Ethics at school: Let your conscience be your guide



Ethics occupies the space between the law and human behavior.

Judy Connors was trapped in an ethical Catch-22. Her district used boilerplate language to construct Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for special education students. Connors (not her real name) knew that Jordan, a student with learning disabilities, needed far more than he was being offered.

If Connors speaks up, it will cost the district money and administrative hassles, and she’ll be branded as not being a team player. If she stays quiet, a student would potentially suffer.

Educators facing ethical dilemmas have three main guideposts to help choose between right and wrong: laws, professional codes of ethics, and personal values and beliefs. All three interact — and sometimes conflict — as the impetus for action or inaction as school personnel fulfill day-to-day responsibilities. Recent news accounts affirm that educators are not immune to the shortcomings plaguing society at large.

Ethics start where the law ends.

Let’s explore together how ethics is woven into educational practice. Often educators know the “right” thing to do if they pause and disregard personal gain or punishment. The law is no substitute for ethical fortitude. Statutes, regulations, and policies are blunt instruments that dictate both what individuals must do and what is forbidden. At best, laws set the margins and depend on voluntary compliance. The law is also constantly evolving, shifting to match the imagination of people who would otherwise exploit conditions to circumvent restrictions and advance self-interest.

Size doesn’t matter

A true ethical dilemma isn’t just a choice among competing alternatives. It is the kind of knotty problem that makes you stop, forces introspection, and requires a searching look at your deepest tenets.

Size does not matter. A genuine ethical dilemma can be sparked by small issues, such as whether to accept a too-generous gift from a parent or by big, ongoing offenses such as fraud. Individual ethics are private and test the contours of a person’s core beliefs.

Why do educators stray into unethical conduct? There are the usual human temptations: money, power, prestige, fear, insecurity, and self-preservation, among others. But to me what distinguishes education from other occupations is the end result. Educators are not delivering a product or a service, but advancing the well-being of children and youth who put faith in the adults who lead them.

Four examples to consider:

Ethical considerations adhere from the start. Clarence Mumford Sr., a former teacher and assistant principal in Memphis, Tenn., set up a payment system that allowed aspiring teachers to use an imposter for the PRAXIS exam, a gateway test that measures a candidate’s knowledge in reading, writing, and math. Passing one or more PRAXIS exams is a prerequisite to licensing and certification in most states. Mumford, a 20-year educator, was paid between $1,500 and $3,000 each time one of his test takers went in with a fake identification to substitute for a teacher-to-be. He was discovered after 15 years (1995-2010) of perpetrating the deception in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Authorities estimated that hundreds of teachers were in schools with rigged credentials. In May 2013, Mumford was sentenced to seven years in prison and fined $167,339.

Succumbing to pressure to produce high student test scores. Atlanta is the most high-profile case where accusations of teachers cheating on student standardized exams bubbled to the surface. But similar accusations arose in El Paso, Texas, New York City, the District of Columbia, and elsewhere. In Atlanta, teachers described “erasure parties” where they gathered to change wrong answers to correct ones. Former Atlanta 3rd-grade teacher Stacey Smith justified her action in court by saying, “I didn’t want to lose my job. I was told that I was not a tenured teacher, that I could be replaced at any moment.” She added, “I feel horrible. I did my babies a disservice . . . . My teaching wasn’t enough if I felt like I had to do what I did.” Former Atlanta superintendent Beverly Hall, who was also the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year, was indicted on multiple charges, including racketeering, conspiracy, false statements, and more.

Altering attendance records to improve results. The Ohio state auditor accused employees in Columbus, Ohio, and nine other school districts of “attendance rigging” or deflating the number of students attending school on certain testing days. The scheme was allegedly accomplished by falsely withdrawing students, and then re-enrolling them. In that way, with seemingly fewer days on the district’s attendance rolls, their test scores would not count under state criteria.

Whistleblowing to achieve change. One of the most troubling ethical dilemmas involves telling on your own district or outing a wayward colleague. In a January 2013 blog post, Diane Ravitch tells the story of Adele Cothorne, who arrived in the District of Columbia schools from a neighboring district in Maryland and followed a popular principal who earned blue-ribbon status for the Crosby S. Noyes education campus after vastly improving test scores. Cothorne found the student skill levels did not match the claims. She discovered alleged cheating and made a report. She got in trouble, and the matter is now in federal court. The district denies any cheating occurred.  Similarly, ethical crossroads arise in conducting research or compiling statistics. The National Center for Education Statistics web site offers The Forum Guide to Data Ethics, which uses a whistleblower policy developed by the Fairbanks (Alaska) North Star Borough School District as a sample of how whistleblowers should be afforded both confidentiality and protection against retaliation.

Personal values

Ethical predicaments challenge each person to draw on his or her value system, beliefs, upbringing, attitude, experience, and moral compass to derive an answer. At a recent conference an administrator identified herself as a former 4th-grade teacher and said, “I do what’s in the best interest of kids; the law comes second. While the lawyers are trying to figure things out, we have to act on behalf of our kids. We love them and care about them.”

Educators facing ethical dilemmas have three main guideposts to help choose between right and wrong: laws, professional codes of ethics, and personal values and beliefs.

But, readers, hold your applause. My concern is that each educator’s personal ethical code can yield widely divergent conclusions. Laws and various professional ethical codes seek to standardize best practice, prevent abuses, and promote honesty.

Professional codes are usually job-title specific, and outline the ideals to which an educator should aspire. For example, the National Education Association (NEA), the largest of two major teachers unions, has a code of ethics on commitment to students and commitment to the profession. It urges nondiscrimination and cautions teachers not to “use professional relationships with students for private advantage.”

NEA’s code also says teachers shall not make false or malicious statements about a colleague nor “accept any gratuity, gift, or favor that might impair or appear to influence professional decisions or action.” The American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators, various state education departments, professional organizations, and many others also have ethics codes.

Scoundrels beware

Ethics start where the law ends. One can violate ethical expectations without transgressing law, policy, or even state licensing requirements — although frequently, philosophically, all three are in sync. Observers sometimes look askance at a situation and exclaim, “there ought to be a law.” But laws can’t cover every conceivable occurrence.

Too often, the last refuge of a scoundrel who has skated across an ethical line is the phrase: “I have done nothing illegal.” While personal ethical frameworks can vary widely, the combination of law, professional ethical codes, and personal values can light the way through those dark dilemmas when right and wrong commingle. Educators also should examine the interest of all involved: students, administrators, parents, the school professional community, the district, and oneself. It might also be advisable to consult knowledgeable colleagues.

My favorite advice to promote moral development in my children applies equally to ethical dilemmas for educators: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The fact that no law or policy explicitly forbids a certain behavior or dictates a specific response often provides educators with a choice. Everything that is permissible is not necessarily wise or, ultimately, ethical.


More sources to consider

NEA Code of Ethics

American Association of School Administrators Statement of Ethics for Educational Leaders

Fairbanks North Star Borough School District Whistleblower Policy

National Center for Education Statistics, The Forum Guide to Data Ethics

Citation: Darden, E.C. (2014). Ed law: Ethics at school: Let your conscience be your guide. Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (5), 70-71.

EDWIN C. DARDEN ( is a consultant, freelance writer, adjunct law instructor, and managing partner of the Education Advocacy Firm, Springfield, Va.

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