Educator Ethics: A Comparison of Teacher Professional Responsibility Laws in Four States

Article excerpt

I. INTRODUCTION

Today's teachers are not only responsible for educating students but are increasingly expected to serve as role models for their students. Unfortunately, ethics and professional responsibility for educators is a topic that is often given limited or no coverage in the required curriculum of teacher preparation programs across the United States. An educational experience that explicitly includes professional ethics is essential to prepare teachers for the challenges they face in the classroom environment where they teach and guide the character development of our nation's youth.

The focus of the national political conversation about education recently has been on the proper role, rewards, recognitions, and protections afforded to public classroom teachers. Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Education recently enlarged the debate by making "Effective Teachers and Leaders" the first pillar of reform under the $4 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) competition among states, a program which continues to be the centerpiece of this administration's education agenda. In many states, the issue has become divisive with legislatures and governors' offices taking aim at teacher tenure laws that, in many respects, prevent or hinder reform efforts targeting teachers. What makes for effective teaching and how to recognize and reward teachers determined to be effective and, conversely, to improve and remove teachers determined to be ineffective, promises to be a mainstay in the national conversation about education for the foreseeable future.

For all the talk nationally about reforming teacher tenure laws and improving student and educator performance, the authors of this study noticed that very little attention is being paid to teachers' ethical responsibilities and the existing reasons for disciplinary actions against educators. Since public school educators hold important positions requiring a high level of public trust and responsibility in our society by virtue of their work with our nation's youth,' the public expects educators to adhere to high standards of moral and ethical conduct. These standards are typically set forth in state statutes and regulations, and educator discipline is based on violations of these laws. A violation of one of these standards may lead an educator to lose his or her teaching credentials and/or be dismissed from his or her job in a public school.

The highest aspirations for teacher behavior are typically embodied in state educator codes of professional responsibility.2 These ethical codes, which may or may not be explicitly part of a state's laws, hold educators accountable for behavior consistent with community values and require educators who are committed to the welfare of their students, the profession, and their colleagues. Legal rules for certification and teacher discipline, on the other hand, may be codified and often represent the lowest level of acceptable behavior for educators.3 The teacher certification and discipline rules delineate the minimum standards individuals must meet to enter the profession. Thus, in their practice, educators must negotiate the tension between their basic legal responsibilities toward their students, schools, and colleagues with the aspirational ethical codes of their state. This tension between law and ethics is discernible in states that have codified their educator code of professional responsibility in their teacher certification statute or regulations. In these states, such as North Carolina and Texas, the codified law specifically requires a higher level of ethical conduct from their educators rather than relying on external professional organizations, such as in Illinois, or the courts, such as in Michigan, to set the boundaries of ethical behavior. Where the professional educator ethical codes are codified, educators can be made aware of expected and acceptable conduct more easily.

The existing literature lacks a cross-state analysis of educator discipline and ethical codes. …