24 minute read



Kenneth A. Strike

Carol J. Auster


Ethical concerns about teachers and teaching occur in a variety of contexts and can be thought of in several ways. This article discusses (1) how ethical issues are represented in the law; (2) how ethical issues are represented in the National Education Association's (NEA's) code of ethics; (3) ethically based comprehensive views of education; (4) the role of ethics in educational policy; and (5) meta-ethical disputes relevant to education.

Ethics and the Law

The education codes of many states require that teachers be persons of good character. Most states also permit teachers to be dismissed for unethical conduct. States also forbid particular forms of misconduct, such as child abuse, sexual harassment, and drug abuse, and their violation may be grounds for dismissal.

What counts as good character or conduct can be a contentious matter. In past decades teachers might have been dismissed not only for drunkenness, homosexuality, unwed pregnancy, or cohabitation, but also for myriad other offenses against the moral code of their community. Some of these may still be gray areas; however, in recent years, courts have been inclined to insist that actionable immoral conduct be job-related, providing some protection for the private lives of teachers. Here a particularly contentious matter is whether being a role model is part of the job of teachers, because this expectation can expand public authority over the lives of teachers. In certain cases, as when teachers discuss controversial matters in class or employ controversial teaching methods, they may be protected by the First Amendment. Teachers, especially those who are tenured, are also likely to have significant due-process rights. Dismissal for immoral conduct is most likely when the teacher has committed a felony, in cases of inappropriate sexual advances toward students, or in cases of child abuse. In this last case, teachers may also have a duty to report suspected misconduct by others.

The kinds of misconduct dealt with by the law are usually acts that are (or can be viewed as) unethical in any context. Teachers, like others, are expected to not steal, kill, commit assault, abuse children, or engage in sexual harassment. Although the definition of immoral conduct in the law has not become coextensive with violations of criminal law, there is little in the meaning of immoral conduct that is distinctive to teachers or teaching.

The NEA Code of Ethics and Ethical Principles Internal to Teaching

The most prominent code of ethics for teachers is the NEA's Code of Ethics for the Education Profession. The preamble to this code begins: "The educator, believing in the worth and dignity of each human being, recognizes the supreme importance of the pursuit of truth, devotion to excellence, and the nurture of democratic principles. Essential to these goals is the protection of the freedom to learn and to teach and the guarantee of equal education opportunity for all."

The code has two sections with eight provisions in each. The first section, entitled "Commitment to the Student," promotes the freedom to learn, requires equal opportunity, protects students against disparagement, and protects privacy. The freedom-to-learn provisions prohibit teachers from preventing student inquiry, denying students access to diverse points of view, and distorting subject matter. The code-specific provisions do not assert affirmative duties for teachers to create an inquiry-oriented environment or to pursue educational objectives, which might be associated with the pursuit of truth, individual autonomy, or democratic principles. The prohibition against distortion of subject matter falls short of a prohibition of indoctrination.

The second section of the code begins with the comment that "the educator shall exert every effort to raise professional standards, to promote a climate that encourages the exercise of professional judgment, to achieve conditions which attract persons worthy of the trust to careers in education and to assist in preventing the practice of the profession by unqualified persons."

Among its enumerated provisions are prohibitions against misrepresenting one's own qualifications or those of others, prohibitions against assisting unqualified persons to teach, and prohibitions against the defamation of colleagues. Although the ideals expressed in the introduction of the second section of the code might lead one to expect specific provisions requiring conscientious professional development, the maintaining of qualifications, or the creation of a collegial learning environment, no such provisions are found.

The NEA code implicitly recognizes three sources of ethical ideals and principles. The first is what might be termed the ethics of inquiry. The second area might be called the civic ethic. That is, the NEA code recognizes those ideals and principles that regulate the public conduct of citizens of liberal democratic states to be ideals and principles that should also regulate the practice of education. A reason for this is that one goal of education is the creation of citizens. The third source of ethical ideals is the ideal of professionalism.

There are difficulties and questions associated with such ideals and principles. Consider the following examples:

  1. What fundamental values underlie these principles? The NEA code suggests that the value that underlies the ethics of inquiry is truth, but another possibility is autonomy.
  2. What is the best construction of these abstract principles? The NEA code indicates that students may not be unfairly excluded, denied a benefit, or given favoritism on the basis of a list of presumptively irrelevant characteristics. The use of the word unfairly cloaks a multitude of issues. For example, how do we know when exclusion or inclusion on the basis of race (one of the irrelevant characteristics listed) is unfair? Is affirmative action unfair?
  3. Are there values that must be balanced against these principles? In some understandings of professionalism, a core commitment of professionalism is: Those who know should rule. If so, professionalism in education needs to be balanced against the expectation that public schools are under the democratic authority of school boards and state legislatures.
  4. What is omitted? These three sources of ethical content do not clearly include various conceptions concerning human relations that seem relevant to teaching. Examples might be caring and trust. Nor are ideals such as promoting the growth of the whole child or creating community mentioned.

Ethics and the Philosophy of Education

It has been common in the philosophy of education to begin an inquiry into the aims of education by asking questions such as "What is the nature of the good life?" and "What kinds of societies promote the best lives?" The Greek philosopher Plato's Republic is a classical example. Such questions fall within the range of the subject matter of ethics. Answers to these questions can provide part of the framework for building a comprehensive vision of education rooted in what John Rawls has termed a "comprehensive doctrine" (1993, p. 13), and they may guide the professional practice of teachers. In societies characterized by what Rawls calls durable pluralism, there are serious difficulties with such an approach. In such societies, the educational systems cannot be rooted in a single comprehensive doctrine without marginalizing or oppressing those who hold other doctrines and without restricting personal autonomy.

Arguably, societies committed to liberal democratic values may respect pluralism and personal autonomy while also emphasizing creation of citizens. Amy Gutmann in Democratic Education (1987) argues that the central aim of the schools of a democratic society must be to develop democratic character. Eamonn Callan in Creating Citizens (1997) argues that societies committed to liberal principles of tolerance and reasonableness must provide students with an education enabling them to understand and sympathetically engage a variety of ways of life. It may, however, be argued that such an education is itself intolerant of those who wish to transmit a distinctive way of life to their children. One of the more difficult issues for the schools of liberal democratic societies is how to respect diversity while having common schools that produce good citizens.

Ethics and Educational Policy

The civic ethic provides conceptions that are relevant, not only to teachers' classroom practice, but to wide-ranging areas of educational policy. For example, it has been common in recent years to claim that equality of opportunity should emphasize equal educational outcomes instead of equal access or equal inputs. Assume that achievement can be measured by test scores. What pattern of test scores would be desired, and how should resources be distributed to attain it? Consider three possibilities:

  1. Emphasize increasing average test scores. Possible objections are that this is consistent with considerable disparity in levels of achievement. Moreover, average scores might be increased by focusing resources on the most able at the expense of the least able.
  2. Emphasize the achievement of the least advantaged or least able. Possible objections are that such an approach might lead to significant investment in the education of students where there will be only modest return, and resources will be used inefficiently.
  3. Emphasize getting all who are able above some threshold that defines minimal ability to participate in our society. This approach may lead to difficulties similar to the previous one.

These are competing principles for distributing educational resources. Although they concern such matters as state or school district budgets, in fact they may also concern the distribution of teacher time. They shed light on such questions as whether teachers should spend disproportionate time with those who are most needful or with those who will make the most progress. These various approaches are analogous to principles of distributive justice that are widely discussed in philosophical literature. The first is a utilitarian principle emphasizing the maximization of good outcomes. The second seeks to maximize the welfare of those who occupy the least advantaged positions in society. The third is a threshold view emphasizing getting everyone above some defined level. These principles illustrate the ways in which moral conceptions can inform policy and practice.

Meta-ethical Issues

The term meta-ethics concerns the general nature of ethics instead of specific ethical prescriptions. Two meta-ethical disputes are the justice/caring debate and the postmodern critique of modernity.

The justice/caring dispute grows out of a critique of Lawrence Kohlberg's views of moral development by feminist scholars, principally Carol Gilligan. Kohlberg viewed justice as the central moral conception. Gilligan claimed in In a Different Voice that women's thinking about ethics emphasizes care. Other advocates of an ethic of care, such as Nel Noddings, have developed the notion into a robust view of ethics and of education. By the early twenty-first century there was some rapprochement between these views, based on the claim that both justice and caring should be a part of any adequate ethic.

A second meta-ethical perspective is postmodernism. Although understandings of this stance are complex and varied, one useful characterization of postmodernism claims that it is incredulity toward all grand meta-narratives. A grand meta-narrative is a sweeping and general view about human beings and society. Liberalism and socialism are examples. Postmodernists often argue that all such grand stories represent the perspectives of groups or eras and, when viewed as the single truth of the matter, are oppressive. Postmodern critiques often seek to deconstruct such meta-narratives by showing their biased character and how they serve the interests of some over others.


The following (not mutually exclusive) sources of ethical ideals and principles are relevant to an informed view of the ethics of teaching:

  • 1. The law pertaining to teacher certification and dismissal, which is likely to proscribe only the most egregious behavior.
  • 2. The NEA code of ethics. This code draws on three sources of ethical content.
  • a. The ethic of inquiry.
  • b. The civic ethic.
  • c. An ethic of professionalism.
  • 3. Ethical conceptions that inform educational policy, such as views of distributive justice.
  • 4. Conceptions of human flourishing and the nature of liberal democratic societies.
  • 5. Competing meta-ethical conceptions.

Of these sources, ethical conceptions rooted in the ethics of inquiry and in the civic ethic may have the most salience to teachers because they are associated with the paramount educational goals of advancing knowledge and creating citizens. They are "internal" to the activity of teaching. Other sources apply to schools because they apply broadly to most social institutions or human activities.


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CALLAN, EAMONN. 1997. Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

FEINBERG, WALTER. 1998. Common Schools: Uncommon Identities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

FISCHER, LOUIS; SCHIMMEL, DAVID; and KELLY, CYNTHIA. 1999. Teachers and the Law. New York: Longman.

GILLIGAN, CAROL. 1982. In a Different Voice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

GUTMANN, AMY. 1987. Democratic Education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

KATZ, MICHAEL; NODDINGS, NEL; and STRIKE, KENNETH A., eds. 1999. Justice and Caring: The Search for Common Ground in Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

KOHLBERG, LAWRENCE. 1981. The Philosophy of Moral Development. New York: Harper and Row.

LYOTARD, JEAN-FRANCOIS. 1993. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

NODDINGS, NEL. 1984. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

PETERS, RICHARD. 1996. Ethics and Education. Atlanta, GA: Scott, Foresman.

PLATO. 1964. The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford. New York: Oxford University Press.

RAWLS, JOHN. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

RAWLS, JOHN. 1993. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

SOCKETT, HUGH. 1993. The Moral Base for Teacher Professionalism. New York: Teachers College Press.

STRIKE, KENNETH A. 1988. "The Ethics of Resource Allocation." In Microlevel School Finance, ed. David H. Monk and Julie Underwood. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger.

STRIKE, KENNETH A. 1990. "The Legal and Moral Responsibilities of Teachers." In The Moral Dimensions of Teaching, ed. John Goodlad, Roger Soder, and Kenneth Sirotnic. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

STRIKE, KENNETH A., and SOLTIS, JONAS F. 1998. The Ethics of Teaching, 3rd edition. New York: Teachers College Press.

WHITE, PATRICIA. 1996. Civic Virtues and Public Schooling. New York: Teachers College Press.


NATIONAL EDUCATION ASSOCIATION. 2002. "Code of Ethics of the Education Profession." <www.nea.org/aboutnea/code.html>.


As members of the academic community, faculty and students have a responsibility to abide by ethical principles regarding academic freedom, intellectual integrity, and the fair and respectful treatment of others. The notion of academic freedom lies at the very heart of the academic enterprise. In the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure," the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) states, "Academic freedom … applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning" (p. 3). Intellectual integrity involves using sound and ethical methods in the pursuit of knowledge as well as embracing honesty in the dissemination of knowledge. Individuals' expectation of fair and respectful treatment by faculty and students applies not only to interactions with one another, but also to administrators, staff, and others with whom they interact in their role as members of the academic community. Fair and respectful treatment also extends, for example, to the evaluation of students' academic work and colleagues' scholarly work.

The ethical principles that guide the behavior of faculty are reflected in standards of ethics described in the documents of professional associations for faculty in higher education, such as the "Statement on Professional Ethics (1987)" published by the American Association of University Professors, and codes of ethics published by disciplinary associations, such as the American Chemical Society, the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Modern Language Association. In addition, college and university faculty handbooks often include a section that addresses ethical standards or expectations regarding the behavior of faculty. Ethical standards for students may be found in official student handbooks or college and university catalogues, although standards for graduate students are also addressed in some of the professional and disciplinary association codes of ethics. These various documents embody shared beliefs that are intended to guide both the activities and the behavior of those engaged in the academic enterprise.


Faculty are guided by ethical principles that address their professional responsibilities as teachers, scholars, and, more generally, members of college and university communities. While some aspects of documents concerning ethical standards describe the behavior to be embraced, other aspects make clear what actions must be avoided.

Plagiarism. Representing the ideas, words, or data of another person or persons as one's own constitutes plagiarism. Thus, a person's words, ideas, or data, whether published or unpublished, must be acknowledged as such. For example, the MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Manual states, "To use another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source is to plagiarize" (Gibaldi, sec. 1.8). "The most blatant form of plagiarism is reproducing someone else's sentences more or less verbatim, and presenting them as your own" (Achten and Gibaldi, sec. 1.4). Although scholars have long recognized the importance of citing both published and unpublished work, those engaged in teaching or research also recognize that information from electronic resources must be properly credited. Proper citation allows others to trace the origin and development of ideas, theories, and research outcomes and helps support the integrity of the academic enterprise and needed mutual trust between those seeking and those disseminating knowledge.

Acknowledgement of contributions. Acknowledgement of the contributions of others means appropriately recognizing and crediting those who have contributed to a scholarly work whether the work is a manuscript, exhibit, or performance. Both recognition and accountability come with allocations of credit. Depending on their contributions, such others, including students, may be deserving of credit ranging from acknowledgement in a footnote to coauthorship. Regardless of whether faculty members work with students or colleagues, the work of all parties should be equitably acknowledged in a manner appropriate to the norms of their discipline.

Data. Researchers must acknowledge the source(s) of their data and accurately describe the method by which their data was gathered. Moreover, the fabrication or falsification of data or results constitutes a violation of ethical standards. While fabrication is defined as "making up data or results," falsification is "changing or misreporting data or results" (Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, p.16). Both of these actions interfere with the search for knowledge and truth and undermine trust both within and outside the academic community.

Conflict of interest. Research funded by corporate sponsors potentially leads to a situation in which a conflict of interest may arise. Researchers may feel pressure, for example, to conduct research in a way that would bias the results toward the desires of the sponsor or to reveal only those results that benefit the sponsor. Biomedical research, in particular, brings forth such concerns. Conflict of interest issues are not limited to corporate-sponsored research projects; conflict of interest situations may occur with government-sponsored research as well. Non-profit organizations and social advocacy groups also have the potential to place college and university researchers in situations that make it potentially difficult to conduct the sponsored research in an unbiased manner. Researchers must be able to publicly disclose their sources of funding and the intent of the research, as well as conduct their research in a manner consistent with the ethical standards for investigation in their respective disciplines. Scholars must not let the source of their funding nor the sponsors' goals cloud their own professional and scientific judgments regarding their research.

Other research concerns. The prevalence of the discussion of particular ethical concerns varies across disciplines because of the nature of the research process. For example, the American Sociological Association's "Code of Ethics" describes the importance of informed consent for research involving human subjects. That is, human subjects must be aware of the nature of the research as well as voluntarily agree to be a part of such research. The American Psychological Association discusses not only informed consent in their code of ethics, but also the importance of the humane use and care of animals in research. Disciplines that rely more heavily on archival research may say little about informed consent from human subjects, but may focus on the importance of obtaining permission to use archival data. Professional associations in the sciences, such as the American Chemical Society, are additionally concerned with providing safe working conditions for those who work in research laboratories.

Harassment. The most frequently discussed form of harassment is sexual harassment. As the AAUP statement on sexual harassment states, "no member of the academic community may sexually harass another" (p. 209). Such policies are applicable to faculty and students as well as to administrators, staff, other employees, and research subjects. The American Sociological Association notes that "sexual harassment may include sexual solicitation, physical advance, or verbal or non-verbal conduct that is sexual in nature" (p. 7). Some types of sexual harassment are quid pro quo, in which the sexual favors are presumably requested in exchange for a promised or implied future benefit, such as a higher grade or appointment to a position. Other conduct, namely that which creates a hostile or uncomfortable work environment, including the classroom environment, also constitutes sexual harassment. The code of ethics of many professional and disciplinary associations addresses the issue of sexual harassment, and faculty handbooks and other institutional documents typically include a set of procedures for dealing with situations in which alleged sexual harassment has occurred.

In addition, members of the academic community should not harass others on the basis of other personal and demographic characteristics, including race, ethnicity, age, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and disability. Regardless of the basis of harassing or demeaning behavior, victims of harassment may find it helpful to consult with faculty and administrators for advice on avenues of action in such situations.

Nondiscrimination and fair evaluation. In their work, members of the academic community should not engage in discrimination "based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law" (American Psychological Association, sec. 1.10). With regard to employment, members of the academic community should not "discriminate in hiring, promotion, salary, treatment, or any other conditions of employment or career development" (American Sociological Association, sec. 8). Furthermore, professors who have agreed to serve as reviewers of manuscripts, grant proposals, or other scholarly submissions, should evaluate those materials in a fair, objective, professional, and timely manner. These standards are also applicable to the evaluation of students' academic work. In "A Statement of the Association's Council: Freedom and Responsibility" the AAUP further explains, "Students are entitled to an atmosphere conducive to learning and to even-handed treatment in all aspects of the teacher-student relationship" (p. 135). The principle of fair and respectful treatment also applies to interactions with and evaluation of the work of other members of the academic community.

Allegations of ethical misconduct. Alleged ethical violations on the part of faculty are dealt with in a number of ways. A student or faculty member may choose to approach the faculty member thought to have engaged in ethical misconduct. One could also speak with another faculty member, chair of the department, or administrator about the alleged misconduct and seek advice about possible avenues of action. A hearing on the matter is one of the possible outcomes. Faculty members accused of ethical misconduct are entitled to academic due process. That is, the educational institution should follow a set of procedures already in place for dealing with such allegations. For faculty, the AAUP also sets forth a number of parameters related to the allegations of various types and methods for proceeding to pursue such allegations, particularly within the confines of the employing educational institution. Although most incidents of alleged misconduct are handled within such institutional frameworks, many disciplinary and professional associations have provisions for pursuing breaches of ethical conduct through mechanisms within those associations.


Students are guided by the same general ethical principles as faculty regarding their academic work. Academic honesty and intellectual integrity are central in the educational process. These two principles apply to academic work, including, but not limited to, papers, theses, assignments, laboratory reports, exams, quizzes, oral presentations, exhibits, and performances. Students can avoid plagiarism by proper citation of the resources that provide them with the ideas, words, and data that they present in their academic work. Although intellectual theft may not have been intended, careless note taking can also result in inadvertent plagiarism. Students must also not engage in the fabrication or falsification of sources, data, or results. If students work on a project together, the work of those students should be equitably acknowledged. Moreover, students must not engage in unauthorized collaboration nor give or receive inappropriate assistance with their academic work. Violation of ethical standards would be grounds for action against a student. The situational context of the violation along with the institutional norms and regulations affect the path of action. Although some situations involving a student's alleged violation of ethical standards may warrant action on the part of a faculty member or an administrative officer, other situations may warrant a hearing by a duly constituted committee to determine whether the alleged act occurred as well as the appropriate sanctions.

Some institutions of higher education have an honor code that makes clear that cheating and other forms of academic dishonesty are violations of ethical standards. These codes typically obligate students to practice academic integrity and avoid engaging in academic misconduct, but also to take action when they believe others have engaged in academic misconduct. The action taken by a fellow student who witnesses the ethical digression can range from directly confronting the alleged perpetrator to reporting the alleged act to individuals acting on the part of the institution, who may find it appropriate to convene a hearing panel for a judicial process in which students usually play an important role.

Broader Concerns

Some ethical standards apply to members of the academic community in their relationship with wider society. The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy says, "Society trusts that the results of research reflect an honest attempt by scientists to describe the world accurately and without bias" (preface). Many codes of ethics for professional disciplinary associations specifically recognize the consequences of research beyond its intended goal. For example, the American Chemical Society indicates that, "Chemists should understand and anticipate the environmental consequences of their work. Chemists have responsibility to avoid pollution and to protect the environment." Under the heading "Social Responsibility," the American Sociological Association says, "Sociologists are aware of the their professional and scientific responsibility to the communities and societies in which they live and work …. When undertaking research, they striveto advance the science of sociology and to serve the public good" (Principle E). Both faculty and students need to be aware that their ideas and implications of their research may reach well beyond their own immediate goal.

Socialization to ethical principles needs to be more explicit and the mechanisms of social control within academic profession need to be strengthened in order to improve adherence to ethical principles. To improve faculty adherence to ethical principles, John M. Braxton and Allen E. Bayer suggest, in particular, that faculty and administrations need to (1) better articulate and codify the norms of professional behavior; (2) more explicitly socialize graduate students about the profession and its ethical obligations; (3) increasingly provide incentives for teaching [and research] behavior that is consistent with the standards of the profession; and (4) when necessary, impose sanctions for violations of those standards. Undergraduate and graduate students need to be made more aware of the expectations for their behavior as well as the consequences of the failure to meet those expectations.

If the ethical standards were more explicit, members of the academic community might be more likely to both act in accordance with such standards and speak out against the ethical misconduct of others in the academic community. In fact, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy says, "someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act" (p. 18). Yet, allegations of misconduct may require certain types of confidentiality because of the situations or the parties involved. However, if colleges and universities deal with alleged misconduct in a less clandestine manner, it will be easier for members of the academic community, particularly newcomers, to distinguish between ethical and unethical behavior.


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BRAXTON, JOHN M., and BAYER, ALAN E. 1999. Faculty Misconduct in Collegiate Teaching. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

COMMITTEE ON SCIENCE, ENGINEERING, AND PUBLIC POLICY. 1995. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

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