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The Forum Guide to Data Ethics
NCES 2010-801
March 2010

The Challenge to Leadership

Although the world is full of good people, ethical behavior does not just happen automatically in an organization. Education is a complex endeavor. While most people see schools as the setting for teaching and learning, others view schools as political entities, or business opportunities, or agents of social change. Each perspective is likely to carry its own biases. And when an individual's interest is at stake, people may be tempted to engage in unethical behavior—to knowingly manipulate or misrepresent statistics to make a point; misuse data for personal gain; or convince themselves that privacy and confidentiality requirements don't need to be observed.

Collecting, maintaining, reporting, and using data in an appropriate manner that is consistent throughout the organization, and in all decisions, will not happen unless education leaders support data ethics as an important organizational priority. School leaders can set expectations that make ethical behavior an organizational norm or, alternatively, they can accept or even encourage behavior that routinely falls short of high standards. Ethical behavior oftentimes can be encouraged through organizational structures and operational expectations. For example, a responsible system of checks and balances precludes finance officers from signing their own expense reports without anyone else's oversight. By establishing standard procedures for collecting data, generating and reviewing reports, releasing publications, and communicating with the public, an education organization limits the opportunities for inappropriate behavior.

Establishing organizational structures and practices that encourage ethical conduct is not enough. Organizations must actively ensure that all data handlers adhere to all policies and procedures related to data ethics. Good communication throughout the organization and effective training can go a long way to foster this culture. To help data handlers understand and exhibit standards of ethical behavior, education organizations should

  • train staff about their ethical responsibilities;
  • publicize the expectations for ethical behavior;
  • create explicit policies and procedures pertaining to data ethics;
  • state clearly the consequences of unethical behavior; and
  • enforce these rules uniformly so that everyone is accountable.
What is "common sense" to one person is not necessarily so to another. Just as an organization cannot assume staff know how to perform the technical functions of their jobs without training, it should not assume that data handlers understand the ethical aspects of data use and management without proper training.

Ethics training requires a resource commitment from school leaders: securing skilled trainers, tailoring curricula to the organization's and learners' needs, and allocating professional development time for staff to learn and practice new behaviors. In addition to describing ethical concepts, training should discuss why ethics matter (ethical issues are real and have significant consequences) and how ethics play out in everyday situations in the organization (that is, how they affect the routine activities of the training participants). Realistic examples customized to the learners' roles and responsibilities are a good way to communicate the reallife implications—and unexpected complexities—of the principles in the guide.

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