. I have been in many South American countries now where the ideal of publicly supported liberal education is very far from the real, to the point that it is not possible to support the instantiation of it. However, the moral trade-offs are numerous and have important consequences in a world that privatized equality/equity is offering, right? And as the article notes, the conversation is past “arguing the merits of the idea.” Which should give all educators pause, especially if you believe in the ideal of liberal education.

Anyway. Some loose parallels to the last two case studies, but with much wider global significance. And, quite a ripe area for bringing “the tools and perspectives of contemporary moral and political philosophy to bear on issues of educational policy and practice.” …don´t you think? Hint.


harry b 04.21.16 at 12:11 pm

Thanks Joe. Ha — yes! I’ll read the Wired article forthwith, but my initial reaction when I clicked was on how old Michael Barber looks in the picture….. but then I remembered that it is about 27 years since I sat with him at a Test match at Edgbaston, when he was a humble research officer for the National Union of Teachers…. Funny things happen over time…


Sebastian H 04.21.16 at 3:36 pm

Yes, people my age are so old.


ET 04.22.16 at 7:23 am

I see you call your female students girls – do you call your male students boys?


harry b 04.22.16 at 12:29 pm

Yes. Well, I mostly call them by their names. I’m not completely consistent but I mostly refer to my female students as women, and to my male students as boys (as you’ll see from reading the numerous posts about teaching over the years). I never call, or refer to, any of them, male or female, ladies, which seems to be pervasive in athletics.


Bloix 04.22.16 at 2:46 pm

It does sound like an excellent class. Was it listed as a philosophy course? And were the scientists and social scientists there to fill a distribution requirement? I ask because I’m generally skeptical of distribution requirements but in this case they seem to have served their purpose.


harry b 04.25.16 at 5:13 pm

Sorry for the delay. Yes, it met a requirement, which is why most students took it. I, too, am skeptical of distribution requirements, but my skepticism makes me feel more of an obligation to ensure quality, not just so it is a good class, but so that it fulfills the aims of the general ed requirements. Who knows whether I succeed, int he absence of any good measures of learning!!

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