Dr. Meira Levinson joins Justin Reich to discuss an emerging field of educational ethics, what that means in the classroom, and just how nontrivial that can be in practice. “So as you start sort of peeling back the onion of the data, you think... I don't know if it's even possible to compare this charter with this district in terms of quality. And on the other hand, in some ways, we need to, right?”
Dr. Meira Levinson is a normative political philosopher, writer, and Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Meira joins Justin Reich to discuss an emerging field of educational ethics, what that means in the classroom, and just how nontrivial that can be in practice. “So as you start sort of peeling back the onion of the data, you think... I don't know if it's even possible to compare this charter with this district in terms of quality. And on the other hand, in some ways, we need to, right?”
About Our Guest: Dr. Meira Levinson
Dr. Meira Levinson is a normative political philosopher, writer, and Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She writes about civic education, multiculturalism, youth empowerment, and educational ethics. In doing so, she draws upon scholarship from multiple disciplines as well as her eight years of experience teaching in the Atlanta and Boston Public Schools. Her most recent books include the co-edited Making Civics Count (Harvard Education Press, 2012) and No Citizen Left Behind (Harvard University Press, 2012). In 2013, No Citizen Left Behind was awarded the Michael Harrington Award from the American Political Science Association, the Exemplary Research in Social Studies Award from the National Council for the Social Studies, and a Critics Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association. It also won the 2014 North American Society for Social Philosophy Book Award. Levinson fosters civic education scholarship at Harvard as co-convener of HGSE's Civic and Moral Education Initiative.
Additional Resources for Teachers and other Listeners
Read Meira Levinson’s No Citizen Left Behind along with several other publications
available on Amazon
Learn more about Meira Levinson’s work the Harvard Graduate School of Education
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Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices
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Edited by Kate Ellis
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Justin Reich: As educators, we face ethical dilemmas all the time. How to consider the consequences of grading and discipline, how to allocate time and resources to students with competing needs, how to create policies in the classroom and across districts nationwide that ensure equity for all. We don't always have the space to consider the moral dilemmas of our work, but Meira Levinson is trying to change that.
Meira Levinson: In most other public policy fields. You have people who think about the ethical dimensions of policies coming in at the beginning, and so rather than people just throwing stones after the fact and people saying, "Oops, I hadn't thought about that." Instead you can say, "Well, how are we going to realize our values from the start?"
Justin Reich: From the teaching systems lab at MIT. This is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich today, professor Meira Levinson. Meira finished her doctorate in political philosophy from Oxford and then went right into the classroom. She taught middle school history and civics in Atlanta and Boston. And in those classroom years, Meira faced all of the moral and ethical dilemmas that teachers face every day.
Justin Reich: Now she's a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and she's launching an exciting new field, educational ethics, just like medicine has bioethics to help medical professionals make ethical decisions, Meira's trying to do the same thing inside education, build a specialized field of ethics just for folks who work in and with schools. The idea is to combine philosophy, data on schools and the day to day experience of educators to help everyone in the field make more ethical decisions.
Justin Reich: You taught in the Atlanta public schools, you taught in the Boston public schools. Where there sort of dilemmas that you encountered in your teaching that particularly inspired you to think about the field of educational ethics? Are there particular dilemmas that you encountered in your teaching that sort of are anchors for you in thinking about why this is necessary?
Meira Levinson: Yes, every single day. So let me give you a couple of examples. One I think that virtually every teacher faces is the dilemma around how to balance discipline and learning. I was not a bad disciplinarian, but I certainly had eighth graders who would prove challenging and who could be disruptive. And when they were being disruptive, what they were doing is that they were disrupting their own and other kids' learning. And so from a philosopher's perspective, what they're doing is they are reducing the distribution of education to themselves and all of these other kids. And that's bad, right? We want them to learn more. At the same time, often the reason that they were disruptive was not because they wanted to be yelled, and not because they wanted to be perceived as a bad kid, but because they were nervous that they wouldn't be able to succeed at the material, and so they were trying to distract us from getting to the lesson where they would reveal their ignorance or because they were really upset about something else, and the only way they knew how to express the trauma that they were experiencing, or something, was through these disruptive actions.
Meira Levinson: So it's not like they deserved punishment that would say, lead them to being kicked out of the class and to lose learning, and that would make things worse in the long term. On the other hand, if they remain disruptive, then all kids were losing on learning and these were kids who really needed to learn, all kids need to learn, right? And so that was a classic thing where always I was trying to think, "What does this kid need and deserve? What do my other students need and deserve? And then on top of that, what are they going to learn about what other people in their community deserve based on the actions that I take?"
Meira Levinson: If I kick this kid out of my classroom, are they going to learn that some kids are expendable or are they going to learn maybe that their own needs and their own safety is really important? And you can't even figure that out necessarily because eighth graders won't necessarily tell you, or their views about it will change, or half the class will conclude one thing, half the class will conclude another. So that's one kind of example that I would really wrestle with.
Meira Levinson: Another was we have lots and lots of policies that made sense on an aggregate scale, but when it came to in the individual child or the individual classroom, or the individual teacher, the aggregate reasoning either didn't quite apply or it would go wrong. This tension I think that educators, again, I think this is a really classic tension that we feel between, we know the reason for the rule, we support the reason for the rule. We stand by this rule, and yet in this particular case, if we impose this rule, we can see that things are going to go worse rather than better and we are going to violate our values and our principles.
Meira Levinson: And how do we decide then whether and how much and how publicly to violate the rule versus to say, "Well, this is what the system as a whole requires."? And that shows up when you're thinking about everything from assigning a grade, letting a kid go on a field trip, whether to let kids chew gum in class, whether you're going to in fact impose silent lunch, who you're going to promote or retain. Sort of at every level of the classroom teaching, I think that kind of dilemma arises pretty frequently.
Justin Reich: Who should get sort of power or access to being able to make certain kinds of exceptions and then who aren't?
Meira Levinson: Yes.
Justin Reich: In the discipline case in particular, one of the things it highlights is it just, on the one hand the circumstance is kind of simple, like there's a kid who's acting out and you've got to do something. On the other hand, that simple scenario is connected to just this really complex ecosystem of the particular kids that are in the room and the values [inaudible 00:06:39]. What's the consequence for this particular moment in class? What's the consequence for how my classroom or my school will function over the next few months?
Justin Reich: How do you imagine sort of building a field that can help? It sounds like part of what you're trying to do is sort of constrain or put some boundaries or some patterns on that complexity. So each individual circumstance doesn't feel like something amorphous that you have to figure out each time, but there are some patterns or strategies to be able to fall back on.
Meira Levinson: Yeah. I think of the work that we're doing in part with teachers and school and district leaders as helping them build an ethical repertoire that is analogous to the pedagogical repertoire that many of us learn as teachers. So the primary tool that we've been using to help educators and policymakers develop this ethical repertoire are case studies. So we have on our website, justiceinschools.org and in a few books that we've published, a number of cases, they're pretty short, they're four or five pages. They're designed to be able to be read by a native English speaker in about 10 minutes or less.
Meira Levinson: So then you can use them at the beginning of a 43 minute teacher meeting or a faculty meeting or a professional development workshop or whatever. And it is through the discussion of these very concrete cases that we start to be able to develop a nuanced account of the different kinds of considerations that are at stake. The normative considerations, meaning the considerations about values and principles, also some of the empirical considerations. What do we know about the effects of promoting or retaining a student? What do we know about the impact of say, putting kids into a pure learning situation, putting students into a timeout, sending them to the classroom next door with a worksheet, things like that.
Justin Reich: That there's sort of accumulated research evidence about these things. So we don't just have to say like, "Well, it feels right to let someone go to the third grade or it feels right to make people repeat the third grade." We can say, "Okay, 40% of people who repeat the third grade have this consequence."
Meira Levinson: Exactly, right.
Justin Reich: "And so that reforming our decision making."
Meira Levinson: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there is actually a lot of good educational research out there and social science research out there and we should be drawing on that. But then there's also the wisdom of practitioners, there's the from the field. Too often people who are coming at the work from outside education see dichotomies, and they think, "Well, you can kick the kid out or not kick the kid out," whereas the experienced teachers knows, "Oh, no. You could partner the kid with Susanna who this kid loves and Susanna will keep him focused." Unfortunately, Suzanne is going to find this really annoying and so now I have to decide, am I going to rely-
Justin Reich: Inconvenience and annoy Susanna.
Meira Levinson: Exactly.
Justin Reich: In order to make the whole classroom-
Meira Levinson: For the sake, so that David will then focus and learn on the other hand, then we can all move forward. Or I could put him in the next door teacher's classroom. And all of these things have plusses and minuses to them, but that's where this ethical repertoire comes in. Where over the time of talking through these cases with colleagues, actually with students, with parents, it's been fascinating to see what educators have been doing with them, including working on them with their middle school and high school students.
Justin Reich: So teachers take these case studies and they say, "Oh, let's have these sort of teaching case studies be done by my students or be done by families in my schools to see what these other stakeholders, how they responded to these circumstances?"
Meira Levinson: Yes. Exactly. Right. Yeah. Yeah, precisely. And then through that work you can start to develop some judgment and it's not, I don't believe that we can ever know this is exactly what you should do. This is not a rule book that tells you always first do X, then do Y, then do Z. Because it is always about the very particular circumstances in that minute. But you can at least say, "Well, these things are off the table. These things are actually unethical. They may be convenient, they may make my life a lot better. They may fulfill the requirements that my principal is putting on me or the strictures that have been sent down by the school board, but actually I cannot be complicit in that. This set of things is within the realm of the possible.
Meira Levinson: These things may be actually really good and now I have a toolbox, an ethical toolbox, a pedagogical toolbox, a toolbox from research that lets me now sort of hone my judgment so I'm not reasoning about everything from first principles, but I can engage in pattern recognition. And I can see this is an issue of the individual, the needs of the individual compared to the needs of the group. Or this is an instance of where we have a system creating patterns that then I'm trying to deal with as an individual teacher or principal. And I can't do anything that feels fully ethical here because of how the system is organized and I now know that that means I should not be trying to solve the problem in my own building or in my own district. Rather, I need to go and start working at the system level."
Justin Reich: So those are two examples of educational repertoires that you just proposed. A sort of balancing individual needs versus group needs and finding sort of scenarios in which there is no ethical option available to a teacher or a practitioner. And so the only option is to think about how you sort of change the entire system.
Meira Levinson: It's not the only option because you still have to take action.
Justin Reich: You still have to make some option.
Meira Levinson: Right. Yes. Right, right. So you may choose whatever you see as the least bad option, but you also in part so that you don't become... Doris Santoro has this beautiful book called Demoralized where she writes about how often teachers are diagnosed as having burnt out and she says, "No, they haven't burned out. What they have become is demoralized. They cannot realize the moral rewards of teaching in the same way that they used to be able to."
Meira Levinson: And so part of what you do, I think in order not to become demoralized and to feel as if your work is immoral is you say, "Okay, I've done the least bad thing here, but I am not going to sit around and continue waiting for other circumstances to come where I have to do bad stuff. I am also, yes, going to go up and try to make change at the system level."
Justin Reich: What are some of the most common scenarios in which teachers are stuck in these least bad option kinds of choices to have to make?
Meira Levinson: So teachers who are teaching in schools and districts that have adopted zero tolerance policies require that when a student has done something that violates a rule, there is a mandated-
Justin Reich: Disciplinary response.
Meira Levinson: Yes, exactly. That is totally insensitive to circumstance to a kid's confusion, et cetera. Oftentimes teachers find themselves being required to impose punishments that they rightly think are going to direct a kid's life permanently off course, that are going to lead to that kid being pushed into the penal system, that are going to lead to the kid being expelled, et cetera. That's one circumstance I think in which, and there are smaller versions of that too. A number of teachers who work in really harsh, no excuses schools also find themselves, I think often in that situation.
Meira Levinson: A second I think is quite different, which is when you are in places of privilege and as an educator you are trying to figure out if and when to stop certain kinds of uber privilege from working their way into your classroom or your school and distorting learning and growth including into being good people. So for example, we actually have a case in our first book about grade inflation at a private day school where the teachers are feeling that they are being pushed. They are really being pressed by both parents and the administrators to inflate grades and that they cannot establish really rigorous expectations for students, and they can't help their students learn and grow as much as they know they could because the kids are being given A's for pretty simple work.
Meira Levinson: And on the other hand, in teaching in this private school, they are in effect that the parents are contracting with them in part to help their kids get into highly selective and elite colleges. And there is ample social science evidence to show that if you come from a school that grade inflates, you are going to have higher admission rates into selective institutions and then to jobs and so forth than if you come from places that have no grade inflation or even grade deflation, as Princeton University tried to do for about 10 years and they finally gave up on it.
Meira Levinson: And if you deflate grades, you will in fact hurt your own student's chances of getting into the highly elite colleges that they will then succeed in if they get in. Right. And so that question of how then do you serve a child's present day interest and also serve their future interest and try to work against the distorting effects of privilege but still serving the kids whom you love and care about and should be serving? I think that's really hard.
Meira Levinson: And that comes up not only in grades, it comes up when you're looking at kids who are getting lots of tutoring and you think, "No, I actually want you to have the experience of struggling with this. But because you're getting all of this extra support, you're not experiencing the struggle and I worry about you. I worry that you may wilt waiter on." But how do I interfere? I understand why you are getting these extra supports. It's a different kind of example but I think oftentimes in highly privileged situations we're also wrestling with no great option.
Justin Reich: And again, all of it sort of boils down to the vision I have in my head is if a teacher hunched over a grade book with an assignment next to them and they have to put some kind of Mark down there. And really they're just choosing between an A and a B or an A and A minus and something like that. But all of these complex factors come into that tiny little decision. And after you've made that one decision for one student, there's another 16 kids that you have to keep grading for and that seems like why having some of these ideas and principles would be helpful in helping people get through all the grading they have to do that week and then for the next marking period and so on
Meira Levinson: Yeah. That's right. And including taking that kind of judgment outside, not having it be this private fraught thing where, yes, the teacher hunched over the grade book is very aware that they are making value-laden decisions and right now we have a culture that actively opposes the open discussion of those value-laden decisions. We can openly talk these days about pedagogical challenges we face in the classroom. How do you teach the distributive property? I'm really struggling with that. I hear that you made the war of 1812 interesting.
Justin Reich: Tell me how.
Meira Levinson: Please tell me how, right? And we can talk about classroom management questions. How on earth did you get Sally to follow through on that project. And we can talk about strategy, we can talk about leadership. There are a whole bunch of arenas of work and education that we have, I think quite positively, opened up for conversation and we've tried to sort of peel back the black box, open up the classroom door, name some strategies and some dilemmas and so forth, but the ethical choices that we make, we haven't gotten anywhere on that.
Meira Levinson: Instead, when people make moral claims in education, they are almost always made from a top a mountain to throw down at the person who has an opposing position to say clearly you are immoral. Clearly you have been captured by the teacher's unions you are in thrall to the large corporate conglomerate of Pearson. You are racist. You don't care about kids. Rather than saying, "When we make these choices, most of us actually are quite motivated by values. We really are trying to do the right thing. But there are lots of complex considerations." And so yes, if we can take it outside of the brain and the heart of the individual educator, and make it a public conversation where then we have this conversation with our parents, with our administrators, with our colleagues, with our students saying, "Okay, so how should we think about grading here? Are we giving grades as a sheet? As something that you can then spend to get into Brown or Penn or Amherst or whatever.
Meira Levinson: Are we using grades as a communicative tool about where you've grown and where you still have to grow? Are we using grades to signal actually how much effort we think that you've put in and to motivate you to do more?" Those are very different ways of thinking about the purposes of grades. They're all perfectly... Well, I don't know if they're perfectly legitimate. They all have some justification. And yes if we can bring that out of the shadows and into public conversation, then we may also lighten the burden of the teacher hunched over her grade book.
Justin Reich: When teachers and educators and you get them wrestling with these case studies, if you've got 10 or 15 people in the room, do you find that most case studies communities of people gravitate towards some kind of answers and you're trying to have to propose to them alternatives, or just like every possible alternative usually show up in the room with any group of people as they talk about them. Do they develop consensus afterwards, or do people leave going, " Oh yeah, I still don't know what I would do."
Meira Levinson: Ideally people leave saying, "At the very least, I understand why others may make a different decision than I would." Oftentimes they do leave saying, "I still don't know what I would do." So one of the cases that we've been using in the last a year or two has been around a school culture committee meeting. So this is a K-8 school that immediately after president Trump's election has become riven. So the pro Trump students are a minority in the school and they are feeling ostracized by the anti-Trump students. At the same time some of the reasons that they are ostracizing them are because the anti-Trump students are actually feeling insulted by the pro Trump students.
Meira Levinson: So there's a friendship that actually falls apart because Daniella talks about criminal illegals to her friend Maria and Maria is like, "You know the status of my cousin. You know that I have an undocumented cousin. Why are you going to talk about criminal illegals?" The case centers than actually on a first grade classroom where you have a set of boys who are building a wall out of blocks. And when the first grade teacher asks them, "So tell me about this thing that you're building out of blocks." They say, "Oh, we're building the wall. We're building the wall." And she says, "Oh, why?" "To keep the Mexicans out." And then the teacher's like, "Oh." And she looks around her classroom and she sees some of her other kids are listening, what is she going to say and do? And she talks about how her normal approach is to let kids play things out on their own. She does not believe in intervening.
Meira Levinson: And on the other hand, she believes in having an equitable and inclusive classroom. And so she thinks, "Well, should I just redirect them like to the paints? And we can just pretend that none of this happened." Then she thinks, "No, no, no, I'm their teacher." She decides they don't know what they're saying. I need to teach them to think more inclusively. So she asks them, "So why do you think people want to keep others out?" And they talk. And eventually one kid says, "Well because they may take our jobs." And so she says, "Well, so what are your jobs?" They discuss what their jobs are to be kind and caring and respectful and to learn. Can anyone take that job away from you? And the kids are like, "No." And she's like, "Great."
Meira Levinson: And I have now brought back my inclusive classroom and taught them good values. But as she recounts this story in the school culture committee meeting, one of the parents in the room says, "Do you realize that you had kids, first graders who are really aware about public policy, about what's going on politically. They are doing something actually in line with the policies of the president of the United States. And probably had those policies been coming out of say, president Obama, you'd have celebrated their civic knowledge and their engagement and so forth. And instead because you disagree with our president, you shut that down and that is actually a partisan move that you should not be making as a first grade teacher." And so then they go back and forth about this.
Meira Levinson: Every group that we have leaves continuing to talk about the case and continuing to wrestle with it. And ideally in the work that we do with cases, what we do is expand people's understanding of the values and ethical considerations at work while also giving them tools to say, "Okay, I understand that I'm not going to make everybody happy here. But here are some approaches that we have to move forward." I will say there's some other parts of our work that where we are trying to identify just patently unethical practices in education and to try to stop them. So for example, we have a paper that we've written about lunch shaming and you may know a couple of years ago, New Mexico is the first state in the nation to pass a law banning lunch shaming, which is shaming children for being in arrears over their lunch money. And-
Justin Reich: So I'm making them wear a special bracelet or get different food or different align. Yeah.
Meira Levinson: Yes, exactly. Having their hot lunch thrown out in front of them, having a stamp on their hand I owe money. But that is just clearly unethical. We should not be doing that. And so we did a huge amount of research. One of my students, Henry Atkins, did amazing work where he just looked into how much money is owed. You may know that Philando Castile's wife has donated money from his foundation the last two years to pay off the lunch money to the Minneapolis public schools that are owed by kids so that the seniors can graduate. I mean it's kind of crazy that we need to do this. So lunch shaming is one example of I think, an unethical practice. Criminalizing truancy is another example of an unethical practice. So there are some things that we just need to learn, we should not be doing. And ideally if this project is successful, it will no longer happen in any school or district in the country and say a decade or two. Other things that are much harder. And that's where the casework has been coming in.
Justin Reich: Where does educational ethics sort of intersect with classroom pedagogy, with teaching practices, with the kinds of... You described that there's a pedagogical repertoire and an ethical repertoire. Like where do you see the overlap between those things?
Meira Levinson: That's a great question. So in some ways, and this is why I was talking about wisdom from the field, we may misperceive a decision as being unethical dilemma when, if we actually have a large enough pedagogical repertoire. It's just not. So for example, when you ask a question in class kids hands will shoot up, some kids hands. And when you and I taught methods classes together. One of the things that I would always teach students is, well, if the hand shoots up as soon as you ask the question, it means that the kid knew the answer before. Like they're not actually learning anything. And so you need to wait at least long enough for the kids who are in the process of learning, right to think through the answer and raise their hand.
Meira Levinson: Also there just differences in cognitive processing time, that people need. And so we know, we teach novice teachers about wait time about saying in their head silently, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and then calling on students. And by then hopefully you will have a much broader array of hands in front of you and you can call on the student who has been less engaged, who has been less sure of themselves, who you think will give an interesting answer, who may give a wrong answer, but you bet is something that will reflect the misconceptions of a bunch of other kids in the room. And so then you guys can work it out together. And help a lot of kids solve their problems rather than the kid who has the right answer, which is not going to address any of the other kids confusions, et cetera.
Meira Levinson: And so there, it may appear that you had an ethical dilemma about, do you keep calling on the same kid over and over or answer the question yourself or whatever. But you don't because if you simply wait, you will get more equitable and inclusive participation and you can make more choices. But there are oftentimes when it's not that simple, and you really do have this question of, "Well, I have this set of kids who have really mastered the material and they are ready to go on. I have this other set of kids who are really still struggling and they're partly, again, having a pedagogical repertoire really helps." So you think, "Okay, should I give a quick mini lesson and then let the kids go on? Should I do some partnering? And so I can take some of the kind of struggling kids and some of the kids who get it. And they can work on an extension activity that might challenge the kid who has it but help give extra practice. To the kid who's still struggling, should I do a pullout?"
Meira Levinson: There are lots of things that pedagogically if you have a good pedagogical repertoire you can do to think about this, but also then it can intersect with the ethical repertoire as you think, "Okay, to whom do I owe more right now? How do I think about the layout of needs here? About what it means to act equitably here? Am I striving in fact to help every kid learn the same amount? Am I striving to lift up the least advantage so that they are at some floor. Am I trying to create high ceiling opportunities, because I believe that equity is actually in some ways right now paired with excellence." These are really different ways of thinking then about to whom you owe your work.
Meira Levinson: And then also this question of... And how do I think about, say if you're going back to the partnering. It's not just me, who has learning to distribute and to gain, it's the students themselves and how do I think also then about teaching them about the kind of community we want to create, and the kinds of responsibilities and rights they have as learners and as students within the classroom in relationship to one another. And so if you have this sort of ethical repertoire at work, again, doesn't mean that you automatically know what to do. But in partnership with the pedagogical repertoire, it may give you a couple of pretty clear pathways to go down.
Justin Reich: So it sounds like in thinking about pedagogical strategies and ethical considerations, that as teachers develop a richer pedagogical repertoire, it becomes a little bit easier to distribute resources between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group. Because if you have good teaching strategies that can attend to both simultaneously, then those ethical dilemmas become a little bit less fierce or the distribution becomes a little easier.
Meira Levinson: That's right. Yes. It doesn't resolve them, but it definitely helps.
Justin Reich: It makes them... Good. The way that you describe these dilemmas is sort of along a spectrum or a space or something like that. And it sounds that part of what we can keep doing here is trying to make the space smaller and smaller so that more and more good decisions that feel better fit within the space and we know more about like, "Okay, those teaching strategies are going to make me have to make harder ethical decisions, so I'm going to stay away from those." That kind of thing.
Meira Levinson: Yeah, I think that's an excellent account.
Justin Reich: We talked about a couple of classroom and school-based case studies. What have been some of the case studies that you've had policymakers work on, people who are thinking about whole educational systems?
Meira Levinson: So in Massachusetts a few years ago there was a law that was being debated, there was proposed legislation around charter school expansion and what kinds of criteria charter schools needed to meet in order to be allowed to open up a second or a third or fourth campus. And many of these criteria made sense on their face, for example, that the school could not have an attrition rate, that was substantially worse than the attrition rate of the surrounding district. However-
Justin Reich: They can't get higher achievement scores by having lots of kids who get pushed out in the grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, so there's 10 kids who are graduating or something.
Meira Levinson: Yes, exactly. However, so we decided, all right, we're going to take one specific charter school in Boston, the Academy of the Pacific rim, and compare it to the Boston public schools and think about, it's not that Academy of the Pacific Rim was proposing to expand. We were just kind of interested in the school because it's a school that a lot of people actually quite like, and it's not like a rallying cry, it's just a good individual charter school that has some kids do some interesting things. And so we thought, "Okay, well they have actually very good MCAT scores, the state-
Justin Reich: Testing. Standardized testing, et cetera.
Meira Levinson: And they have good SAT scores actually better than the state average. And Massachusetts is one of the best States in the country. If it were it's own country, it would be on a par with Shanghai China, with Singapore, it would be one of the best countries in the world. And so that seems really good. On the other hand, Academy of the Pacific Rim does lose a bunch of their kids about 60 to 65% and so we thought, "All right, well if we look at the Boston public schools, and we looked at presumably the top, say 45 or 40% of kids, well, they'd also have really good MCAT scores and SAT scores.
Meira Levinson: So we thought, well maybe we can't actually compare them that way. But then you look at the Academy of the Pacific Rim and where their kids are going and the data are not specific enough to be able to show us exactly when they have kids who leave where they go to. But a bunch of them quite clearly go to selective private schools in the area, and to one of the exam schools in Boston. So Boston has three schools that you have to take an exam to get into and they are highly competitive and they are highly admired and a bunch of kids will leave Academy of the Pacific Rim to go there. Now that doesn't count as attrition for the Boston Public Schools. If you move on from a Boston Public Middle School into Boston Latin School, you're not leaving the district. But if you leave Academy of the Pacific Rim to go to BLS, you are.
Meira Levinson: And so then you think, well then it's not clear that we should count those attrition rates against them. So as you start sort of peeling back the onion of the data, you start to think, I don't know if it's even possible to compare this charter with this district in terms of quality. And on the other hand, in some ways we need to, in order to make good public policy decisions about how we're going to spend public monies. And so that's an example of a policy oriented case that again, we heard actually from a sitting legislators was really useful to them to take the pro-charter versus anti-charter divide out of the picture and say, "Let's agree that we all care about helping all children achieve a high quality education."
Meira Levinson: Now there is some normative differences about what that means. And right again, if all children can't, which are the children we should focus on, et cetera. But like taking that as a given. Now let's see, what can we agree on also about how we think about assessing charters and districts. This is really hard and that's actually where our work is and where some of our disagreements are. It's not because we are ideologically fixed into the pro-charter versus anti-charter camps. It's actually that we all care about expanding educational opportunities for kids. But depending on which numbers we focus on or how many layers of the onion that we peel back, we may all agree then on how we interpret the data and whether the data is relevant and then we don't know what to do. Because it just depends on how many layers we're going to peel back and that's where we should really be having these public democratic conversations, rather than these large ideological camps.
Meira Levinson: We also have a really interesting case that has become in ways quite hot just now, because of all of the stuff that's coming out about like automated facial recognition, ICE say using driver's licenses, including from our state of Massachusetts to do automated facial recognition to try to identify undocumented residents and so forth. So we have a case about the ways in which schools and districts are basically able to spy on our kids by doing automated content analysis of what they put on Google classroom, by scanning what they do on social media. If they have used their school provided email address to sign up for Insta or snap or whatever, by looking at anything, including keystroke analysis, anything they do on a school provided device like an iPad or a Chromebook, and the schools are doing this and the districts are doing this in part because they are required by state law in every single state to combat cyber bullying. This was a federal initiative a few years ago, and they are also doing it to try to identify and stop school shooters, and they're doing it in order to try to intervene with students who are struggling with mental health issues, with eating disorders, at risk of suicide, who are perpetrating or victims of bullying, whether it's cyber bullying or sort of in-person bullying. And all of that seems really important to keep our kids safe. And on the other hand, the degree of knowledge that schools and public officials and non-public officials like the IT guy, down at the central office, has about our children including ... there's a software company called Gaggle that did a single study of just like if you scoop up 25 million student records, in a single hour it found 154,000 reportable offenses.
Meira Levinson: Mostly because kids are using their school provided device or email to sign up for Insta and then they are, or Snap or whatever, and then they're sending each other nudies. And so you have these IT Directors who can see all of these kids' Nudie pictures, right? Which you don't want. And you also don't want 154,000 kids being classified as sex offenders. And so I think there are these real questions as well as questions about civil liberties. There's very clear evidence that kids of color, that Muslim kids, et cetera, are likely to be disproportionately targeted.
Meira Levinson: That kids who are white supremacists, et cetera, are disproportionately likely to be ignored. So I think that's another really interesting policy question about how we use technology to protect our most vulnerable people, our children, while also helping them come to understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens and as people, and to develop in healthy ways, which includes for many kids when you are 14, and 15, and 16-years-old doing things that you don't want your-
Justin Reich: ... IT guy to know about.
Meira Levinson: IT guy to know about.
Justin Reich: Or to be permanently recorded.
Meira Levinson: Exactly.
Justin Reich: And all those other kinds of things. And it sounds like another short term thing about we can protect students from individual acts of harm, if we subject them to a surveillance culture that will prepare them for a lifetime of corporate and government surveillance that we teach them all kinds of books, 1984 and things like that in school, or Brazil-
Meira Levinson: ... right. And actually some of the arguments in favor of socializing kids into the surveillance culture is that once they're employees, that same surveillance culture is going to in fact apply to them because their employer has the right to examine every keystroke on their employer provided laptop, et cetera. And so they might as well get used to it now and come to understand what the consequences are.
Justin Reich: Good. Yeah. Because the purpose of our public schools is to prepare people for employment in the world. Yeah. What did we do when employment becomes dystopian? And do you want schools to prepare people to resist that or to prepare people to be accommodated to it? So when teachers, when school leaders, when legislatures take these case studies and bring them back to their workplace and do them without you on their own, what advice do you have for folks about using them in terms of setting them up and facilitating and debriefing? What are kind of the top tips for making these useful for other people?
Meira Levinson: So on our website, justiceinschools.org, where we have about 20 or 25 of these cases right now, we have a pretty generic protocol that you can also just download it on the website, that is generic but effective. And so the first question is always what are the dilemmas in this case, for whom and why? And one thing that I suggest is that you spend time on that. Don't move on too quickly. There will always be a couple of really obvious dilemmas that you need to encourage people to articulate, because they'll feel as if they're sort of being goody two-shoes, if they say, "Well, the dilemma is do you turn in the kid who stole the cell phone? If you know that they're going to then end up facing a felony charge." But that's an important one. But then as you go longer and you spend more time, and again, wait time is crucial.
Meira Levinson: It's fine to have people sitting in silence thinking, then more dilemmas come out. Should she have taken a job at this school in the first place? How ... dilemma for the other students. How should they respond if they know what this kid did and doesn't tell the dilemma for the ... things can start un-spooling. And that's where a lot of the work is in starting to get the richness. So one thing is, use the protocol that's on the website and give yourself time with the first few questions. Second, is to create a norm in which it's okay, even expected, that one will disagree. It's okay and even expected that one will change one's mind. And to reinforce the idea of these cases have been intentionally created to be as hard as possible. So when we develop them, we will usually edit them 12 or 13 or 15 times.
Meira Levinson: We finally think, okay, we think this is ready to field test. We field test it with at least two quite diverse groups. And then we usually make changes and we especially make changes if a group has managed to solve the case. And they say, "Well, just bring in a special education teacher or well just assign more money, open summer school." And often these are what I call magic fairy dust solutions. You wave your magic wand and suddenly the situation has actually changed, and then you don't face the ethical dilemma. So one of the things that we do there is we try to help explain either why waving the magic wand wouldn't work or stop people from trying to wave the magic wand. So for example, in the case that we have about the stolen cell phone in a no excuses school, what everybody originally wanted to talk about is why no excuses schools are bad.
Meira Levinson: And why you shouldn't have, or not no excuses, sorry, zero tolerance. So we have this case about this kid who steals a cell phone in a zero tolerance setting and that's a teacher is obligated by contract to report the theft. And it is quite clear because the kid is 17 that he will face felony charges as an adult, and that this has ... and face jail time of up to five years. And so, it used to be that when we feel tested it, people would say, "Well, clearly zero tolerance is a immoral." And I would say, "Yes, but she's teaching in the zero tolerance school. So what do we do about that?" And they'd say, "No, zero tolerance is bad." But there are thousands of teachers who are teaching in zero tolerance schools and districts right now. And what should they do?
Meira Levinson: Should they just quit their jobs? So, we actually changed the case to create a quite sympathetic character who had good reasons for enforcing zero tolerance, doesn't mean that we were trying to convince people that zero tolerance was good. But through introducing this character, it made them say, "Okay, I can understand why you might choose to teach in the zero tolerance school." We can still think that it would be better if zero tolerance didn't exist. But, now we will focus in on the dilemma that this teacher and her colleagues and so forth face. So we then, once we make the revisions, we field test again and we keep doing that until we have tested it with multiple groups who basically leave saying, "This is really hard." So my second piece of advice is normalize the difficulty and say that this is part of the point of our work together is to admit that we face ethically challenging choices here and to build a culture of conversation around the ethical dilemmas and to be open with one another.
Meira Levinson: A third tip is to say that we need to be open to listening to others articulations of values. We disagree with one another about what to do in a certain classroom or in policy or whatever. Sometimes because we agree on what the value is, but we disagree on how to interpret the value. So we both agree that we believe in equity, but you believe in equity with an orientation towards resources. I believe in equity with an orientation towards outcomes. She believes in equity with an orientation toward the opportunities. And actually resources, opportunities and outcomes are three different things. And so we can all believe in equity, but it turns out that we disagree. In other cases we may both embrace a set of values, but rank order them differently. So we both agree that equity is important, that fairness is important and that accountability is important. But, you rate equity over accountability.
Meira Levinson: And I rate accountability over equity. And so we disagree with one another. In other cases, it may just be that we disagree about what values matter. And so you're like accountability, really? Who cares about accountability? Really, I care about X. And I'm like, no, no, no, no, accountability is important. So understanding whether we actually have different values that are leading us to go in different directions. If we have the same values, but we weight them differently, or if we have the same values but we are interpreting them differently, or even we're interpreting them the same, but we see their application to this particular case differently. So we both agree that opportunity is super important, but you are oriented toward the opportunity to learn and I am oriented, sort of learn academics and I'm thinking, no, it's about the opportunity to grow as a person or whatever it is. And or no, you think that by helping Phillip, you're expanding opportunity.
Meira Levinson: I actually think that by helping Kate we're expanding and equalizing opportunity. And you say, "Well, no." And we start talking about Phillip versus Kate. That actually is really helpful because then when we are interacting with colleagues, with parents, with our school board, whatever, with our students, and they question our judgment or we question their judgment, we can start to see one another as ethically driven people who do care about doing the right thing. And we can start to name, okay, I can understand that you think that this value is really important. I'm actually more oriented toward this other value. Or, yes, I agree. We both really do care about fairness and transparency, but I see that as playing out in a different way. And we can start to work with one another more as human beings.
Meira Levinson: So I guess that's my third tip is to really listen hard to one another, and give one another space to work ideas out in real time, and model that also for others. Model uncertainty, because say if you're the facilitator, that opens up opportunities for others to also venture into uncertainty as opposed to feeling as if they have to demonstrate that they are knowledgeable or that they know the right thing to do. And that when you can get into a position of uncertainty together, that's often where the most learning happens. Just as in our classrooms, it's when students are mucking about in a space in which they're really unsure. Wait, if we move that variable there, will that be the same expression? Or wait, if the atom bomb hadn't been dropped at that time, would the Americans have won that war anyway? That's the point where often you have high engagement and high learning and I think that's true for us as adults as well.
Justin Reich: Do you have concerns with any of this work that pushing people into having the hardest possible case studies, the hardest possible scenarios, taking decisions which may be people had thought were simple and making them more and more complex that some of this could be discouraging? Or have you gotten that response or feedback from other folks? An important part of the work is to make people feel like, yeah, these are doable and solvable in some kind of way. Do you worry about making every dilemma seem somewhat intractable?
Meira Levinson: Right. That's a great question. Yes and no. So I think this is less discouraging than it might be because it provides pathways for action and an affirmation that as an educator you must take action. But that also, even if you don't feel great about the action that you're going to take at this moment, there are other times, you'll get to, again, for better or worse, we're always going to be facing ethical dilemmas in our work. And so we can take different actions other times and ideally get better at it.
Meira Levinson: So that's one reason I don't think it's totally demoralizing or even discouraging. A second thing is the work that we do with educators and with parents and with policymakers, they always recognize these dilemmas as reflecting ones that they themselves have faced.
Justin Reich: These feel real and authentic to people.
Meira Levinson: They feel real and authentic. And yes, let me tell you about my Kate, let me tell you ... and so it does not feel to people as if we are actually complicating questions that they felt were easy. It feels to them as if we are naming and bringing to the surface dilemmas and challenges that they often couldn't quite name and describe, and that they felt that they had to keep submerged, and to deal with privately. And so often that's actually a relief to them as opposed to something discouraging.
Meira Levinson: And again, if you can develop a repertoire, if you get a set of heuristics, that can be quite empowering. And I would say that the third thing is it is discouraging for people who are looking for a list of best practices. And so in fact, I've learned in my course to be really clear with students. That this is not a class about how to be a more ethical educator, at least not directly, right? I am not going to teach you the 10 [inaudible] steps so that you know that you are now an ethical educator when you walk into your classroom next year.
Meira Levinson: Instead, I am going to help you develop ethical judgment and I'm going to help you master a set of tools and knowledge and dispositions that you can take into your work in schools with parents, et cetera, to facilitate ethical dialogue and reflection with others so that you collectively become a more ethical organization, but not because you have learned here are the five steps to being a more ethical organization. But because you have the tools to discuss together about how you are going to exercise collective judgment to do better rather than worse work with kids.
Meira Levinson: And so for those people who already recognize the messiness and already embrace the idea that when we work in and with schools and children and families and communities, that it is about an exercise of judgment as opposed to a mastery of really discreet moves. Again, this feels empowering rather than discouraging. For others who really just want to be told what to do. Yes, this can be very discouraging because I do not tell people what to do.
Justin Reich: Yeah. But I think most of the educators who are working in schools, certainly the ones making a lifelong commitment to this, you get into it because you're excited about messy relationships with kids, messy content, these kinds of decisions. And it does seem to me that just being able to say, "Here's the thing that we all thinking about by ourselves, but now we can think about it together and now we can have a shared language." Would be something that would be really helpful for lots of schools. Well Meira, thanks for coming in today and chatting with us about educational ethics and it'll be really fun to watch this work develop in the years ahead.
Meira Levinson: Thanks for the invitation, Justin. This is really fun.
Justin Reich: That was Meira Levinson, Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Justin Reich: You've been listening to Teach Lab from the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT. I'm Justin Reich. You can learn more about Meira Levinson and her Justice In Schools Project at our website, teachlabpodcast.com. That's teachlabpodcast.com. There you'll find lots of stuff including links to our upcoming free online course on NX called Becoming A More Equitable Educator. We hope you'll join us.
Justin Reich: You can also check out our YouTube channel, Teaching Systems Lab, where you'll find the full video interview from this episode and even more video content from our online courses. All of our work is licensed under a creative commons license, and we encourage you to use it and share. This episode was produced by Amy Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, edited by Kate Ellis. It was recorded by Garrett Beazley and mixed by Corey Schreppel. It was filmed by Denez McAdoo. We'll see you next time on Teach Lab.