Conflict of Interest in Education

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, find out how to spot and avoid conflicts of interest. You'll learn from several examples in an educational setting where conflicts of interest can affect students, parents, administrators, school psychologists, teachers and others.

Tutoring Scenario

Jeremy is an eighth grade student in Ms. Pinkett's class. Jeremy's having some trouble with math.

His father meets with Ms. Pinkett to discuss how to help Jeremy get on track. She recommends private tutoring, twice per week, outside of school hours in order to give Jeremy a boost.

Jeremy's dad says to Ms. Pinkett, ''Jeremy does love your teaching style. Would you be willing to tutor him as a private client? I'd be able to pay you the going rate compared with other tutoring services.''

What's wrong with this picture? If Ms. Pinkett accepts this private job from Jeremy's father, she could find her primary obligation to her students comprised. This lesson discusses why conflicts of interest can be such a problem.

Definition of Conflict of Interest

A conflict of interest in education is a situation in which your primary responsibility to a student is compromised by competing priorities. Conflicts of interest could range from unknowingly allowing another priority to affect one's judgment, all the way to outwardly and intentionally violating a policy for personal gain.

Ms. Pinkett cannot recommend private tutoring services and then benefit financially from providing those services. Why is this a problem? First of all, it likely violates a school policy or even state law regarding conflicts of interest. Secondly, without realizing it, Ms. Pinkett could find her desire to grow her tutoring clientele to compete with her obligation to teach in her regular classes. In addition, there may be other unpredictable challenges that could arise over time.

Perhaps Jeremy's dad requests something extra of Ms. Pinkett during the school year. Maybe he tells her to take a second look at a test with a low grade because the tutoring sessions haven't covered that topic as thoroughly as they could have. He says he's not sure her tutoring services have been effective and wonders if Jeremy should still receive a low grade if she is responsible for helping him improve.

Now Ms. Pinkett has a conflict between assessing Jeremy fairly along with the rest of the class and responding to the critique of Jeremy's dad, who has become a type of employer.

Examples of Conflict of Interest in Education

Let's take another example, this time from the experiences of school psychologists.

The National Association of School Psychologists lays out principles for the conduct of those who work in the field. In the most basic sense, a school psychologist has one main client, and that is the student. Other parties, such as parents, teachers, and administrators, will also have requests and requirements for the psychologist, but ultimately, the student is the central obligation.

How does this play out?

Let's say Bart is a school psychologist in a high school. He's been friends with several parents of students for years.

His good friend, Myra, is the mother of an eleventh-grader. One day, Myra storms into the school and insists on talking with Bart. She says that she wants to know what Bart and her daughter have discussed in their counseling sessions. She's frustrated that her daughter won't talk to her about what's happening in her life and finds it even more frustrating that Bart won't tell her anything.

Even if Myra is a close friend, Bart must keep his obligation to the student, Myra's daughter. He cannot violate confidentiality simply because of his personal relationship with Myra. If he allowed his relationship with Myra to affect his judgment, he would be participating in a conflict of interest situation and violating the rights of his student-client. Bart could have prevented this situation, as well, if he had recommended that another school psychologist take Myra's daughter as a client to eliminate the conflict of interest.

There are other less obvious conflicts of interest too. Perhaps the school administration has implemented a new policy or taken on a new educational practice that the psychologist has been trained to implement. What if the psychologist starts to see consistent negative effects on his students, warranting a conversation with those who have created the policies?

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