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Presidential Commission on Educational Ethics

Note: This week's guest-blogger is Meira Levinson, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE).

This week, I've been highlighting a variety of ethical dilemmas that bedevil educators, school leaders, educational policy makers, parents, and informed citizens. I've touched on ethical questions about classroom discipline, promotion and retention practices, civic and moral education in ideologically fraught times, and school closure debates. For better or worse, I haven't provided "answers" to any of these dilemmas. Rather, I've been trying to sound two consistent themes.

First, everyday decisions in education policy and practice are laden with multiple, often competing values and principles that admit no easy answers. It is important for us to recognize and talk about this. Good education is not just a data-driven, "best practices" oriented, technocratic enterprise. It is also a values-driven enterprise. Education both is shaped by, and helps to shape, moral and political principles that are highly contested and also unavoidable.

Second, and relatedly, if we want to take ethical action in education, we shouldn't try to go it alone. We need to talk with people who occupy different roles and have different perspectives from those we're used to hearing. Teachers, parents, school leaders, state policy makers, researchers, and yes, even philosophers, are likely to develop far more nuanced and insightful, empirically justified, and pragmatically effective responses to dilemmas of educational ethics if they explore these issues together.

This is also the case if people come together across ideological divides, and across current battle lines surrounding charter schools, Common Core standards, high-stakes assessment, teacher evaluation, school discipline, and other contentious issues in U.S. education. It is simply not the case that one side is motivated by ethical values of equality, liberty, and justice, say, while the other side is simply in the pocket of corporate profiteers/teachers unions/beneficiaries of graft and patronage/neo-liberal ideologues looking to preserve white privilege/whatever. Rather, I truly believe that most people in education truly are committed to equity, to fairness, to expanding opportunities for all children. The problem is that it is challenging to figure out what these values mean in practice, in various contexts.

As a result, I want to close out my week of couch-surfing on Rick's blog by suggesting that dilemmas of educational ethics deserve a more systematic, inclusive, and nationally visible approach. In particular, I propose that the next president inaugurate a Presidential Commission on Educational Ethics. 

I imagine a body with 15-20 members including first-class researchers, policy makers, educators, ethicists, parents, students, and other members of civil society (educational non-profits, business leaders, etc.). It might meet 4-6 times per year to identify and commission studies or policy recommendations on such topics as curriculum and assessment design, teacher preparation, special education reforms, and use of data to track students across education, health, and social service sectors.

My model for this proposal is the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. Bioethics essentially did not exist until the presidential bioethics commissions were launched and collaborations were fostered among scientists, philosophers, social scientists, and policy makers. It was essential to find highly placed researchers, practitioners, and policy makers in medicine, public health, and biology who recognized the existence of ethical challenges and need for solutions, and who recognized that collaborations with philosophers would have dividends. It was simultaneously necessary for philosophers to develop new avenues of theorizingeventually, an entirely new subfield of philosophy—in order to address novel substantive questions, and in order to engage productively with a novel (i.e. non-philosophical) audience.

Now, it is unimaginable for bioethics not to exist. It is taken as given that clinical bioethicists will be on staff of or consultants to major hospitals, that bioethics will be taught in major philosophy departments, and that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues will commission studies and recommend policies about whole genome sequencing, synthetic biology, or gain of function research. But none of this was obvious even thirty years ago.

Imagine if the Presidential Commission on Educational Ethics functioned as a nationally-visible, intellectually inclusive and serious, multidisciplinary and cross-professional, advisory body. Just as it is unimaginable nowadays that scientists and doctors will go it alone in deciding what kinds of research and treatments are ethical, it could be equally unimaginable in twenty years for educators and policy makers to be going it alone. It could be taken as given that major policy shifts at district, state, or federal levelsand major initiatives in the non-profit and for-profit education sectorswould be reviewed on ethical grounds both in advance and as they are rolled out. I could imagine that every major school district, charter management organization, and state department of education might have clinical educational ethicists as consultants or on staff. School leaders, teachers, after-school providers, and federal education officials might not agonize in private about the ethical dimensions of their practices and policies, but would actually seek out others for consultation, and have reports they could turn to for guidance. There are a ton of challenges in bringing this idea to fruition, of course, but it's hard to imagine it would be worse than the silence, or fight-to-the-death duels, over educational ethics that we currently face.

 --Meira Levinson 

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