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Educating Ethically

The complex decisions school leaders have had to make this spring — and the dilemmas that equity-minded educators have faced

May 21, 2020
Educating Ethically

Schools have been faced with a slew of critical decisions this spring about how to implement emergency learning equitably, yet as these are unprecedented times, the question remains: Were those decisions the right ones? Was it equitable to postpone instruction or to continue virtually? To permit testing or to cancel it? In a new white paper authored for the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Meira Levinson walks through the ethical decisions that school, district, and state leaders have had to make. She finds that rather than pose a new set of ethical dilemmas, the pandemic intensifies those that already existed in the American education system.

What do we value schools for?

Policymakers and reformers need to think about whether high-quality instruction and academic achievement are truly the best means of achieving educational equality. Educators have always recognized that learning cannot take place if students are not fed, healthy, safe, and cared for. In the wake of the pandemic, communities now see the central role schools play in basic care, too (for more on how to equip educators, families, and communities with a new vision for K-12 education, check out the latest Education Now webinar and an upcoming webinar hosted by the Edmund J. Safra Center for Ethics on reopening and resilience in education).

“Districts’ and states’ responses in March and April demonstrate that schools’ value lies in providing care first (physical, mental, emotional), and learning second,” Levinson writes. “Too often we justify the “extra” services we provide children — free and reduced-price school meals, counseling, nurses, family outreach coordinators, playing fields — in terms of their demonstrated effect on academic learning. But this gets the relationship backward.” She concludes that “schools’ essential value is in providing care even when they cannot provide academics; it is not in providing academics in the absence of care.

Should schools teach?

School leaders were worried about their ability to deliver free and appropriate education to all students, writes Levinson, especially considering services for students with special needs, disparities in technology and internet access, and lack of equally structured supports at home.

At first many districts and states decided to “level down,” meaning that resources or opportunities were taken down to a level where the broadest number of students could access them — even if this meant halting all instruction. This policy stance was a striking one. “This is one of the only instances of which I am aware in which mainstream policymakers made leveling down arguments at broad scale,” Levinson writes.

Despite questions of access, Levinson maintains that the most equitable decision was to continue with instruction. “Any educational policy is likely to significantly exacerbate inequality during the pandemic, but providing academic education at least offers the prospect of raising the floor of educational opportunity for the least advantaged, which eliminating instruction fails to do.”

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Any educational policy is likely to significantly exacerbate inequality during the pandemic, but providing academic education at least offers the prospect of raising the floor of educational opportunity for the least advantaged, which eliminating instruction fails to do.”

What should schools teach?

If instruction continues, leaders are faced with yet another choice: to continue with curriculum, to reinforce what students have already learned, or to enrich what has already been taught?

There are merits to each of these strategies, and each can be both justified and criticized on equity grounds. Educators and policymakers should thus decide based on what strategy best fits their particular context. Can parents oversee schoolwork? To what extent can teachers support learning? What resources can the school or district make available to support the instructional strategy? Can the predictable inequities that result from whichever strategy is chosen be remediated in the future?

How should remote learning be assessed?

Many schools and districts have shifted to pass/fail or decided not to penalize students for not completing remote work, citing the unfairness of holding students without internet access or with working caregivers to the same standards as those who have internet and at least one adult at home to supervise their work.

Others, like San Diego Unified School Board Vice President Richard Barrera and Success Academy Charter Schools founder Eva Moskowitz have argued that grades not only provide motivation but also ensure high standards.

As Levinson observes, learning barriers derived from students’ home lives have always existed. Yet, students were still graded. “If schools (and universities) are truly committed to developing grading practices that reduce rather than reinforce substantive inequalities in educational opportunities, then they would all disavow letter grades, go pass/fail, or shift to providing solely holistic comments,” she writes. Alternatively, if districts choose to return to assigning letter (or number) grades in the future, then they should also commit to tackling the structural inequities that limit children’s opportunities and make high-stakes assessment and ranking of students so ethically problematic.

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Key Takeaways:
  • COVID-19 exacerbates existing inequalities rather than introducing new ones.  Educational policy and practices, therefore, should attend to long-term systemic inequalities, not just immediate challenges.
  • Moving forward, schools should continue to treat caring for children as a primary responsibility, rather than merely a means to promote academic achievement.
  • Curriculum and assessment choices inevitably involve tradeoffs among different components of equity. Consider how the decisions schools and systems are making now align with long-term values and ethical commitments.
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