Special Educational Needs and the Socio-economic Factor: Ethical Issues

A seminar paper submitted to the University of Bristol

The Graduate School of Education
Doctor of Education (EdD)
By Irit Cohen
1. Introduction
The focus of this paper is on ethical issues that arise when working with socio-economically disadvantaged students with Special Educational Needs (SEN) in mainstream schools. My interest in this subject results from my work as an educational assessor and teacher of secondary school students with specific learning disabilities. Among my clients in the public school are students who have immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia, or are second generation of Ethiopian immigrants. Ethical awareness and good problem-resolving-strategies are especially important for this vulnerable population. Most of these students have little parental educational support, and professional decisions could determine their fate by making it possible or impossible for them to receive a high-school diploma, without which they stand no chance of being admitted to a college, acquiring suitable employment and having a worthwhile career. 
Drawing upon research literature and my professional experience, this paper will attempt to describe and examine some ethical issues and dilemmas which educational practitioners might face in their work with SEN students who come from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This introductory section will lead to a research overview that focuses on three aspects: Ethical issues and principles that apply to educational settings (section 2.1); Ethics in the context of SEN (section 2.2); and Ethical awareness in relation to social-economically disadvantaged students (section 2.3). Section 3 illustrates a case study of an Israeli-Ethiopian student with SEN, and includes an ethical analysis of the case with reference to the research literature. Section 4 provides concluding comments.
2. Literature review
2.1 Ethics in Education
Whilst it is sometimes difficult to resolve professional dilemmas, especially those that arise from conflicting obligations, it is of major importance to provide professionals with a base of knowledge in the field of professional ethics and thereby raise levels of ethical awareness. Research in the field of ethics has emphasized the importance of ethical mindfulness as an initial phase of a process aimed at decreasing uncertainty and developing strategies for better professional conduct (Carrington, Griffin, Hollis & Parry, 2002; Eddy ,1988; Francis, 2002; Franey, 2002; Webster & Bond, 2002).
‘Profession’, as distinguished from ‘occupation’ has been defined in several ways. Among the distinguishing characteristics are lengthy periods of education and training, relative autonomy, and ethical guidelines for professionals to draw from, which will ensure that clients receive a high standard of professional conduct (Downie, 1999; Francis, 1999; Webster & Bond, 2002; Webster & Hoyle, 2000).
Francis (1999), defines four basic conditions which distinguish ethical codes from other principles of good behavior or moral values: 
The first condition is that for a code of ethics to be effective it must apply to cultures and places other than our own. This principle implies that a code of ethics cannot be restricted to merely immediate benefit but rather accommodate long-term perspectives.
The second condition refers to the distinction between intentions and results. Researchers have pointed to the limitation of utilitarian approaches that emphasize general good over the individual’s rights and take into account quantitative outcomes before considering and assessing the value of processes (Champbell, 1997; Henry, 1995; Howe & Miramontes, 1992). 
The third condition refers to the importance of using rational reasoning as well as humanistic values and intuitive insights when processing information and arriving at conclusions. This principle can be applied to cases where decisions are to be made regarding individuals who come from deprived backgrounds. Do they deserve special consideration and treatment?
The fourth condition points to the limitation of ethical codes that are based only on external ordinances such as professional regulations or organizational policies and are not derived from good intent and internal qualities such as honesty, generosity and compassion. 
Researchers of practical ethics in health care and education have proposed several ethical guidelines that may serve as sources of reference in situations of ethical uncertainty, and thus promote a recognizable standard of professional conduct (Bond, 2000b; Champbell, 1997; Koocher & Keith-Spiegel, 1998; Webster & Bond, 2002). According to Bond’s “scaffolding’ metaphor, ethical guidelines can be seen as a supporting framework, designed in accordance with a particular purpose, within which professionals carry out their work. When guidelines are in conflict with one another at a particular situation, certain principles may be favoured over others. The most commonly referred to principles are the following seven: 
‘Autonomy’ means that clients must be given all the information which will enable them to make their own choices and decisions, and should the need arise, challenge decisions made by others. Henry (1995) distinguishes between personal autonomy and professional autonomy and suggests that professional groups ought to be able to make significant decisions about their values, rules of conduct and actions. 
The principle of ‘Beneficence’ refers to the professional’s obligation to take actions that will best benefit his/her client. This principle directly requires the individual practitioner or the professional group not to inflict any harm on the client (‘Non-maleficence’). According to Champbell, the fact that such provision does not explicitly define what the client’s best interest is, and what harm may result through certain actions, require professionals to always discuss their clients’ perspectives and problems
‘Justice’, means fair distribution of services and resources, regardless of wealth, race or social standing.
‘Fidelity’ refers to the mandatory bond of trust between the practitioners and their clients. This bond obliges the practitioners to be committed to a relationship that will ensure the clients’ confidence in the professional’s loyalty and faithfulness.
‘Integrity’ means a high standard of professional behavior that is agreed upon and practiced by the professional group and seeks not to bring the profession into disrepute.
The seventh source of professional ethics in education is organizational policy. It refers to regulations and procedures which employers expect practitioners to follow, and which may conflict with client’s benefit. Educational practitioners often experience dilemmas resulting from imposed restrictions when carrying out their duties because of the constraints of ‘the system’ and insufficient resources (Lindsay & Colley, 1995).
Over the past two decades, the legal and ethical rights of students with disabilities and difficulties have been given greater priority. Having introduced the key concepts of ethics in education, it is now appropriate to consider the specific ethical issues in relation to SEN.
2.2. Students with special educational needs in mainstream schools
Howe & Miramontes (1992) suggest that more than in other areas of education, working with students with SEN in mainstream schools requires a high degree of ethical awareness. The SEN framework focuses attention on a group of students who don’t function as expected in their age-related academic tasks. Their difficulties may stem from a wide variety of sources and clinical diagnosis may identify them as students with Specific Learning Disabilities (using the achievement-ability discrepancy paradigm as presented in DSM-IV: APA, 1994), Attention Deficit Disorders with Hyperactivity (ADHD), mild emotional difficulties etc. The use of the SEN framework includes not only the two per cent with significant learning disabilities, but also the twenty per cent of those with milder disabilities and difficulties. This inclusion can be seen as reflecting an effort to reduce stigmatizing labels and switch from individual clinical categorization to functional identifications of students’ needs (Margalit, Tur-Kaspa & Most, 1999; Norwich, 2000). 
According to Norwich (2000), Re-evaluating the focus from the nature of the individual differences to the system’s obligation to take seriously the rights and needs of individual students and to provide sufficient accommodation for individuals with learning difficulties, suggests that “it would be better to consider difficulties in learning as indicative of less than adequate or effective schools” (p. 11).
It has been argued that the framework of SEN cannot be confined only to students who meet diagnostic criteria of learning disabilities but applies to other groups as well, such as those with very high abilities who may benefit from additional provision, or those from socio-economic disadvantaged groups (MacKay, 2000; Norwich, 2000). Having established the interconnection between ethics and SEN I will now relate to the socio-economic factor which is considered to be one of the most important predictors of SEN.
2.3 The socio-economic factor in SEN
During the past several years much attention has been directed towards the socio-economic factor in education (Pritchard, 1995; Thernstrom, 1999; Thomas & Weinrach, 1999). It has been suggested that socio-economic disadvantage is a predictor of low educational performance, learning difficulties and learning disabilities (MacKay, 2000; McCallum, 2001). It has become common knowledge among educational psychologists and other educational practitioners, that the poor achievements of some ethnic minority individuals on standardized tests reflects lack of opportunity, different learning style and cultural differences rather than lack of ability. 
Thernstorm (1999) refers to these fundamental learning differences in relation to African-American children. He points out that multi criteria are essential to the identification of both the gifted and the learning disabled students among these children, because any tests that emphasize deductive, analytical methods of problem-solving will be biased against them. The classifying and grouping of students according to standardized or national tests is particularly dangerous because, as Thernstrom points out, tracking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Research findings have shown the influence of individual characteristics such as race-ethnicity and socio-economic status on grouping and tracking in secondary schools (Jones, Vanfossen & Ensminger, 1995).
Such findings have brought about educational policies to move towards heterogeneity in education. Students from different ethnic and social backgrounds, with greater or lesser ability, study together in the same main-stream classes in the hope that equal treatment will result in equal achievements. Replacing academic tracking with heterogeneous grouping has been seen by policy makers as the best answer to the questions of equal opportunity and social justice. Nevertheless, as Norwich (2000) points out, education is not only about the inclusive values of participation but also about the development of individuality. Being “race and ethnicity neutral” (Thomas and Weinrach, 1999) in admission policies in order not to reinforce stereotypes or excuse people from performing, is ignoring the firm and abiding fact of multiculturalism in education (Sleeter, 1996). 
Schon (1988) argues that education is a sub-profession (as distinguished from ‘major’ professions such as medicine and law) because of the inconsistency that characterizes educational approaches and policies. When dealing with problems that arise from the tensions between organizational policies and professional ethics, educational practitioners often have to sort out their own solutions. 
Elstein and Bordage (1988) emphasize the importance of consistency of judges, in order to reduce uncertainty. They claim that information processing should be seen as a research strategy or, as Schom (1988) suggests, by reflecting in action and framing the problem that we are trying to solve, we become researchers in the practice context. In this sense, developing a cumulative empirical knowledge base of strategies for professional judgements and decision making in the context of education, appears to be indispensable. 
In the next section I will present a case study that high lights some ethical issues and principles underpinning professional conduct in education. The details of the case and the ethical issues that arise from it are conveyed mainly from my perspective, as an educational assessor (EA) and teacher. In addition, I have interviewed an educational councelor (EC) an educational psychologist (EP) and an English as Foreign Language (EFL) teacher, who were involved in this case. 
To illustrate the dilemmas arising from the case study, I referred to Francis’ (1999) four conditions and Webster & Bond’s (2002) seven guidelines for ethical conduct. I also used the problem solving paradigm (Bond, 2000a; Webster & Bond, 2002) as a framework for the decision making process that accompanied different phases of this case. The problem solving steps included summarizing the problem, delegating responsibilities, considering which ethical guidelines clarify the issue, deciding which course of action could/should be taken to resolve the problem, and reflecting, after action, on the decisions made. When interviewing the EP and EC, I asked them to refer to their own sources for the core values of professional ethic, in accordance with Bond’s (2000b) model of sources of professional ethics. 
3. A Case Study
3.1 Background
In June 2001, Ben (not his real name) was referred to me by a colleague - the school’s EC - for an educational assessment. Ben was at his tenth school year (two years before graduation). The reason why he needed an assessment was that at the year’s end he had not reached an acceptable level in most subjects in order to continue his studies at school. In our introductory interview before the assessment, Ben told me that he was born in Ethiopia and immigrated to Israel with his parents and six siblings when he was a baby. His family’s journey from Ethiopia to Israel took a few months during which they suffered great hardships. His mother took care of Ben and his siblings and was the only bread winner in the family, working as a cleaning lady. His father was 20 years older than his mother and was sick. In primary school, he had behavioral problems which made it difficult for him to learn in class. 
In high school, Ben failed all subjects except for Geography and Sports. His teachers reported that he had demonstrated attention and concentration difficulties, showed signs of hyper-activity and had severe reading and writing difficulties. His EFL teacher, for example, felt that he was upset, frustrated and seemed to be almost “in pain” when trying to read and write in English. Like most other Ethiopian parents, Ben’s parents could not support him academically and never applied school for help. 
Ben told me that he had been a member of a local community Ethiopian theatre group that performed in front of the local town people. What I also learned from Ben (and from conversations with his peers) was that he was considered a gifted actor who “stole the show”. Ben expressed his wish to stay in school. 
Phase 1
The results of the assessment showed Ben to have a below average non-verbal thinking ability. Intervention improved the scores to the average. In addition, the test results indicated significant phonological, visual, organizational and grapho-motor difficulties. His oral expression and vocabulary in Hebrew were below the norm, but were nevertheless much higher than his reading and writing performance. My estimation was that for Ben to pass major subjects (such History and EFL) special learning and testing conditions had to be provided. In line with the Israeli Educational regulations, students diagnosed as having specific learning disabilities (in accordance with the achievement-ability discrepancy) are entitled to significant consideration in testing conditions, such as shortened or oral tests during the Matriculation Examinations (the national assessments at the end of the secondary school studies).
My first dilemma
The dilemma I faced at that point was whether or not to mention Ben’s thinking ability score before intervention. If I mentioned his low scores before intervention, he might not be entitled to the oral test and would no doubt fail the Matriculation examinations.
Ethical analysis
Analyzing my dilemma, the conflict was between my two professional obligations: on the one hand, it was my responsibility as an assessor to submit the complete data I collected. On the other hand, I felt that in Ben’s best interest, some data should be under-stated. My ethical conflict was between the principles of Beneficience and Non-maleficence on the one hand, and my professional Integrity, on the other hand. My decision was not to reveal the score before intervention. As a result of my decision, I had concerns about the professional integrity of my action. Reflecting on the decision, I feel that I should have tackled the problem by revealing the full data and referred to the limitations of standardized tests in relation to Ethiopian students.
Phase 2
Following my recommendations concerning Ben’s testing, he was allowed to continue his eleventh grade studies at school and was admitted into a mainstream class majoring in Geography. Although he didn’t show a significant improvement in most subjects, his teachers reported that he seemed to be happier, calmer and more motivated. His EFL teacher reported that she had observed Ben during a four-day school trip. She said that he looked happy and well-adjusted, always accompanied by friends or taking part in scouts activities and educational workshops. 
Ethical analysis
In the light of Ben’s little academic progress, my dilemma at that stage was whether the recommendations I had made were suitable for his educational needs. If not, I had concerns about my professional Integrity. Did I make my professional decision only on the basis of humanistic, intuitive values rather than professional guidelines? I also asked myself, whether I would have treated equally a student from a non-deprived background, or did Ben’s socio-economic background was the core of my decision? 
When asked about her opinion in relation to the fact that Ben hadn’t made a significant progress in his studies, his EFL teacher said:
“We put too much weigh on his academic achievements. We judge his success according to his academic development and we do not see any academic progress. We look through the academic angel and we don’t even notice his huge social success. We don’t have the means to measure this kind of success”.
The EFL teacher’s opinion is congruent with Francis (1999), who claims that an approach that is based merely upon effectiveness and measurable consequences rather than on moral principles such as sense of duty, justice, fairness and good intentions, is perceived as problematic because processes and affective aspects are more difficult to gauge but are not necessarily less significant than measurable effects. Therefore, it could be argued that the fact that Ben was granted special testing conditions made him feel less anxious and frustrated at school, benefited him both socially and academically and contributed positively to his self-confidence and self-esteem. 
It should not be ignored that Ben’s socio-economic background indeed gave added weight to my decision-making. However, as Webster and Bond (2002) point out, justice does not mean providing “a uniform way of dealing with clients or situations which is insensitive to individual circumstances” (p. 26). As special intervention programmes were not provided at school and Ben’s parents could not support him academically, only special testing conditions could enable Ben to ‘survive’ academically and emotionally in the school system. 
Phase 3 
In the middle of Ben’s eleventh school year, I was informed that he had to be assessed by an EP in order to get the required consideration for the Matriculation Exams. It was too late to apply for financial assistance from the Ministry of Education, and the municipality’s psychological service refused to supply this service free of charge because of political and financial considerations. It turned out, however, that Ben had previously been assessed by an EP when he was in primary school, and I hoped that on the basis of that assessment and the one I made, the EP could give her recommendations. I contacted her and was informed that according to the test results, the boy appeared at that time to have low-average intelligence, ADHD and severe behavioral problems. She doubted if he would benefit from an oral test as, in her opinion, his cognitive abilities were found to be so low. 
My second dilemma
The dilemma I faced was whether I, as an EA, could intervene with the EP’s professional considerations and try to influence her decision. 
Ethical analysis
I felt that the findings of my assessment did justify the recommendations I had made. On the other hand, I was aware of the fact that for the EP to make recommendations on the basis of an assessment made four years earlier was against her self-interest and her professional integrity. In addition, both the EC and I had concerns about school’s lack of resources and ability to handle Ben’s individual and culture-derived needs. These concerns are well illustrated by the EC’s words:
“Unfortunately, I have arrived at the opinion that Ben is a little ‘lost’ at school, which is not adept at handling him individually and intensively…My considerations and decisions resulted from understanding the situation – Ben needs a guided hand on an every-day basis. It seems to me that our big and achievement-oriented school is not adept at handling him and maybe he could have found his place at a vocational school or at a theatre track…My behaviour toward him stems from personal and professional ethics and institutional policy. I try to encourage him, but I can’t help him academically”. 
The EC also expressed her concern about her Fidelity towards Ben: 
“I haven’t really presented him with the truth about what teachers think and what I am concerned about.: He could express his best at the theatre and school doesn’t have a suitable response to this….there isn’t someone to accompany and direct him in an intensive and efficient way”.
Our opinion was that since the school system had not provided Ben with any supplementary educational aids and services to help him reach the required level in academic subjects, encourage his interest in the theatre and overcome the gaps that resulted from his deprived background and learning disability, the least we could do was to take a stand and request that this “borderline case”.
Phase 4
The EC arranged a meeting between myself and the EP. After presenting the above-mentioned arguments, it was decided that the EP would read the records of the Educational Assessment I had made and meet Ben. As a result, she reconsidered her previous decision and granted him special testing conditions, including oral and shortened exams in all subjects.
Ethical analysis
When asked which principles guided her in reaching her decision, the EP said:
“When I re met him in high school, I was surprised to learn that he had no behavioral problems. His learning problems were on the basis of learning disabilities which had not been remedied, combined with not having learned in school for many years. His desire to take the matriculation exams, combined with his attendance in school lessons encouraged me to assist him. I feel that my actions toward my clients must stem from the principle of beneficence. It is my job to assist them in reaching worthwhile goals. I also must act with professional integrity, in order for my intervention to have validity”.
It appears that the core ethical dilemma for the EP was between benefiting her client and keeping professional integrity. After re -evaluating the case in the light of the new data that she gained from the EA and from Ben, she made a decision which fitted both her professional integrity and Ben’s best interest.
I recently met Ben at school and asked him about his studies. He told me that his examinations were due in a few weeks and that he thought he had a chance to pass them. 
4. Conclusions
As professionals employed by public institutions, educational practitioners have multiple sources of accountability and multiple sources of obligations (Carrington, Griffin, Hollis & Parry, 2002). This case study illustrated the complexity of the work with a student with SEN who come from a socio-economically disadvantaged background, and allows further insight into the already accumulated knowledge on ethics in education. The limitation of this case study is that it reflected on past actions and thoughts and did not provide an on-going observation of individuals’ strategies, while engaged in decision-making processes. 
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