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Getting to the Root of Educational Injustice

When Associate Professor Meira Levinson asked a room full of 72 educators about moral dilemmas they faced at work, there was simultaneous chatter and “mmhmms” heard from across the room.

For the educators participating in Levinson’s “Dilemmas of Ethical Educational Leadership” session — as part of the Leading 21st Century High Schools institute recently offered by Programs in Professional Education (PPE) — ethical challenges are a part of the job, whether promoting students they know aren’t prepared to move on, or dealing with staff cuts, or grappling with how many resources to dedicate to a teacher before cutting their losses. However, Levinson believes conversations about the plethora of ethical issues have been missing from the contemporary education reform debate.

“A lot of everyday quandaries educators and policymakers face are dilemmas of educational justice, but we don’t support or even acknowledge their struggle to address these challenges and make ethical decisions,” she says.

Recently awarded a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship for her project, “Justice in Schools,” she will spend the next year at Oxford University combining philosophical analysis and school-based case studies to illuminate the complex dimensions of evaluating, achieving, and teaching justice in schools.

“When I say ‘educational justice,’ I’m interested in how we behave toward students in an educational context,” Levinson says. “Whom do we owe what in schools? How do we enact a decision?”

Levinson is equally interested in educational injustice, when the demands of justice can’t be met. Though education is often considered a tool for leveling the playing field in society, educational injustices occur often, she says, when educators and policymakers must act in the absence of good options.

During Levinson’s interactive PPE session, she presented participants with a case study focused on an eighth grade teaching team, which had to decide whether to promote or retain a 15-year-old girl who had failed required classes and was reading way below grade level, but who also had worked hard to succeed in the face of numerous personal traumas.

The discussion prompted participants to actively engage and discuss the dilemmas, values, and principles at hand. Some questions included: How do we best show care for the student? If we retain her and she drops out, does that mean we made the wrong decision? Is it fair to promote her if she’s so under-prepared?  How do we balance her needs, and the needs of others? What precedents are we setting for other students? Where did we go wrong in the past — what systems aren’t working? Though everyone had differing views on whether to promote the student, the case brought to life how often educators are forced to make difficult choices.

“We ourselves are often feeling morally injured as we are often making choices that have no good options,” Levinson told them. “Even if we decide to change policies and practices in the future, it’s not as if the current problems magically disappear.”

Moral injury is a term Levinson borrows from military veterans who suffer from knowing they participated in immoral acts. She sees crossover in education, where it is relatively common for educators to think they are going to do wrong regardless of the decision. In addition to the promotion case, Levinson refers to a common experience where educators have a disruptive student in the classroom. She notes that while there are various pedagogical tools to help deal with a disruptive student, they may not all be ethical to use under certain circumstances.

“There is little discussion about the impact of those techniques and whether they are right in the first place,” she says. In this case, educators must make a decision: Is it best to remove the student even though his educational needs may suffer in the long run, or keep him in the classroom and potentially slight other students’ learning? “You don’t want to teach him or others that he is expendable,” she says. “It’s an ethical dilemma about what you owe him and other kids in the class. Is there a way to reconcile those? How do you decide who trumps whom?”

Ultimately, she sees her research and work on the Justice in Schools project as a means to help bridge the gap among key players like parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, and others involved in decisions.

The Guggenheim fellowship will provide time for Levinson to start writing a book about the theory and practice of educational justice.

In addition, Levinson and doctoral candidate Jacob Fay are editing a book of case studies and commentaries by philosophers, social scientists, educators, and policymakers that delve deep on particular dilemmas of justice in schools and school districts. These include the ethics of grade inflation, lottery-based school assignment policies, disciplining socially fragile children, and charter school expansion policies that take attrition rates and school demographics into account.

“These are complex dilemmas where there is no one right way to act,” she says. “A larger part of this project is to help educators and policymakers become more comfortable and adept at talking about these dilemmas. Then, they will be able to reason together in hopes of trying to make better decisions rather than worse ones.”