By Duane Swacker
Ethics in Educational Practices
‘Ethics are more important than laws.’ Wynton Marsalis
While many, especially those who make a living off of working with laws, might disagree with Marsalis’ statement much is to be said for this simple thought. Much like with justice and truth, most folks believe they know what ethics are. Merriam-Webster Online states:
1 plural but sing or plural in constr: the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.
2a: a set of moral principles: a theory or system of moral values <the present day materialistic ethic> <an old fashioned work ethic> –often used in plural but singular or plural in construction <an elaborate ethics> <Christian ethics> b: the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group <professional ethics> c: a guiding philosophy d: a consciousness of moral importance <forge a conservation ethic>
3: a set of moral issues or aspects (as rightness) <debated the ethics of human cloning>
As with justice and truth, the topic of ethics has been debated for millennia. The scope of this chapter does not allow for even a short discussion of the historical issues of ethics and will focus on the current and practical concerns of ethics in educational practices. As it is, this book falls under the meaning of definition #3 as debating the “moral issues or aspects” of certain educational practices. As part of that examination I will briefly discuss professional codes of ethics-definition #2b. And in the spirit of definition #1 of dealing “with what is good and bad” with certain educational practices, and using the fundamental purpose of public education as stated above as the guiding philosophy-definition #2c) I attempt to will forge “a consciousness of moral importance”-definition #2d.
A number of different professional teacher and teacher preparation organizations have promulgated their own code of teacher professional ethics. In examining a few of them I’ve chosen to use three organization’s codes as typical to extract common statements that will serve as guides to what teacher professional ethics can be. The American Association of Educators (AAE) code of ethics lists three main categories of ethics: 1) In relation to the students and parents, 2) In relation to practices and performance and 3) in relation toward professional colleagues. The National Association of State Directors of Teacher and Education Certification (NASDTEC) code details five: 1) responsibility to the profession, 2) respect for professional competence, 3) respect for students, 4) responsibility to the school community and 5) responsible and ethical use of technology. The National Education Association (NEA) has only two: 1) in relation toward students and 2) in relation to the profession of teaching.
By far the most comprehensive of the three is the NASDTEC code with many pages of detailed commentary. The AAE code is roughly two pages with some commentary. And the NEA code can fit on one page with a preamble accounting for about one third and then basic listings of areas of ethical considerations. The AAE and the NEA focus first on ethics in relation to students and then toward the profession and practices. The NASDTEC code starts with an overview then lists two sections dealing with ethics in regard to the profession, one for students, one for the school community and in what appears to be a recent addition one on the ethics of technology usage. All three have short summaries of each section.
Ethics in regard to students and towards practices and performance, are the two categories that interest us and warrant further commentary along with a quick caveat about ethics toward the profession of teaching itself. Obviously teachers’ main ethical concern should primarily be directed toward the student as noted by the AAE code: “The professional educator deals considerately and justly with each student, and seeks to resolve problems, including discipline, according to law and school policy” and “the professional educator makes a constructive effort to protect the student from conditions detrimental to learning, health, or safety.” What happens when “law and school policy” actually hinder those dealings as hinted at in the end of the statement? The answer to follow. Or from the NEA code: “the educator shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning or to health and safety.”
In regard to ethical considerations in relation to professional competence and practices the NASDTEC code states: “The professional educator demonstrates responsible use of data, materials, research and assessment . . . and the professional educator acts in the best interests of all students. . . .” And the AAE code offers: “The professional educator assumes responsibility and accountability for his or her performance and continually strive to demonstrate competence. The professional educator endeavors to maintain the dignity of the profession by respecting and obeying the law, and by demonstrating personal integrity.”
Would not “personal integrity” entail not only “respecting and obeying the law” but to stridently opposing and challenging the law or policy that mandates the malpractices of educational standards and standardized testing that are “detrimental to learning, health or safety” of the students? Unfortunately, teachers are under constant pressure to institute and maintain those fundamentally and fatally flawed malpractices. The vast majority of public school educators, especially administrators, believe that upholding the ethics toward the profession and its practices holds sway over upholding ethics towards the students. While doings so may be quite beneficial to the educators, it serves to cause harm to the students as their interests play second or third fiddle to administrative decrees which is backwards to the interests of justice for the student.
That teachers and administrators put more emphasis in compliance with state department of education or federal directives and/or laws should not and cannot trump justice for the students. Again Comte-Sponville:
“Should we therefore forgo our self-interest? Of course not. But it [self-interest] must be subordinate to justice, not the other way around. . . . To take advantage of a child’s naivete. . . in order to extract from them something [test scores, personal information] that is contrary to their interests, or intentions, without their knowledge [or consent of parents] or through coercion [state mandated testing], is always and everywhere unjust even if in some places and under certain circumstances it is not illegal. . . . Justice is superior to and more valuable than well-being or efficiency; it cannot be sacrificed to them, not even for the happiness of the greatest number [quoting Rawls]. To what could justice legitimately be sacrificed, since without justice there would be no legitimacy or illegitimacy? And in the name of what, since without justice even humanity, happiness and love could have no absolute value. . . . Without justice, values would be nothing more than (self) interests or motives; they would cease to be values or would become values without worth.” [my additions]
Keeping that in mind, let’s examine the two most dominant educational malpractices of today–educational standards and standardized testing by utilizing the condensed statements of teacher professional ethics with our fundamental ethical statement of the purpose of American public education in conjunction with a discussion of the demonstrated invalidity and lack of fidelity to truth in educational standards and standardized testing regimes and how all of that plays out in relation to ethical and justice concerns.
How was it that America became the “top dog” nation of the world by the end of the 20th Century without having a standardized public education system? In the past century over 13,000 separate and distinct school districts went along, doing their own thing, developing their own curriculums as seen fit by the local democratically elected school boards. And the result of that variety, multiplicity and non-standardization? An educational non-system that the world admired, copied and emulated. Why then the push for standardization in the very late 90s and in this current century? There are many reasons, most having to do with the neo-liberal ideology in free markets and choice but that is not our concern.
Educational standards and standardized testing form the basis for federal and state mandated practices such as rating and ranking students, schools and districts, and teacher assessment through such invalid schemes such as Hanushek’s Value Added Methodology (VAM) and Student Growth Percentiles (SGP). Considering that the standards and testing malpractices cause significant harm not only to the students but also to teachers and schools through invalid schemes, that the errors, falsehoods and unfounded claims by proponents of standards and standardized testing render said practices invalid, unethical, unjust and contravene the fundamental purpose of American public education, these mandates violate the trust of the citizenry by not fulfilling the stated purpose of American public education of promoting “the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry“.
Our concern is the invalidity of, the injustice of, the unethicalness of and the broken promise of providing to our children an education that promotes “ the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry” in the educational standards and standardized testing regime.
In “Standards of Educational and Psychological Testing” it states at the very beginning of Chapter 1-Validity that “validity refers to the degree to which evidence and theory support the interpretations of test scores for the stated proposed uses of tests. Validity is, therefore, the most fundamental consideration in developing tests and evaluating tests” (my emphasis) and I would include the standards upon which those tests are supposedly based in that development. Noel Wilson has addressed those validity concerns in his review of the prior version of the “Standards. . .” in “A Little Less than Valid: An Essay Review” stating “To the extent that these categorisations are accurate or valid at an individual level, these decisions may be both ethically acceptable to the decision makers, and rationally and emotionally acceptable to the test takers and their advocates. They accept the judgments of their society regarding their mental or emotional capabilities. But to the extent that such categorisations are invalid, they must be deemed unacceptable [and unethical] to all concerned.” (my emphasis) The brilliance of Wilson’s proofs of the invalidities of educational standards and standardized testing is in his flipping the concept of validity as proposed in the “Standards. . .” into one of invalidity as far as the test taker is concerned.
Taking into account Wilson’s proofs of the invalidities of educational standards and standardized testing we can only conclude that any results are therefore invalid, false, error prone and lacking a fidelity to truth as all the psychometric error factors are kept hidden from all but a select few involved in the promotion and dissemination of those malpractices. As such those malpractices can only be considered unethical and unjust. When have the proponents made explicitly clear those validity (and reliability) concerns? Hardly ever, especially not to the person taking the tests. They can’t! Wilson has proven the fundamental concepts to be epistemologically and ontologically bankrupt. All the errors in classification, in labelling, in construction, in slides of frame of reference, etc., which Wilson has identified are never addressed. By not explicitly acknowledging all the errors in the process, proponents of the standards and testing regime are not being honest and therefore lack the fidelity to truth that should be the guiding principle for all educators. Their actions must be considered unethical.
Not only that but since these practices cause untold harm through false conclusions that result in students being denied certain educational goals and aspirations the process must be deemed unethical as a violation of the ethical principle of “the educator shall make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning”. False and error filled test results can only insure to produce those harmful conditions and, therefore, rightly should be rejected on ethical grounds. The results of the tests discriminate against some students not only through mis-categorization but also in falsely labeling (grading) some students as beginning, not proficient, average or whatever other terminology is used to describe the various categories of results.
Should the state be discriminating against individual students through invalid, harmful, unethical and unjust malpractices that are educational standards and standardized testing?
Considering that the fundamental purpose of public education in America can be summarized as “. . . to promote the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry” there is only one answer:
- See: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ethic
- The National Education Association (NEA): http://www.nea.org/home/30442.htm; The American Association of Educators (AAE): http://www.aaeteachers.org/index.php/about-us/aae-code-of-ethics; and The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC): http://www.nasdtec.net/?page=MCEE_Doc
- The story of that ideology and its practices that have done so much damage to American public education is easily located by a quick internet search. An excellent review is to be found in Diane Ravitch’s “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools“
- See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Value-added_modeling
- See: http://www.rand.org/education/projects/measuring-teacher-effectiveness/student-growth-percentiles.html
- See: The AERA/APA/NCME’s “Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing”
- See: http://www.edrev.info/essays/v10n5.pdf