Teaching in a democracy is challenging and filled with dilemmas that have no easy answers. For example, how do educators meet their responsibilities of teaching civic norms and dispositions while remaining nonpartisan? Democratic Discord in Schools features eight normative cases of complex dilemmas drawn from real events designed to help educators practice the type of collaborative problem solving and civil discourse needed to meet these challenges of democratic education. Each of the cases also features a set of six commentaries written by a diverse array of scholars, educators, policy makers, students, and activists with a range of political views to spark reflection and conversation.
Drawing on research and methods developed in the Justice in Schools project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), Democratic Discord in Schools provides the tools that allow educators and others to practice the deliberative skills they need in order to find reasonable solutions to common ethical dilemmas in politically fraught times.
By using case studies to discuss ethical dilemmas with their colleagues, educators can better prepare to address political and civic challenges in their schools.
Educators have become increasingly stymied by the challenges of teaching both in a democracy and for democracy, thanks to the breakdown of commonly held civic and democratic norms. Whether during the 2016 presidential primaries, when a number of candidates made racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic claims, or during the opening days of school this fall after President Trump rolled back his condemnation of those marching with neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, many educators are grappling with the shifting bounds of acceptable political speech in the classroom—regardless of their own party affiliation.
While educators should feel confident in condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis, they understandably find it harder to respond to students who echo other worries about and mistrust of particular groups, such as immigrants, Muslims, refugees, or Hispanics. Depending on how students express their concerns, they may directly violate district and state anti-bullying policies. Their comments may also violate civic democratic norms that schools have been committed to teaching for decades: norms of mutual respect, anti-racism, civic equality, and religious freedom. As educators and school leaders consider challenging these students' statements, however, they may face the risk of backlash for seeming to take partisan stands. After all, how can students be redirected or punished when they are merely reiterating language that national political leaders have used at campaign rallies and in debates?
Educators and policy makers confront challenging questions of ethics, justice, and equity on a regular basis. Should teachers retain a struggling student if it means she will most certainly drop out? Should an assignment plan favor middle-class families if it means strengthening the school system for all? These everyday dilemmas are both utterly ordinary and immensely challenging, yet there are few opportunities and resources to help educators think through the ethical issues at stake. Drawing on research and methods developed in the Justice in Schools project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics introduces a new interdisciplinary approach to achieving practical wisdom in education, one that honors the complexities inherent in educational decision making and encourages open discussion of the values and principles we should collectively be trying to realize in educational policy and practice.
How can access to public elementary schools of variable quality be justly distributed within a school district? Two reasonable criteria are: (a) that children should have equal opportunity to attend high-quality schools, and (b) school assignment policies should foster an overall increase in the number of high-quality schools. This article analyzes Boston Public Schools’ new school assignment plan in light of these criteria. It shows that Boston Public Schools’ plan violates equal opportunity by giving middle-class families privileged access to existing high-quality schools. Boston Public Schools arguably panders to more-advantaged families, however, in order to pull them into the system and deploy their economic, political, and social capital to increase the total number of high-quality schools. Is this ethically defensible? To answer this question, we need to develop an ethical theory of pandering: of privileging the interests and preferences of already unjustly privileged actors because the consequences tend to benefit everyone. Such a theory will need to be ethically pluralistic and weighted along a contextually sensitive continuum, rather than rendered in all-or-nothing terms.
This article combines original interviews, secondary policy analysis, and non-ideal theory to determine the ‘least unjust’ approach to budget-driven ‘Reduction in Force’ teacher firings in Los Angeles. Building from the a priori claim that schools should serve children’s interests, this article addresses the following questions: To whom is justice owed in this case? What does justice demand for each set of claimants? How should conflicts be resolved? The authors conclude that the least unjust way to fire teachers in response to budgetary constraints is to use a holistic assessment combining student evaluations, administrative evaluations, value-added measures, and seniority, modified by school stability considerations. Unexpectedly, justice toward students and justice toward teachers turn out to be substantially coextensive when determining budget-driven teacher layoffs. Teachers and students are mutual allies, not antagonistic claimants. Furthermore, to the extent that teachers’ and students’ justice claims are not aligned, this lack of alignment likely reveals not an intrinsic conflict, but a policy failure that is itself borne of prior injustice.
In this article, Meira Levinson presents a case study of school personnel who must decide whether to expel a fourteen-year-old student for bringing marijuana onto campus. She uses the case to explore a class of ethical dilemmas in which educators are obligated to take action that fulfills the demands of justice but under conditions in which no just action is possible because of contextual and school-based injustices. She argues that under such circumstances, educators suffer moral injury, the trauma of perpetrating significant moral wrong against others despite one’s wholehearted desire and responsibility to do otherwise. Educators often try to avoid moral injury by engaging in loyal subversion, using their voice to protest systemic injustices, or exiting the school setting altogether. No approach, however, enables educators adequately to fulfill their obligation to enact justice and hence to escape moral injury. Society hence owes educators moral repair—most importantly, by restructuring educational and other social systems so as to mitigate injustice. Levinson concludes that case studies of dilemmas of educational justice, like the case study with which she begins the article, may enable philosophers, educators, and members of the general public to engage in collective, phronetic reflection. This process may further reduce moral injury and enhance educators’ capacities to enact justice in schools.
Jaggar names six features of naturalized “reasoning toward justification.” These reasoning practices are desirable because they are likely to help non-ideal philosophers describe problems more completely, construct more accurate and compelling thick moral accounts, achieve better understandings of what is at stake for whom, and gain new insights about not only the problem under investigation but about moral concepts and conundrums more broadly. Contrary to Jaggar’s epistemological claims, however, these justificatory reasoning practices are neither fully “naturalized” nor hence epistemologically novel. Furthermore, the methodological process of reason-seeking and reason-giving that Jaggar proposes need not— perhaps should not—lead to the construction of realistic utopias. Non-ideal theory would do better to use naturalized epistemologies to identify and explore novel moral concepts and conceptions, to propose non-utopian approaches to mitigate lived injustice, and even to construct fully idealized normative theories about moral phenomena and questions made visible by situated inquiry into non-ideal circumstances.
Teachers who strive to create an open classroom climate frequently face a trade-off between honoring their commitments to both open dialogue and student safety. While uncivil or meanspirited comments may be uncontroversially prohibited in the classroom, sincere political dialogue that may reasonably make some students in the class feel unwelcome and unsafe poses a serious challenge for the teacher committed to maintaining an open classroom. "Paradoxes of an Open Classroom Climate" revolves around two teachers who must decide whether or not to allow one of their students to pursue a civics project denouncing gay marriage for religious reasons. Should they prevent him from pursuing his chosen project, thereby foreclosing on the possibility that religious inquiry can inform civic action? Or should they allow him to proceed, knowing some students will be made to feel unsafe?