School administrators and ethical decision-making in rural communities

School administrators and ethical decision-making in rural communities

Kallio, Brenda R


The current educational assumption is that American society is best served when schools encourage a robust exchange of ideas. As our schools cease to be mirrors of community values and become institutions reflective of American values, educational administrators are frequently at a lose for guidance in the ethical decision-making process. This paper outlines parameters for ethical decision making by defining what “is” and “is not” a moral dilemma. This paper also draws inferences applicable to ethical rural decision-making from Starratt’s ethical decision-making model and from three other ethical principles.

Traditionally, members of rural communities have expected administrative personnel to be the embodiment of community values and mores (Beck & Murphy, 1996). Lately, however, “We are seeing an increasing number of administrators who do not seem to be in sync with the communities they represent” (Kallio, 1999). One explanation for this struggle is an uncertainty as to whether educational pedagogy should inculcate community values or whether schools should serve as marketplaces of ideas. In communities where schools promote inculcation of community values, prescribed community values may remain unchanged for generations, educational administrators are frequently expected to follow conventional patterns of decision-making whereby decisions are, “Directed by traditional or customary rules or practices without stopping to examine or criticize those rules or practices or customs” (Callahan, 1988, p. 10). For example, when family is an important community precept, community morality may dictate that administrators adhere to unwritten policies of hiring family members of current employees whenever possible, thereby inculcating the values embedded in their community. Decision-making based on community values may also be apparent in curricular matters, even though the courts have consistently given schools wide latitude in matters involving curriculum (Alexander & Alexander, 2002). In some cases, an administrator operating under the philosophical premise of inculcating community values may feel obligated to disregard possible additions to the curriculum, i.e. sex or drug education programs, when the subject matter is deemed taboo by the general community.

Over the past decade, globalization has prompted changes in America’s overall economic and political philosophies. With these changes, has come the supposition that American society is best served when the educational systems offers, “A wide exposure to a robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth,” (Keyshian v. Board of Regents, 1967). This robust exchange of ideas posits that schools should be marketplaces of ideas and insinuates that educational administrators no longer have the luxury of basing decisions on community values. Instead, educational administrators are being encouraged to make decisions that promote schools in which students and teachers are free to think and discuss a multitude of previously sensitive subjects such as homosexuality, abortion, and student rights. The move from decision-making that serves to inculcate community values to decision-making that establishes schools as marketplaces of ideas has educational stakeholders increasingly wary of the possible ramifications that may occur when the need to educate students to be informed collides with community values. As our schools cease to be mirrors of community values and become institutions reflective of American values, educational administrators are frequently at a loss for tenets to use in the ethical decision-making process.

The purposes of this paper are two-fold. First, a moral dilemma must exist before there can be a need for ethical decision-making. Since there is no, one concise definition of what is a moral dilemma, this paper identifies moral dilemma by outlining what a moral dilemma is not. The second goal of this paper is to draw inferences from Starratt’s ethical model and three ethical precepts that are available to guide rural administrators in the ethical decision-making process.

Delineating Moral Dilemma

Before one can make an ethical decision, there must be a moral dilemma; issues that involve the imposition of values; issues that raise questions about the rights and welfare of sentient beings; issues that raise questions about what is right, ought, just, and fair (Strike, Haller, & Soltis, 1988). In reference to a case involving pornography, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas stated that he couldn’t define pornography, but that he knows it when he sees it. The same is true with the concept of moral dilemma. While we can’t define it, most times we know it when we are involved in it. Fortunately, there are guidelines to help decision-makers define moral dilemma.

While facts are important to the decision-making process, there is no moral dilemma if a decision can be made by virtue of facts alone. For example, you are opening a new elementary school and you know you will need one teacher for every 25 third graders. You also know that your third grade enrollment will be 75 students. A simple math calculation indicates you need three third grade teachers. This was not a moral dilemma. However, you have a moral dilemma if you are the administrator at a building that previously had a need for three teachers for 75 third graders and now you only need staff for 50 students. Deciding which employee to fire may be a moral dilemma.

While the phrase, “It’s the law,” may serve as the basis for many administrative decisions, administrators must be ever mindful of the ethical considerations of blind obedience to the law. Strict adherence to what the law permits or requires does not necessarily equate to making decisions that are moral. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made it illegal for persons to interfere with the seizure and/or return of fugitive slaves. The slave states believed the Fugitive Slave Act was an appropriate, fiscally sound law. However, many persons in the northern states denounced the Fugitive Slave Act as unconstitutional, refused to obey the law, and subsequently took steps to pass what they considered to be ethical legislation representative of societal norms. In an educational exemplar, the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) allowed administrators the freedom to use the law to deny students of color enrollment in white schools without thought of whether these enrollment policies were ethical. It is important that administrators not use the law as the sole basis for ethical decision-making. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the world, “Never forget, everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

In order for a decision to be ethical, the decision-maker must also look beyond personal values and religious beliefs. While it is acceptable for the decision maker to consider his/her rights and beliefs, an ethical decision must take into consideration the rights and interests of others. In the recent case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2002), the school district’s policy of permitting student led, student initiated prayer at football games was ruled unconstitutional because it did not take into consideration the rights and interests of persons outside the Christian faith. While religious reasoning is appropriate for deciding how one will conduct one’s own life, decisions based on personal religious beliefs should not violate the moral rights of persons with dissimilar religious beliefs (Callahan, 1988). Decision-makers must be aware of the difference between the right to hold an opinion on a matter of private concern and the right to use that opinion as the basis for moral decision-making.

Ethical decision-making cannot be based solely on economics. Whether the resource is time, money, or personnel, a decision based on the most economical solution may be ethically flawed. For example, the gate receipts from the football program generate revenue for the district. The softball program, however, is not a source of revenue. If the district entered a period of financial difficulty, would it be ethical to retain the football program, but cancel the softball program based solely on the financial aspects of the situation? Hepburn (1994) expressed concern that America’s position that every decision be quantifiable [by fact] reduces our society to the equivalent of a standardized product or commodity.

Decisions based solely on the facts or the economics of the situation may not be ethical decisions. Decisions based on strict adherence to the law, without regard to ethical implications may not be ethical decisions. And decisions based on community or religious values may not be ethical decisions. Decisions based on mandates, be it a prescribed action required by the government or by a traditional value of the community, are not ethical decisions made in response to questions of what is right, just, or fair.

Ethical Models

As rural administrators were encouraged to base decisions on criteria other than community values, researchers began producing literature on ethical Starratt, R. L. (1991). Building an ethical school: A theory for practice in educational leadership.

Educational Administration Quarterly, 27(2), 185-202.

decision-making. However, Staratt (1991) posited that writings by moral philosophers and social theorists were difficult to translate into guidelines meaningful to practicing administrators. To accommodate for this lack of concrete guidance, Starratt proposed a multi-dimensional model for ethical decision-making (Ethic of Critique, Ethic of Care, and Ethic of Justice). An underlying assumption is that conceptualization of the multiple avenues for viewing decision-making will assist educational administrators to develop ethical decision-making guidelines.

Within Starratt’s Ethic of Critique, persons are encouraged to think independently rather than accept the ethics of those in power. Persons are encouraged to challenge the status quo that deals with societal inconsistencies, and to formulate the hard questions pertaining to challenging issues. The Ethic of Critique focuses on identifying groups that have advantages and determining why those groups are empowered and why the disadvantaged do not share the power.

Giroux (1994) writes that persons who follow the tenets of the Ethic of Critique seek to examine the interests and wants of society and strive to understand the ways, “Administrators and teachers [to] influence and construct privileged orders of cultural practices,” (p. 39), i.e. supplementing summer athletic camps (culturally advantaged) rather than expending monies for summer migrant programs (culturally disadvantaged). The Ethic of Critique awakens unstated values and identifies moral beliefs that may have modified or corrupted over time. Through the Ethic of Critique, decision-makers are encouraged to set aside “what is” and make decisions based on “what should be”.

Starratt’s second ethical precept, Ethic of Care, emphasizes relationships/connections and accentuates the need to consider the consequences of decisions and actions. The Ethic of Care is relatively new to the ethics community and is characterized by many as the female perspective of ethical decision-making. Critical questions for persons using this ethical philosophy is: “Who will benefit?” “Who will be hurt by my actions?” and “What can I do to make the situation better?” (Katz, Noddings, & Strike, 1999). Through this prong of Starratt’s model, educational administrators place an emphasis on how people will feel about the decision, i.e. how school climate would change if there were no longer a morning recess.

The third prong, the Ethic of Justice, is an analytical, rational approach to decision-making and requires that every stakeholder be treated with the same degree of equality, dignity, and fair play. According to Delgado (1995), the Ethic of Justice is, “Characterized by…faith in the legal system and hope for progress” (p. 1). Ethical decisions based on the Ethic of Justice are assumed to treat everyone with the same degree on integrity.

In addition to Starratt’s Ethics of Care, Critique, and Justice, Strike, Haller, and Soltis (1988) promote three philosophies designed to guide educational administrators in their ethical decision-making. The first of these, the Principle of Equal Respect, states that no matter how people differ, as moral agents they are of equal value and are entitled to any and all resources available to others. For example, if there were 30 students and 30 cookies, each child would get one cookie no matter whether they were a big child or a small child, whether they were hungry or had just eaten…every child is entitled to one cookie.

The Maximin Principle contends that maximal benefits should go to those who receive the minimal share. This principle prohibits making decisions that promote the average if the disadvantaged are made worse. The ethical tenets of the Maximin Principle can be seen in the implementation of the special education legislation that grew from Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and subsequent legislation such as P.L. 94-142 (1975). With the advent of special education law, school districts and parents have frequently become embroiled over what constitutes equal opportunity for special needs children and how to serve the needs of special education students without diminishing regular education programming.

The Principle of Benefit Maximization dictates that whenever one is faced with a choice, the best decision is the one that results in the most good or greatest benefit for the most people. We might see an administrator make a decision based on the Principle of Benefit Maximization when the decision is made to spend limited resources to remediate only those students who failed the state accountability test by a small enough margin that it can be assumed that with tutoring they will pass the next administration of the test. Subsequently the students who are not likely to pass the test receive no remediation.

Moral decision-making is complex and contextual and as such no one component of a model (Care, Critique, Justice) or principle (Equal Respect, Maximin, Maximization) is necessarily correct in all situations. However, administrators who examine their decision-making patterns usually find their decisions fall within the parameters of these guidelines.

The Moral Decision-making Process Callahan (1988) recommends four steps for the moral decision-making process. First, make a list of all the facts. While facts cannot be the only determinant used to make an ethical decision, it is important to have a thorough, factual understanding of the situation. Also, information that appears inconsequential at the on-set, may become critical information before the issue is resolved. Second, write down all the possible resolutions to the problem (probable and implausible). Next, make a list of the moral values and moral principles involved. Then based on the three lists (facts, resolution options, and values) reflect, make, and articulate a decision based on examination of the data and the moral choices available.


Strike, Haller, and Soltis (1988) contend that as administrators enter the decision-making process, they must have a clear understanding that facts describe how the world is and can be proven by evidence, and that moral principals, how the world ought to be, involve issues of rights and moral obligations. With the advent of globalization and the increased numbers of schools embracing the concept of schools as marketplaces of ideas, educational administrators must be versed in ethical reasoning and ethical decision-making. They must be able to delineate between personal preferences and moral principles. They must be able to discern a balance between facts and moral judgments.

The days of zero tolerance are waning. The days of, “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” are gone. Understanding the ethical decision-making process has become a critical tool for those who lead America’s rural schools. And, while it is not clear that any amount of scientific inquiry can tell us whether a decision is fair, just, or equitable, administrators must learn to practice ethical decision-making. Ethical lines aren’t always clear, but they do exist (Adler, 1998). The job our educational administrators now face is finding those ethical lines and having the conviction to follow them.

Adler’s Ethical Principles

“No place to run, no place to hide” – No one can escape decisions with ethical implication

Society could not function without widespread ethical behavior

There are no moral absolutes- at least no simple ones

Ethical lines aren’t always clear, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist

Most people have an innate drive to act morally that competes with their innate drive for selfishness

The sincerity and intensity of one’s convictions provide no reliable guide to whether they are correct.

Ethical behavior is often good business. Sometimes however, it is bad business

Sometimes none of your options are desirable – you must violate one ethical principle in favor of a higher one

Greed is not necessarily what causes ethical lapses. Sometimes its fear, misplaced loyalty, or compassion

Corporate environments matter. It’s hard to be ethical when senior management is not

Adler’s Ethical Advice

Be virtually honest with yourself at all times

Realize that important ethical decisions usually require painful trade-offs, and that you will rarely know whether you’ve made the right decision

Try to make ethical decisions through “disinterested reflection”, i.e. look at the issue from the perspective of a neutral third party

You must choose whether to be ethical. Don’t use God or “the law” as a cop-out

Be your most creative when making ethical judgments, not when rationalizing immoral behavior Adler, R. (1998). “Managerial Ethics


Adler, R. (1998). “Managerial Ethics” presentation materials from the Ohio School Leadership Institute, Columbus, OH.

Alexander, K. & Alexander, M. D. (2002). American public school law. CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

Beck, L.G. & Murphy, J. (1996). Ethics in educational leadership programs: Emerging models. Columbia, MO: University Council for Educational Administration.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686 (1954).

Callahan, J. C. (Ed.). (1988). Ethical issues in professional life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Delgado, R. (1995). Critical race theory: The cutting edge. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Giroux, H. A. (1994). Educational leadership and school administrators: Rethinking the meaning of democratic public cultures. In Thomas A. Mulkeen, Nelda H. Cambron-McCabe, and Bruce J. Anderson (Ed.). Democratic Leadership: The changing context of administrative preparation. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Hepburn, E. R. (1994). Women and ethics: A ‘seeing’ justice? Journal of Moral Education, 23(1), 27-38.

Kallio, B. R. (1999). (Ed. Leslie T. Fenwick). Ethics education in school administrator preparation programs, School Leadership: Expanding Horizons of the Mind and Spirit. Lancaster: Technomic.

Katz, M. S., Noddings, N., & Strike, K. A. (1999). Justice and caring: The search for common ground in education. New York: Teachers College.

Keyshian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 87 S.Ct. 675.

Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S.Ct. 1138 (1896). Public Law 94-142, 20 U.S.C. [sec]1401(17).

Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, ___ U.S. ___, 120 S.Ct. 2266, 2000WL 775587 (2000).

Brenda R. Kallio

Central Michigan University

Copyright National Rural Education Association Fall 2003

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