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College Quarterly
Fall 1994 - Volume 2 Number 1
An Ethical Framework for Program Review in Post-Secondary Technical Education
by Grant L. Young
A perfect value consists in doing without witness all that we could have done in front of the entire world. Gabriela Mistral, - Nobel Iaureate

There has been a recent increase in attention to ethics and ethical conduct in adult education as well as other professions. This article examines the ethics of program review in the context of post-secondary colleges and technical institutes and presents a framework that can guide ethical decision-making and action.

Ethics has both a philosophical and a practical side. As philosophical inquiry, ethics can be thought of as an analysis of moral concepts such as good or bad, right or wrong, or as an inquiry into the nature of moral actions. In practical terms, ethics can also refer to a set of principles or beliefs that guide our human interaction and conduct. This article takes the practical, normative approach to ethical investigation, with the view that ethics is reflective, principled, and requires making choices through the exercise of judgement (Lewis, 1991).

The term “program review” focuses on post-secondary educational programs as distinct from social programs (Conrad & Wilson, 1985). This also differentiates this educational activity from the activity of evaluating students' learning which is often called student assessment. The term “program review” is used by several colleges in Canada such as the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, Douglas College in British Columbia, and Humber College in Ontario. Program review in the post-secondary, technical education context involves the systematic, information-based examination of an academic program to determine its merit or worth in order to make decisions about the program (e.g. to increase its effectiveness).

Need for Ethics

What is the need for ethics in this context? Ethics should be a concern in academic program review for a number of good reasons. Program review is a human activity, an educational activity, and a research activity. All these aspects present ethical concerns or issues for the practitioner. First of all, the prima facie case can be made that since ethics deals with human interaction and conduct, then any activity that involves human interaction has an ethical dimension, and therefore has ethical implications for practice.

Second, program review is an educational activity and there is increased attention on ethical conduct in all aspects of education. For example, Bull (1993) stated that education has an inherent moral nature due to its political and interpersonal nature. In the political dimension, education is an exercise of government power over citizens which results in two moral obligations. The first obligation is to carry out the legitimate responsibilities of the public role. The second duty is to resist any efforts to exercise power illegitimately. In the inter-personal dimension, there are moral responsibilities due to characteristics of the nature of the relationship between teacher/educator and student/client (e.g. compulsory, intimate, asymmetrical in relation to power, and often pervasive in the lives of the students).

Finally, program review, as a form of research conducted with human subjects, certainly contains ethical concerns. Guba and Lincoln (1989) identified four common ethical issues: guarding subjects from harm; guarding subjects against deception; guarding privacy and confidentiality; and, obtaining fully informed consent for participation in the study.

Besides the issues raised by the nature of program review, there are ethical issues that emerge from dimensions of organizational life, such as internal politics and role conflicts. Political dilemmas can occur due to political interference, such as pressure on the evaluator to present a positive view of the program and to minimize public reporting of weaknesses or difficulties.

Role conflict results from the range of organizational roles that internal evaluators play. Conflict can occur between three main organizational roles: the objective scientist, the administrator (e.g. involved with program or involved as internal evaluator), and the advocate for some course of action to follow on the findings of the evaluation (Sieber, 1980). For example, questions may arise over the impartiality of an internal evaluator who works alongside people whose program is being evaluated.

Internal role conflict can also occur when ethical claims from the different levels of roles compete within the consciousness of the program evaluator. Lewis (1991) identified five different types of internal roles that impact on the individual in a professional context and which may produce conflicting claims. The five types included: personal (self, family, religion), humanity (inter-personal), professional (collegial), agency (organizational), and jurisdiction (legal, public interest).

Given these aspects of program review, an ethical perspective is important as the evaluator works to maintain professional integrity, amidst sometimes conflicting roles or competing claims. An ethical perspective or approach can be made more conscious and effective through a deliberate framework.

Ethical Framework

An ethical framework increases the awareness of ethical issues and facilitates a commitment to an ethical approach to program review. The objectives of this ethical framework are to: (a) encourage high standards of professional conduct; (b) assist with the decision making required in the practice of program review; and, (c) increase public confidence and trust in the process of program review.

An ethical framework most useful to program review contains the following key elements: foundational principles, written code or guidelines, a decision making model, and professional development.

Foundational Principles

Ethical principles provide an important foundation for the ethical framework. These principles, as fundamental and enduring truths with universal application, provide the essential foundation for ethical reflection, decision making, and action. The principles can guide individual conduct, as well as provide the ethical basis for the creation of the specific written code of conduct. Commitment to principles in decisions and actions will increase the level of credibility and trust of the program review process. Ethicist Michael Josephson (1989) outlined ten key ethical principles to consider in ethical deliberations generally: honesty, integrity, promise-keeping, loyalty, justice/fairness, caring, respect, accountability, pursuit of excellence, and responsible citizenship. Such principles can guide an individual personally as well as professionally.

What principles are most relevant to the program review process? Kitchener (1984) reviewed literature on ethics in the professions and synthesized five key ethical principles that are essential in ethical deliberations: autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, justice, and fidelity. Autonomy refers to the recognition and respect for an individual's right to live with free choice. Nonmaleficence requires not causing harm to others. Beneficence refers to the positive contribution to the welfare of others. Justice requires treating people with equality and fairness. Fidelity refers to loyalty and to promise-keeping.

Written Code

There is considerable support for some form of written code or guidelines for ethical conduct in a professional context. For example, Roberts (1982) stated that “a code of ethics is necessary for any group of professionals having an interest in professional conduct, self-regulation, and maintenance of quality services and desiring guidelines for decision making in the areas of moral responsibility and the common good” (p. 174). What form should this written code take?

One option would be to use existing standards. Kruger (1993) recently conducted a study to validate, with a group of Canadian evaluation practitioners, both the primary evaluation standards of the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (1981), and any secondary standards generated by the study itself (through a policy Delphi technique). The study validated all the primary standards with a high consensus. As well, a secondary propriety standard that supported using a standard code of ethics, such as from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council or the Canadian Psychological Association, was validated by the study. Such existing standards and codes can provide a useful initial starting point for the development of specific ethical guidelines.

Another option is provided by Sockett (1990) with the concept of a local code of practice. Such local codes of practice would contain: (a) the form of a set of rules that establish standards or guidelines in matters of individual or institutional conduct; (b) the content which focuses on practice with attention to the formal settings of the evaluation process, collegial relationships, formal/informal relations, management relations, and discipline allegiance; and, (c) a status to resolve accountability issues such as any tension of public versus professional control over practices. This local code could have two or three layers, including both global principles as well as more specific rules or guidelines.

Codes would need to be developed by those directly involved or affected by the implementation of the codes. This could be done with a special task force or committee, using a consultative, collaborative approach. The code once drafted would need to be formally accepted or ratified through the academic decision making process of the particular college/institute.

Decision-making Model

The third element in the framework is a decision-making model which is useful to provide further guidance to the evaluator in reflecting, analyzing, generating alternatives, making choices and taking action. Lewis (1991) points out that “ethical reasoning is a form of specialized problem solving. Its methods provide tools for making choices” (p. 101). Included in the tool kit are values and principles, a systematic approach, fact-finding and screening devices, feedback loops, and assessment tools. How these tools are used by the individual practitioner determines the efficacy of the ethical decision.

There are formal models and informal models or approaches to ethical decision making. Informal approaches are used by individual evaluators operating as autonomous professionals and can include an informal thinking strategy or a format such as a checklist or a set of questions. Lewis (1991) merges a number of models into a basic checklist format. The checklist contains the following elements: facts, empathy/inclusion, underlying causes and precedents, stakeholders and responsibilities, motives and objectives, possible results, potential harm, participation, time frame, disclosure and publicity, communication, universality and consistency. By working through these elements, the evaluator can obtain a clear, comprehensive picture of the situation, generate a number of alternatives and possible consequences or impacts of those alternatives, and make an ethically sound choice or decision.

Another informal model is outlined by Walker (1993) in writing about integrity in educational policy making decisions. This model, characterized metaphorically as a filter system in a swimming pool, contains a series of screens (initial perceptions, theoretical/rational, preferential/personal, and ideological/supra-rational) to deal with specific problems or policy decisions. The process starts with the definition of the problem which is then filtered through the series of screens to provide a comprehensive, reflective review of the problem, and an effective response. The theoretical/rational screens are used to appraise the ethical quality of the decision using four aspects: virtue (ethics of character), duty (ethics of obligation), consequences (ethics of aspiration and responsibility), and circumstances (ethics of contingency). “Such screens provide strong rational guidance for clarifying and determining what are the best courses of action as well as justifying policy decisions” (p. 88).

Formal models can be established by a college/institute and may take the form of operating protocols or ethical questioning formats. An operating protocol suggested by Rodriguez (1992) has a pre-determined set of questions or requirements used to collect information about ethical assumptions, constraints, and implications for potential research projects. Formal models such as these are useful in the planning and conducting program reviews to minimize ethical dilemmas, eliminate harmful consequences, and maximize positive benefits.

Professional Development

The fourth and final element in the framework is professional development. Ethical training supports ethical action in the daily work life of practitioners. Josephson (1989) stated that ethics can be taught to people because ethics involves making decisions using an ethical frame of reference. It is not simply a matter of having a good character. Ethical behaviour requires three aspects: consciousness, competence, and commitment. First, there needs to be a conscious awareness that our actions do have an ethical implication both for ourselves and for those we deal with. Second, there is a level of competence that can be developed in our language, in our reasoning processes, in predicting consequences to actions, in analyzing situations from an ethical perspective, and in acting with humility while we do it. Finally, a person makes a pre-determined commitment to act in an ethical manner. All three of these aspects can be developed through educational activities, including case study analysis, dilemma discussions, and personal reflection or journal writing, as well as academic content in courses or workshops.


Academic program evaluators require an ethical perspective to deal with numerous ethical issues or dilemmas in the conduct of program reviews. This article has suggested an ethical framework which contains foundational principles, a written code or set of guidelines, a decision making model, and professional development.

Ethics in program review is a perpetual responsibility to do the right thing in a climate of complexity and ambiguity, competing ethical claims, and conflicting roles. Program evaluators need to use their conscience and competence, their commitment and courage. This is the challenge.


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Conrad, C. F. & Wilson, R. F. (1985). Academic program reviews: Institutional approaches, expectations, and controversies. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 5. Washington, D. C.: Association for the Study of Higher Education.

Guba, E. G. & Lincoln, Y. S. (1989). Fourth generation evaluation. Newbury Park: Sage.

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Sieber, J. E. (1980). Being ethical: Professional and personal decisions in program evaluation. New Directions for Program Evaluation, 7, 51-61.

Sockett, H. (1990). Accountability, trust, and ethical codes of practice. In J. I. Goodlad, R. Soder & K. A. Sirotnik (Eds.), The moral dimensions of teaching (pp. 224-250). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walker, K. D. (1993). Striving for integrity in educational policy-making: An ethical metaphor. McGill Journal of Education, 28(1), 77-94.

Grant Young is Program Consultant, Research and Development at the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.