What Should be the Ethics of Educational Administration?
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
She explained why injustices persist in education:
- Justice simply means different things to different people,
depending upon their particular perspective.
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
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
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."
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?
Under the ethic of justice
- Who suffers from the outcome?
Under the ethic of care
- What happens to relationships?
Under the ethic of discourse
- Who is excluded from the decision?
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
Reach Dr. McKerrow at (618) 536-4434; firstname.lastname@example.org