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

5. Be accountable, and hold others accountable, for ethical use of data

District leaders were worried about the outcome of the state reading assessment. The stakes were so high that the district's data steward and testing coordinator were even more careful than usual to make sure that the results, no matter what they might be, were accurate. Thus, they were surprised when the superintendent stopped by on a Friday afternoon for an unprecedented "friendly" chat. "So," he began. "I know you two are trusted staff members who are full of integrity, and I would never ask you to be anything but that way—but I do want you to know that these test scores are very important to our community, and any way we can view the glass as half full rather than half empty would be greatly appreciated. For example, even though we might not have made our testing targets, we did show some growth, which is what our public reporting needs to show. Do you understand that?" He was clearly implying that the public and even the school board shouldn't see all of the test results. The data steward and testing coordinator understood that the failing subgroups represented only a small portion of the students who were tested, but they also knew that it was disingenuous to show only the favorable results—and they prepared themselves for an ethical dilemma in the face of such pressure from their boss.

In a perfect world, ethical issues would never arise in an education setting. Unfortunately, ours is not a perfect world, and school personnel should be prepared for murky situations. Policies and procedures for dealing with breaches in ethical conduct need to be formulated, and staff members need to be trained to respond to ethical miscues when—not if—violations occur.

What happens, for example, when a staff member notices questionable behavior in the district office? Ideally, the incident would be reported and corrected, and the individual who brought it to light would be thanked. The more realistic scenario, however, is that the person who sees the infraction is likely to weigh the costs and benefits of reporting the violation: on the one hand, "this misconduct, whether intentional or not, needs to be corrected and I will make sure it is"; versus, "hmm, I know what my colleague is doing is wrong, but is it serious enough to get him in hot water? What will happen to me if I report the behavior?" Reporting ethical violations is easier when the offense is egregious or the consequences of reporting it are minimal. The dilemma is even greater when workers must decide whether to report that someone with authority over them is not behaving in accordance with accepted standards.

Fortunately, good leaders usually find a way to help others do the right thing. This has been the case with the advent of "whistleblower" laws in many states. Under these statutes, individuals who report violations of acceptable conduct are proactively shielded from retribution through administrative and legal protections. Such protective policies are also applicable for encouraging responsible reporting of illegal, unethical, or incorrect data use. To be effective, however, staff members need to understand how to report suspected violations and be confident they will be protected from retribution should they, in fact, register a concern.

Recommended Practices and Training

It can be a frightening proposition for workers to report that someone with authority over them is not behaving by accepted standards. Organizations may consider implementing "whistleblower" protections (see appendix B) to assure staff that they can report suspected violations without fear of reprisal.
  1. Determine whether appropriate policies, processes, and procedures are in place in your organization for reporting an ethical violation.
    1. If "whistleblower" protections are not available in the organization, create them (see appendix B).
    2. If policies exist, examine them to determine whether they adequately protect whistleblowers.
    3. Hold a staff meeting to discuss with your data handlers whether they would feel confident reporting ethical violations if necessary. Offer confidential meetings with selected staff members who represent different roles and responsibilities in the organization to ensure that they can express their concerns without fear of retribution.
    4. Train data handlers to understand the steps they need to take to report illegal, unethical, or incorrect behavior. Make sure that they understand that they are procedurally protected from retribution.
    5. Establish mandatory ethics training courses for all staff members.
  2. Establish guidelines for data use policies that are aligned with applicable laws, regulations, and best practices (see appendix A). This includes guidelines related to data collection, governance, access, use, exchange, and reporting.
    1. Ensure that all guidelines are aligned with local laws, policies, and best practices.
    2. Ensure that all guidelines are aligned with state laws, policies, and best practices.
    3. Ensure that all guidelines are aligned with federal/national laws, policies, and best practices.
  3. Establish and enforce data use agreements, including memoranda of understanding, nondisclosure agreements, and other mechanisms for ensuring appropriate data use (see appendix C).
    1. Require all data handlers, including staff and external users, to sign data use agreements and/or nondisclosure agreements prior to being granted access to any data files that aren't already publicly available.
    2. Establish a process for evaluating complaints about inappropriate use. Identify who is authorized to determine whether data use policies have been violated, what criteria are used for such a determination, how the process will be conducted fairly, and reasonable consequences related to policy violations.
    3. Establish and enforce sanctions for the violation of data use agreements. An agreement that is unenforceable or lacks consequences is rarely effective.
  4. Train all data users to ensure that they understand how to report violations of ethical behavior.
    1. Explain "whistleblower" protection policies to ensure staff feel confident that doing the right thing—reporting unethical behavior—will not negatively affect their job status or working conditions.
    2. Review in detail the procedures for reporting a possible violation: who should be informed of the incident, what responsibilities the reporter may have for documenting the questioned behavior, what the repercussions could be to the observer who fails to report misconduct.
    3. In training sessions, present hypothetical situations of both accidental and intentional data misuse to staff and encourage them to discuss how they would act if they became aware of them.