Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Ethics in the Classroom

A new way to find and explore the "right" responses to the toughest classroom dilemmas
Ethics in the Classroom

Ethical dilemmas abound in education. Should middle school teachers let a failing eighth-grade student graduate, knowing that if she’s held back, she’ll likely drop out? Should a private school principal condone inflated grades? Should an urban district pander to white, middle-class families — at the expense of poor, minority families — in order to boost the achievement of all schools?

Teachers, principals, superintendents, and education policymakers face questions such as these every day. And for many, amid the tangle of conflicting needs, disparate perspectives, and frustration over circumstances, lies the worry that discussing an ethical dilemma with colleagues will implicate you as not knowing how to make the right choice — or as already having made the wrong one.

Educational philosopher Meira Levinson and doctoral student Jacob Fay take up these challenges in the new book Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries. In detailing the moral predicaments that arise in schools, the researchers also provide a framework for educators to discuss their own dilemmas with colleagues, opening the door to making these conversations more common.

The Case of the Failing Eighth Grader

The book presents six detailed case studies of common educational dilemmas, each accompanied by commentaries of varying viewpoints. Written by a range of practitioners — from classroom teachers to district leaders to African American Studies professors to philosophers — these commentaries each dissect the cases differently, introducing new solutions and new ways to consider what is “right.”

In the first case study, middle schools teachers debate whether to allow a failing eighth grade student to graduate, knowing that she’s both unprepared for ninth-grade coursework but also likely to drop out if she’s held back. Despite having lived in three different foster homes in the past year and having her brother die from a gunshot wound, the student, Ada, put forth enormous amounts of effort to raise her grades — until recently, when she grew discouraged. While the district provides an alternative school for struggling students, the teachers rule it out immediately; it’s known as a flat-out school-to-prison pipeline.

The commentaries on this case, and on the other five, range from providing concrete solutions to proposing total reconsiderations of the situation to suggesting that the whole system change. Classroom teacher Melissa Aguirre, for instance, says that the school should retain Ada in order to uphold its standards, but she also comments that this case shows why it’s necessary to make “competency-based” education, and not just “age-based,” a norm for all. Sigal Ben-Porath, an education and political science professor, notes that high-poverty schools are more likely to define students solely by academic standards, and disregarding noncognitive skills. She writes that Ada should be recognized as a complex person and consulted in the decision on whether she should matriculate to ninth grade.

Others provide more abstract interpretations. Willie "J.R." Fleming, a human rights advocate, explains that the circumstances Ada is living under could be defined as an armed conflict or a war zone. As a response to Ada’s dilemma, the writer imagines appropriate alternative schooling that will allow Ada to heal and thrive. Deputy superintendent Toby Romer, explains that the teachers in this case are focused on “worse-case scenarios”; by dismissing the alternative school as too dangerous, he explains, they have ruled-out any possibility of it working for diligent students like her. Ideally, he says, the teachers would make decisions on how the system is supposed to work, rather than on how it does.

A Powerful Problem-Solving Tool

Ada’s story does not lend itself to one solution; instead, it provokes a whirlwind of feelings and reactions. So how can this case, and the five others in the book, assist teachers in considering their own ethical dilemmas — and in reaching viable solutions?

Case studies offer a safe way for educators to begin recognizing and discussing ethical dilemmas they may face in their own work, since no real person is implicated. “We hope that by reading and talking about the cases and commentaries, professional communities can become more practiced and comfortable in having these sorts of discussions, so that when their own particular dilemmas arise, they have the cases and a language to be able to speak about what it is they’re struggling with in their own practice,” says Fay.

The cases also give educators a chance to consider diverse perspectives. “Right now, our conversation in the United States about education policy and practice is so polarized, and so dismissive of the other side,” explains Levinson. “Both wrap themselves up in the mantle of social justice, and they refuse to recognize that in fact, both sides may really care deeply about equity, opportunity, and social justice, and just have different ways to try to achieve those goals.” Because the cases, and especially the commentaries, delve into different viewpoints, they may allow educators to better understand where the other side is coming from — and how to work with them.

Along the same lines, says Levinson, “the commentaries also provide some guidance for how you can think through the cases. They model that you can have disparate views among people of good intent, and they model that that might happen because you are coming at it from a different experiential perspective.”

Eventually, Levinson envisions the discussion of ethical dilemmas as common professional development in schools. If teachers and principals have enough practice discussing case studies of morally unclear situations, they might become more prepared to discuss their own. “You can imagine that, over time, educators themselves being able to say to their colleagues, ‘Here’s my case, here’s my dilemma, I would really appreciate hearing you talk through it.’”

Additional Resources


Get Usable Knowledge — Delivered
Our free monthly newsletter sends you tips, tools, and ideas from research and practice leaders at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sign up now.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles