Doing the Right Thing

An approach to educational decision making that is both ethical and data-driven

November 1, 2018
three doors of different colors, implying choice

Every year, thousands of people across the country start careers in education with a similar purpose: to do good. But it’s easier said than done. Whether you’re writing policy for the entire country or trying to manage a classroom of 20, educational decisions often involve difficult trade-offs. What’s good for Aiden might not be good Emma; the funding fix for rural schools might disadvantage schools in cities.

What’s an education decision-maker — who just wants to do the right thing — to do? 

A team of social scientists and philosophers — Harry Brighouse, a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Helen Ladd, a social scientist at Duke University; Susanna Loeb, an economist at Stanford University; and Adam Swift, a political theorist at University College London — came togther to probe these hard choices. Combining disciplinary strengths, they created a framework for making education decisions that are both good and sound.

In Educational Goods: Values, Evidence and Decision-Making, they lay out the values they find most relevant for education decision-makers. They also offer specific steps — outlined here — that educators can follow to align choices with values and data.

1. Identify the main values at play for you. Take stock of where you feel that things should be better — “a sense of where action is particularly needed,” write the authors. They identify several values that educators and education decision-makers often try to balance, including:

  • educational goods — the capacities that education is supposed to help students develop, so that they can succeed later in life and contribute to society (e.g. personal autonomy, the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in the economy, cultural appreciation)
  • childhood goods — the things that are valuable about childhood, but not necessarily related directly to education (e.g. childhood fun and excitement, freedom, other elements of a happy childhood)
  • distributive values — the values that we hope to achieve when distributing resources (e.g. equality, fairness, helping the most disadvantaged)

These are general values that may be at play when it comes to making decisions; every problem is different — and calls for weighting values differently. Thinking about what values are at play forces you, as a decision-maker, to think critically about the problem you are trying to solve.

2. Identify the key decisions related to those values. What decisions could you make to achieve the values you articulated in Step 1? Think beyond the typical.

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Thinking about what values are at play forces you, as a decision-maker, to think critically about the problem you are trying to solve.

3. Assess how well actions identified in Step 2 would promote the values you identified in Step 1. Lean on research from the social sciences. A decision might sound good, but is there evidence that suggests it might work? What sort of research has been done on similar proposals in the past?

Decision-makers can peruse such research in a variety of ways: the What Works Clearinghouse from the Department of Education is a searchable database; Google Scholar can search social sciences journals and drill down into education sub-categories; and sites like this one, or Edutopia's research roundups, can be good sources of accessible findings and research-informed practices.

Of course, the evidence is always incomplete and can’t speak with 100 percent certainty to your specific circumstances, as Educational Goods reminds us. But what reasonable judgment can you make about the likely results of a certain course of action?

4. Identify a policy change likely to bring the greatest return, considering the values identified in Step 1. Inevitably, there will be trade-offs to every possible decision — you’ll achieve some value at the expense of others. Decision-makers often try to downplay trade-offs, says Harry Brighouse, unwilling to admit that there’s a downside to their plan. But, at the very least, decision-makers need to be honest with themselves about the inevitable downsides.

“You can rarely get whatever you want . . .  but if you really want to improve things, you need to know what your standards are, you need to know what counts as improvement,” Brighouse says. For example, you might decide that you’re willing to extend recess to help achieve values related to childhood goods, even if it means less time for test preparation — or vice-versa. The only way to make the right decision for you and your students is to be honest about the consequences, and which set of consequences you’d prefer based on the values at play.

Not everyone will come to the same decision after going through this process, Brighouse says. People will assign different weights to different values. Even when given the same social science evidence, people will interpret its relationship to their own situation differently. “You have to use your judgement about how it’s relevant to your context,” he says.

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Four steps of sound educational decision-making, according to the authors of "Educational Goods: Values, Evidence and Decision-Making"
  1. Identify the main values at play. What are you trying to achieve?
  2. Identify the key decisions related to those values. What are the possible courses of action that can help you achieve those values?
  3. Assess how well actions identified in Step 2 promote the values you identified in Step 1. Look at data and social science evidence. What intel does it offer on your proposed courses of action?
  4. Identify policy that brings greatest return regarding the values identified in Step 1. What are the trade-offs to each proposal, and which trade-off is worth it?
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Education Policy K-12 School Leadership