An ethical approach to educational decision making

An ethical approach to educational decision making

Every year, thousands of teaching graduates enter classrooms to change young people’s lives for the better - but this is easier said than done.

For example, when one schooling sector is given funding, it can be at the expense of another, creating an imbalance in resources and, in some cases, student learning outcomes.

As such, education policymakers are faced with difficult choices and a daunting challenge of ensuring that decisions affecting schools are both fair and sound.

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, recently came together to probe these hard choices.

An article appearing in Harvard University’s Usable Knowledge showed how the four experts combined their strengths to create a practical framework for education decision makers.

In ‘Educational Goods: Values, Evidence and Decision-Making’, they lay out the values they find most relevant for education decision-makers. Below, they offer four specific steps 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.
  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.
  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?
  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,” Usable Knowledge quoted Brighouse as saying.

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.