The trouble with a “No child left behind” approach to ethics education.
As part of an ongoing research project that allows me to speak with certified fraud examiners, auditors and accounting educators around the country, I take an informal survey about progress in areas of education and professional judgment. Respondents have indicated an increase in fraud examinations recently[i], along with general disappointment in both college and continuing professional education programs for their ability to address practical business issues. Additionally, despite the efforts and focus on ethics education, a consensus of accounting professors indicates concern about the ethical judgment abilities of accounting students set to enter the workforce this fall.
The continuing problem with scandals in business have led researchers to question whether the ethics education that our business and accounting students receive is effective, or perhaps even contributes to the problem. Intuitively, increased education would lead to better moral reasoning, but evidence does not seem to support this, even indicating a negative association between business education and moral reasoning[ii]. Some researchers argue that this could be because business education in the U.S. focuses almost solely on shareholder value and not the ways that accounting decisions affect various stakeholders[iii].
Ethics education, now a core requirement in nearly all accounting curricula, is structured through regulatory agencies and influenced by codified standards. The National Association of State Boards of accountancy (NASBA) provides guidance to state boards of accountancy about the proper education requirements for CPA candidates and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) plays a major part as well, due to their role in determining the content of the Uniform CPA Examination. There is a growing condemnation of ethics education for being couched in philosophy rather than considered at the practical business level[iv], and criticized because it takes a “one size fits all” approach by being based upon the codified structure of the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct (see endnote iii).
A study published in Issues in Accounting Education[v] found that the context in which an ethical dilemma is considered is paramount, and that accounting students are not able to flexibly transfer their ethics knowledge into different contexts. The study suggests that when the students learn about ethical dilemmas in the context of codification, they then view all problems through the lens of codified ethical principles. These findings are consistent with the suggestion from other research that the “one size fits all” approach to ethics education may not provide the decision-making skills required for the real world[vi]. Another study examined the effectiveness of a capstone course on professional responsibility required for seniors in accounting[vii]. This study showed that fewer students found a dubious accounting adjustment to be unethical than before they took the course. The authors suggested that perhaps this was because the students were exposed to so many scandals they perceived it to be common. This same study indicated that the use of case analyses did not develop a “sense of moral obligation” or “abilities needed to deal with ethical conflicts or dilemmas”; supporting the notion that context is critical to judgment processes.
Parallel criticisms have surfaced between ethics education and the No Child Left Behind Act. This research suggests more emphasis may need to be placed on exploring a topic from multiple perspectives and that a codified structure can act as a distraction to ethical thought processes.
[i] This coincides with larger, formal surveys like the recent report from PricewaterhouseCoopers showing fraud on the rise in the U.S. as well as recent surveys indicating that accountants and auditors believe that the threat of fraud is increasing. See http://www.pwc.com/en_GX/gx/economic-crime-survey/assets/GECS_GLOBAL_REPORT.pdf
[ii] Thorne, L. (2001). Refocusing ethics education in accounting: An examination of accounting students’ tendency to use their cognitive moral capability. Journal of Accounting Education 19(2) 103-117
[iii] Jennings, M. (2004). Incorporating ethics and professionalism into accounting education and research: A discussion of the voids and advocacy for training in seminal works in business ethics. Issues in Accounting Education 19(2) 7-26
[iv] Langdenderfer, H. & Rockness, J. (1989) Integrating ethics into the accounting curriculum: Issues, problems, and solutions. Issues in Accounting Education vol4 58-69
[v] Fleming, D., Romanus, R., & Lightner, S. (2009). The effect of professional context on accounting students’ moral reasoning. Issues in accounting education 24(1) 13-30.
[vi] Hurt, R. (2006). We don’t have ethics here…or do we? Strategic Finance 87(9) 16-17.
[vii] Shawver, T. (2006). An exploratory study assessing the effectiveness of a professional responsibility course. Global Perspectives on Accounting Education Vol. 3 49-66.