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

1. Demonstrate honesty, integrity, and professionalism at all times

A parent had requested that the school not disclose his child's directory information to the public. Upon receiving a series of advertisements from a local photographer—with his child's middle name misspelled in exactly the same way as in school mailings—the parent asked a school board member whether the district shared contact information with commercial organizations. The board member asserted that the district would never do such a thing, but agreed that the identical misspelling was suspicious and decided to notify the superintendent. The superintendent's investigation revealed that the wife of the district's database manager was a photographer who specialized in children's photos. The database manager's employment was terminated after he admitted that he had shared the data without following proper procedures for the release of student information.

While this example focused on a database manager, honesty, integrity, and professionalism are critical requirements for any person whose job duties or volunteer responsibilities include handling education data. We expect no less than absolute honesty, integrity, and professionalism at all times from everyone trusted to work in our schools.

The people who handle data in our education system are expected to do many things—and do them all well. Most of these individuals are trained educators who provide instruction to students or supervise instruction at the school, district, or state level. Other data handlers have non-instructional leadership or administrative support roles. Still others provide highly skilled technical or data expertise that contributes to the effective and efficient operation of the education enterprise. Regardless of an individual's job title, working in an education environment demands unwavering adherence to codes of appropriate conduct, operating expectations, and professional standards.

A "data handler" is defined in this document as anyone involved in the education enterprise—employee, appointee, volunteer, or vendor—who has access to education data or who contributes to the collection, management, use, or reporting of education data. Data handlers who are honest can be trusted to maintain objectivity and uphold an organization's data procedures and protocols even when it requires extra effort, is not convenient, or otherwise runs counter to their own personal interests.

Integrity and Professionalism

Ethical data professionals never intentionally bias data, manipulate meaning, or otherwise influence interpretation—they present data as accurately and objectively as possible.

People with integrity do not cheat, steal, or lie, even when they will not get caught. They do not "borrow" data that they should not access; "cherry pick" data to misrepresent meaning; or misuse information in conflict with legal norms, ethical expectations, or common sense. Honesty and integrity are personal traits that are expected of any person, regardless of job title, role, responsibility, or function within an organization.

"Professionalism," on the other hand, is commonly defined as the conduct, aims, or qualities that characterize or mark a profession. Thus, "professional conduct" complies with standards of behavior that apply to a specific role or position. Although common use of the word "professional" implies a specialized knowledge and academic preparation associated with certain types of skilled employment, "professionalism" as a concept can be extended to all roles and positions in an organization that handle data, regardless of job type. For example, superintendents behave "professionally" when they accurately report data to the school board, no matter the consequences. School board members demonstrate "professionalism" when they make sure that they understand the meaning and context of data before making decisions. Similarly, data entry clerks display "professionalism" when they take pride in their work and are careful to minimize entry mistakes.1 Volunteers behave professionally when they respect that certain things seen and heard in a school building are private and should not be shared outside of their duties at the school.

Regardless of a data handler's role in an education organization, consistently and continuously demonstrating honesty, integrity, and professionalism are of paramount importance. These qualities, more than any other characteristic or trait, serve as the foundation of ethical behavior.

Recommended Practices and Training

Staff who consistently demonstrate honesty, integrity, and professionalism are the foundation of ethical behavior in an education organization
  1. Create an organizational culture that encourages honesty, integrity, and professionalism by adopting and enforcing the following practices:
    1. Emphasize, through staff training, that the organization expects its employees to be honest, have a sense of integrity, and behave professionally. Convey these same expectations to vendors, consultants, volunteers, and anyone else who performs paid or unpaid work for the organization.
    2. Explicitly require "honesty, integrity, and professionalism" in all job descriptions, staff contracts, volunteer policies, performance evaluations, and labor agreements.
    3. Inform employees, contractors, and the general public of established policies, procedures, and expectations regarding honesty, integrity, and professionalism.
    4. Commend and reinforce behavior that exemplifies high ethical expectations.
    5. Never tolerate dishonest, corrupt, or unprincipled behavior in the workplace, regardless of job type or level of authority.
  2. Use data as they were intended.
    1. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. For example, deceiving respondents by implying that you are collecting data for the district when it is really for your master's thesis is ethically untenable under all but the rarest of circumstances.
    2. Be very cautious about using data for purposes other than their original intent. Be sure that doing so does not violate individuals' right to privacy or any agreements of anonymity that you, or your agency, have made. Aggregations of data may be published if personally identifiable information has not been disclosed.
  3. Avoid at all costs any release of data that could lead to physical, mental, or emotional harm to others. Establish and enforce security procedures and mechanisms necessary for protecting all sensitive data (e.g., academic, behavioral, health, employment, and financial information) from inappropriate release and use.
  4. Train all data handlers in the fundamental principles of data ethics—the "rights and wrongs" that are not legal mandates but are critical to the appropriate management and use of education data. Customize training efforts by job type as appropriate for communicating concepts and translating instruction into practice. Data clerks, teachers, and parent volunteers have different access to student data and face different situations in which they must know how to "do the right thing."
  5. Use training activities that encourage learners to discuss and internalize the concepts of honesty, integrity, and professionalism. For example, ask participants to develop a statement describing the professionalism of their role in the organization; ask them to list, as a group, the work situations that call for honesty, integrity, and professionalism; develop a job–specific code of ethics, for example, "As a parent volunteer, it is my ethical responsibility to___________________________;" create and discuss scenarios in which these ethical qualities might be tested.


1 This is described more thoroughly in the Forum Guide to Building a Culture of Quality Data: A School and District Resource (see appendix A).