HGSE Professor Meira Levinson.

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Nation & World

The classroom can be an ethical minefield. Meira Levinson has an answer.

6 min read

Ed School professor wants to close gap between scholarship, policy

Ethics is no less an issue in education than in medicine, so shouldn’t teachers, like physicians, have a framework that helps them navigate moral dilemmas at work?

Absolutely, says Meira Levinson.

The Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society and a onetime eighth-grade teacher, Levinson spoke with the Gazette about the complex ethical issues educators encounter every day and her efforts to support them. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Meira Levinson

GAZETTE: Why the interest in educational ethics?

LEVINSON: The primary reason to create a field of educational ethics is that everybody involved in education is wrestling with ethical challenges all the time. Over the last few decades, it has become much more accepted for educators, educational leaders, and policymakers to be open about curriculum, classroom management, hiring, and development challenges, but we’re still not open about the ethical challenges we face. Secondly, we don’t have the resources to help us get better. We need more and better theory, and we also need spaces to talk about ethical uncertainties with one another because we don’t really feel safe talking about these issues. And thirdly, scholars have been doing a lot of work on ethical questions in education for centuries, but that’s not visible to people on the ground. One goal of educational ethics is to close the gap between many of the scholars who have been doing the work and the educators and policymakers and leaders who could use that work.

“… how do we balance the needs of individual students in our classroom with the needs of the group? This is a small thing, but it has profound consequences for everyone’s learning.”

GAZETTE: You were an eighth-grade teacher many years ago. Can you talk about the ethical issues you faced then and how they compare with the challenges educators face today?

LEVINSON: Some ethical dilemmas are perennial. For example, how do we balance the needs of individual students in our classroom with the needs of the group? This is a small thing, but it has profound consequences for everyone’s learning.

Other ethical dilemmas are newer or take new forms. When I was a classroom teacher, I didn’t face questions about accommodations of gender diversity because we didn’t have kids who were openly gender diverse like we have now. It’s a perennial ethical question — what it means to have an inclusive school in which all kids feel valued, recognized, and welcomed. But this form is new, particularly as some families and educators are objecting to gender-inclusivity practices on religious and cultural inclusion grounds.

But educational ethics is not only about K-12 education; it’s about education at every level from early childhood through adulthood. I also face ethical dilemmas now as a university educator.

GAZETTE: What are those?

LEVINSON: A dilemma that crosses over K-12 through university is the question of what range of views are you going to treat as permissible to express in the classroom. One might say that every view should be able to be expressed because of freedom of speech, free inquiry, and so forth, but the truth is that we don’t allow neo-Nazi views in the classroom because what we do in higher education and in K-12 is to uphold a fundamental assertion about human equality. As an educator, I take the equal value of human beings as a given. But even if we agree that this is an acceptable ground rule, we all still face dilemmas about what this means in practice.

“If educational ethics becomes the field I would like it to be, educators and policymakers could similarly depend on educational ethicists to help them think through hard issues.”

GAZETTE: How can a system of ethics help teachers in real-world situations?

LEVINSON: We’ve been developing a lot of materials to help educators, parents, and policymakers: in particular what I call “normative case studies” about ethical dilemmas in education. Some of these cases are posted in Justice in Schools, which is aimed at linking educators, researchers, and philosophers to foster educational justice. These are not Harvard Business School case studies. They’re much shorter — five or six pages — and they’re designed to help people live with uncertainty rather than achieve a key “aha!” at the end of the discussion.

I’ll give you an example: We wrote a case about an instructional coach who is trying to bring a new social studies curriculum to a school, and she faces parent, teacher, and administrator pushback. The curriculum is way better than what the school was teaching before, but it’s also arguably hurting students given the implementation challenges. We used this case in a discussion with about 120 educators from one of the largest school districts in the U.S. Many said it was the first time that they could be honest with themselves and with each other about how hard it is to roll out new curriculum initiatives, and for the first time, they could talk about what it means to do good work and whom they are serving. We heard afterward that the case discussion set them up to have much more realistic and constructive conversations where they could be open with one another about the challenges, and be more able to make thoughtful decisions, rather than just being cynical or giving up or pretending that everything was perfect.

GAZETTE: What’s your best-case scenario for how the field develops?

LEVINSON: When I talk about educational ethics, I often draw a parallel to bioethics and the role that bioethicists play in relation to the biomedical sciences, medical institutions, and public health. Bioethicists help define the work’s ethical parameters; they are consultants when doctors or heads of hospitals are troubled by ethical dilemmas; and the theories they develop can help inform real-time policy and practice. For example, during COVID, the work that bioethicists had already done about rationing, triage, and the ethics of quarantining was helpful to policymakers, medical professionals, and industry partners.

If educational ethics becomes the field I would like it to be, educators and policymakers could similarly depend on educational ethicists to help them think through hard issues. They can call on them for consultations when they face dilemmas, such as when they are trying to decide school closing and reopening policies, teacher hiring and firing policies, high-stakes testing, legacy admissions, funding for humanities versus STEM fields, etc. Schools and universities can decide all those issues by bringing together the relevant stakeholders, along with an educational ethicist so that they could make sure they’re making ethical decisions that would benefit students, educators, and the whole community.