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What Should be the Ethics of Educational Administration?


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Professional ethics is an issue that some disciplines seem to grapple with more than others.

According to Dr. Kelly McKerrow, the field of educational administration only recently is exploring the need for guiding ethical principles in public education. Such a dialog about ethics is critical because of the often-overlooked political nature of public education, she said: "Education and administration are public acts, and as such, cannot escape the reality that they are subject to and must operate within a political arena."

She believes the key ethical perspectives needed are: the ethic of critique, the ethic of justice and the ethic of care.

"Undominated discourse" is the fundamental ethical principle that supports all the others, said McKerrow, an associate professor in educational administration and higher ed at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She discussed ethical decision-making in educational administration at the University of NebraskaĂs Women in Educational Leadership conference in October 2000.

What is undominated discourse?

Inclusivity is essential to undominated discourse: all points of view are heard and no one perspective is privileged over another. In an ethical, democratic decision-making process, she said four conditions can ensure that discourse remains undominated by an individual or group:

  • The interests of each individual are fairly considered.
  • Each individual has a fair influence over the decision.
  • Those affected are part of the decision-making process.
  • Those who live in the community must be part of the decision-making process.

    McKerrow said valuing inclusivity and encouraging a collective voice are sorely needed in educational administration, where hierarchical thinking is the norm. "WeĂre taught to think we (administrators) are the most important individuals in the institution," she told WIHE.

    This type of top-down attitude leads to devaluing or silencing of other voices, including those of teachers, students and parents. This may change as more women enter the field of educational administration, she believes: "Women bring an appreciation for including, negotiating and soliciting the views of others before making decisions."

    Three ethical perspectives

  • An ethic of critique. A sustained and focused critique is necessary to uncover the assumptions, rationalizations and discriminatory practices in any field. Problems arise when administrators are assumed, both within and outside the organization, to be the arbiters of critique, with a privileged perspective. "Administrative perspective trumps teacher perspective which trumps parental perspective," said McKerrow.

    She quoted R.J. Starratt on the ethic of critique in ed administration: "The theme of critique forces the administrator to confront the moral issues involved when schools disproportionately benefit some groups in society and fail others. Furthermore, as a bureaucratic organization, the school exhibits structural properties that may promote the misuse of power and authority among its members."

    Undominated discourse, along with an ethic of critique, can be an effective tool for moving toward collective action: "The role of the administrator shifts from simple critique to seeking ways to engage all constituents in meaningful and fruitful analysis and reform of education."

  • An ethic of justice. To best understand the idea of justice, we must examine injustice, said McKerrow. Obvious inequalities and injustice exist in public education. She noted the blatant sexism in her field, where most educational administrators are male and most administration students are female. "When someone stands up in front of me and says there are not enough qualified administrators, what theyĂre really saying is there are not enough qualified men," she told WIHE.

    She explained why injustices persist in education:

    - Justice simply means different things to different people, depending upon their particular perspective.
    -Everyone understands, rightly or wrongly, that some perspectives are privileged.
    -The extent to which the privileged perspective usurps others and dominates the organizational culture is the extent to which injustice is likely to be ignored.

    Because itĂs inclusive and doesnĂt privilege any one person, group or point of view, undominated discourse is key to exposing institutional injustice: "We must educate ourselves by observing injustice and the only way to do that is discourse that promotes different perspectives."

  • An ethic of care. "An ethic of care requires that all students are cared for, even if itĂs not by one particular educator," she said. "Educational problems emerge most often not because educators do not care, but because all students are not cared for," an important distinction. In an ethic of care, responsibility moves beyond individual educators to society as a whole.

    In her own experience working at an elementary school, McKerrow kept exhorting herself to care more, but as she came to understand a broader social ethic of care, she began to appreciate the limits of her own ability. The development of special education legislation 25 years ago is an example of public care and political activism overcoming the exclusion of disabled students from traditional education.

    Efficiency, economics and competition are the usual arguments for exclusion, and they still hold sway in education, said McKerrow: "They are strong enough to prevent administrators from even recognizing that educational issues are about caring, not budgets or schedules."

    Toward a model of ethical decision-making

    When the ethics of critique, justice, and care are joined with an ethic of inclusive discourse, educational administrators have a model of ethical decision-making. Traditional educational discourse frequently favors the principle of benefit maximization (the greatest good for the greatest number) at the expense of the principle of equal respect (people being treated as equals rather than means).

    With a decision-making model that rests on ethics and inclusive discourse, equal respect becomes primary, she said, listing some questions in ethical decision-making:

    Under the ethic of critique

    - Who benefits from the outcome?
    - Are the demands on the school too great?
    - If benefit accrues to the school, who in it benefits?

    Under the ethic of justice

    - Who suffers from the outcome?
    - Are demands on the individual too great?
    - If benefit accrues to the individual, what happens to the group?

    Under the ethic of care

    - What happens to relationships?
    - Are relational demands being met?
    - How does the decision weaken or strengthen relationships?

    Under the ethic of discourse

    - Who is excluded from the decision?
    - Are discourse demands met?
    - Is the quality of the discourse changed?
    - Is the quality of the decisions changed?

    ItĂs not impossible

    McKerrow admits this ethical model of decision-making may be an ideal: "My sense is that weĂre heading in the wrong direction. I have a sense weĂve sold out to marketers and privileged opinions. This is a way to think about how we reframe public education¨what our mission is." A commitment to ethical decision-making requires that administrators admit and willingly give up some of their privilege. In the short term, this could mean loss of power, prestige and money. But long term benefits include the creation of strong, inclusive communities and a fundamentally democratic society.

    To develop alternative ways to encourage and promote the voices of everyone who participates in public education, conscientious administrators have to take risks and take a stand, says McKerrow: "Educators, individually and collectively, must insist that nothing interfere with the fidelity, loyalty and respect they have for students, parents and community members ¨ not economics, not efficiency, not unethical superordi-nates, not racism, not sexism, not classism. This requires courage and the willingness to pay a personal price."

    ¨Marla D. Riley

    Reach Dr. McKerrow at (618) 536-4434; mckerrow@siu.edu
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