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

Part I. Introduction to Data Ethics

  1. A set of principles of proper conduct.
  2. The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession.

Ethics have always been important, but they rarely get much attention until someone behaves in an unethical manner. Business ethics become headline news when financiers put their own personal interests ahead of their clients' financial well-being. Sports ethics arouse public debate when an athlete is accused of steroid use, cheating, or gambling.

Ethics are especially relevant in the public sector. Political leaders, courts, government employees, and schools are—justifiably—expected to conduct business in a manner that efficiently and effectively uses public resources, while at the same time guaranteeing our rights as citizens. In other words, they are expected to perform their responsibilities in an ethical manner.

An education organization should ensure that all data handlers understand and adhere to ethical standards related to their responsibilities in the organization.

Ethics are manifested in many ways in an education organization. Principals are obliged to treat each child fairly; teachers are bound to create a classroom atmosphere conducive to learning; cafeteria workers are responsible for protecting the identity of children receiving free- or reduced-price meals; board members are charged to help schools function in accordance with laws, standards, norms, and best practices in the field; and administrators are obligated to ensure that school resources are used as they were intended without mismanagement, fraud, or abuse.

Each and every day, educators collect and use data about students, staff, and schools. Some of these data originate in individual student or staff records that are confidential or otherwise sensitive. And, even information that is a matter of public record (aggregate school enrollment, for example) needs to be accessed, presented, and used in a responsible manner.

While laws may set the legal parameters that govern data use, ethics establish the fundamental principles of "right and wrong" that are critical to the appropriate management and use of education data.

"Ethics" include appropriate behavior and appropriate expertise. For example, it is unethical to disclose private information about a staff member (inappropriate behavior), and it is unethical to hire a data manager who does not understand individual privacy rights (inappropriate expertise).

The exponential growth of information systems that provide ready access to education data—often drawing upon individual student records—has heightened the importance of training data users about their ethical responsibilities regarding how they appropriately access, use, share, and manage education data. Technology makes data readily available to many staff members in an education organization. While improved access helps staff perform their jobs more effectively, it also raises issues about the appropriate use of data because the power to transmit information electronically multiplies the consequences of irresponsible behavior. How much more vulnerable are we to the inappropriate disclosure of information (for example, a student's assessment results, grades, medical history) in the age of downloads, copy and paste, and web posting than we were when cumulative folders could be locked away in a file cabinet? How much easier is it now to create a technically accurate but misleading presentation to policymakers or the public (for example, manipulating the axes on graphs to give the wrong impression about data trends)? Laws may set the legal parameters in which data users operate, but ethics go deeper and are often more stringent—after all, it is usually not illegal to change the axis on a graph, but it is unethical to intentionally represent data in a manner that is likely to be misunderstood.