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The Ethics of School Administration

reviewed by Paul Kelleher - 2005

coverTitle: The Ethics of School Administration
Author(s): Kenneth A. Strike, Emil J. Haller, Jonas F. Soltis
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745731, Pages: 196, Year: 2005
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The importance of strengthening ethical reasoning and decision-making in school leaders has become increasingly recognized in recent years as the dilemmas leaders face have become more complex and conflict-laden. For example, the program standards for educational leadership approved by The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) in 2001 include ethical behavior and decision-making as one of only six major performance areas.

The publication of the third edition of The Ethics of School Administration is, therefore, timely. For readers of the second edition, published in 1998, this third edition offers a few, important changes. The chapter on authority has been substantially revised to include a discussion of authority and role conflicts in the accountability context that absorbs schools’ attention today. A total of four new cases also appear in this edition.

This third edition, otherwise, is largely the same as the second. The structure is identical.  Each of the chapters focuses on a key ethical issue – e.g. intellectual liberty – and begins with a case. A dispute, in the form of a dialogue on case issues between two commentators, follows. Next, the authors provide a commentary on the ethical concepts that the case exemplifies. A meta-ethical discussion of the case in terms of a general process for moral reasoning follows. Finally, three additional cases about the same ethical issue conclude each chapter.

For new readers, the authors not only develop a framework of ethical principles to guide administrative decision-making but also provide a series of provocative case studies that involve difficult moral dilemmas encountered in schools.  If nothing else, thirty five years in public school teaching and administration have given me a highly refined sense for inauthentic characterizations of the reality of school life.  These stories are highly credible and relevant, involving dilemmas that administrators in the trenches do face, if not on a daily basis, at least periodically.

The rationale for the case study approach is that ethical reasoning is a reflective skill and that it must be practiced to be strengthened.  The authors advocate not only thoughtful study but also class debate and written essays to enable students to learn to develop defensible ethical justifications.

The authors believe that all of us with the benefit of nurturance from loving parents and/or other caregivers develop a sense of justice that is the often tacit basis for our moral intuitions, our clear, unmistakable sense of right and wrong.  But, the authors argue, moral intuition is not enough to guarantee ethical decision-making, especially of people in power positions in school systems who often face ethical dilemmas embodying conflicting ethical principles. They suggest that administrators must hold themselves to a higher standard by applying ethical principles to their moral intuitions.

Employing explicit ethical principles to confirm or disconfirm moral intuitions is especially helpful when our moral intuitions lead us to dilemmas between conflicting ethical principles. An example that every principal faces is the dilemma involved in deciding a parents’ role in choosing teachers for their children.  On the one hand, the principle of the parents’ right to obtain the best for their child argues for allowing parents to express teacher preferences and attempting to honor them.  On the other hand, the principle of fairness and the principal’s responsibility to provide the best for all children requires other factors than parental preference to be determinative.  The authors argue that in order to resolve this and other dilemmas, the principal needs to be clear and explicit about both principles, their ethical justification, and the relative priorities between the principles when they conflict.   This is ethical reasoning.

The writing in the commentary sections that explicates the ethical thinking is closely reasoned and dense.  It often requires reading and re-reading for clear understanding.  In part, the abstract, philosophical content explains the style of writing.  But, some of the writing is, unfortunately, just obtuse.  At the very least, unsuspecting students need to be prepared for reading it, so that they do not expect to skim through it as they might a periodical article. But perseverance in reading is well worth the effort.

The method of ethical reasoning that this volume introduces – i.e. justifying moral intuitions by articulating explicit moral principles –   is certainly important for aspiring and inexperienced administrators whose life experience has often been awash in cultural and moral relativism and who may hold unexamined beliefs that one value choice is as good as another.   The authors clarify important distinctions such as between value choices that impact only oneself and those that impact moral responsibilities to others.  A case example that they present of the importance of this distinction is of the junior high school teacher who moonlights as a topless dancer.  From one perspective her choice of a second career is a value choice and is her right.  But from another, her choice conflicts with established moral principles – e.g. the duty to oppose the male exploitation and objectification of women.

The authors provide a compelling argument that school administrators should not be moral relativists.  I suspect that, if asked, most administrators would deny that this characterization applies to them. Yet, when pressed, I also suspect that most would admit to being participants in conversations where one person’s argument that some behavior is right or wrong is at least tacitly held to be an attempt to impose that person’s judgment on others.  The “politically correct” world in which we live today too often prizes value choice and assumes ethical relativism – i.e. no one can tell someone else what is right or wrong. The authors point out that attempts at moral suasion are not, in and of themselves, coercive.  They are, in fact, opportunities to learn.  In response, each of us can rationally weigh the arguments and then make our responsible, informed judgment. Moral development occurs in this way.  In contrast, moral relativism can stifle debate and stunt moral learning. If all choices are equally valid, why discuss them?

The authors take their argument against moral relativism one step farther. The future of our democratic society depends on citizens who can freely make responsible moral choices.  Without robust moral education, this capacity will wither.  The authors’ case for moral debate and education and against moral relativism is so important that I wish it had occurred earlier in the book.

Although the authors developed this volume with an audience of graduate students in mind, experienced school administrators could also benefit from its content.  Some administrators, at least, may not ever have taken a course in ethical reasoning.  For many others, over the years the skills of this demanding mode of thinking may have become attenuated. Yet the ethical issues of the school world have become more complex.  Accountability mandates alone have introduced new ethical dilemmas and conflicts with which administrators must struggle. Experienced administrators, as well as novices, need to be willing and able to think the issues through and discuss them clearly. For example, an administrator’s moral responsibility when new testing mandates narrow curriculum, limit areas of achievement, and damage fragile, developing egos is an extraordinarily important and vital issue today. It needs to be openly debated employing all the ethical reasoning power that we can muster.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2430-2432
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11861, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 10:39:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Kelleher
    Trinity University
    E-mail Author
    PAUL KELLEHER is the Norine R. Murchison Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Education at Trinity University. Kelleher served for the last 20 years as a Superintendent of Schools in suburban New York and Connecticut. Prior to these appointments, he also served as Principal of Scarsdale High School, Scarsdale, NY, and as a high school teacher and middle school principal.
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