Facing an Ethical Test

Leaders can follow a four-prong model to build a school culture that’s founded in moral reasoning.

Topics: Principal Leadership

A lack of principled, ethical leadership plagues our society. One has only to turn on the television or visit their favorite social media outlet to confirm this reality. And, despite decades of explicitly established ethical and professional norms for K–12 school leaders, the absence of such leadership among educational leaders is often concerning as well.

Moral reasoning among professional educators can fall short of what might be expected of similarly educated professionals in other fields, but educating principals and teachers in the use of an ethical paradigm for decision-making can enhance moral reasoning and ethical leadership. Such a model can contribute to an ethical school culture that’s centered on meeting student needs and supporting the well-being of everyone.

Essential Skills

In researching “Pulling Back the Curtain on Moral Reasoning and Ethical Leadership Development for K–12 School Leaders” with co-author Amy Dagley in 2021, I measured the moral reasoning skills of educational leadership students in pre-service programs. The skill set is foundational to ethical leadership capacity and decision-making in K–12 contexts.

School leadership is a highly moral enterprise. Dec­ades of research confirm the critical need for K–12 school leaders to exercise high levels of ethical behavior when making charged decisions that affect students and teachers in their schools. School leaders are expected to comply with published standards for professional norms and ethical conduct.

Yet when we explored the moral reasoning abilities of pre-service school leaders using Stephen J. Thoma and Yangxue Dong’s Defining Issues Test, we found that the moral reasoning abilities of educators, including administrators, is lower than might be expected. Educators, in fact, scored much lower than individuals from other professions with similar levels of education.

I suspect that the problem might be due to a culture of compliance that characterizes the profession. Educators—and especially school leaders—are hired to implement policy, not to challenge the status quo. Unfortunately, the unquestioning implementation of policy can lead to decision-making that might not be in the best interest of students.

Using a model of moral reasoning adapted from the work of psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, J.R. Rest and his colleagues developed the Four-Component Model of Moral Reasoning to explain how individuals progress through stages of moral functioning. The four components are:

  1. Moral sensitivity: the ability to determine moral implications of a situation;
  2. Moral reasoning: the ability to reason through an ethical decision;
  3. Moral motivation: the ability to prioritize a moral response; and
  4. Moral character: the competence to take moral action and follow through.

The ability of school leaders to develop their own moral reasoning ability and that of their teachers is critical to establishing a daily practice of ethical leadership and decision-making in schools. The good news is that moral reasoning—and thus, more ethical decision-making—is responsive to intervention. In other words, educators can be taught ethical decision-making and increase their moral reasoning capacity.

Pathways to Ethics

How can school leaders support development of moral reasoning and ethical decision-making in K–12 schools? One pathway is to strengthen their own ethical leadership capacity and that of the teachers they supervise using a multidimensional ethical decision-​making model. The framework can help explore the multiple perspectives of an ethically charged dilemma, deepen understanding of the situation, and choose a more informed, effective, and ethical decision.

Joan Poliner Shapiro and Jacqueline A. Stefkovich refined a multi-​dimensional ethical paradigm that comprises four specific ethics to guide school leaders’ thinking and decision-making when faced with a moral or ethical dilemma:

The Ethic of Justice. As school leaders approach a specific ethical dilemma or situation (deciding about a disciplinary referral, for example), the ethic of justice focuses on the individual rights of the student and how their rights relate to any law or policy. Educators must first ask if a law, rule, or policy has been broken, then consider whether the rule should be enforced if it has indeed been broken. Does enforcing the rule deny the individual rights or freedoms? What about the rights and freedom of others? Is the rule appropriate? And, if there is no rule, should one be developed?

The Ethic of Critique. At times, educators might detect tension between the ethic of justice and concepts of fairness, questioning the nature of the law or rule to be applied. Who wrote the rule? Who benefits from it? Does the rule apply fairly across all students and individuals involved? If not, what steps can be taken to eliminate the rule or change it so it can be implemented more fairly?

The ethic of critique can be uncomfortable to apply, because it often challenges rules of engagement and behavior in a school. But by applying the ethic of critique, educators can become more aware of, and sensitive to, how some laws might be biased or might skew toward the benefit of a certain group more than others.

The Ethic of Care. Placing students at the center of the educational enterprise requires educators to think how best to care for the students in their charge. In doing so, ethical leaders question how students are nurtured and encouraged in the school environment. How can educators most effectively meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of each student and provide for their well-being?

Returning to our example of the disciplinary referral, the ethic of care suggests that educators consider the needs of the student and whether those needs are being addressed. If the needs were being addressed or were addressed more effectively, would it have prevented the mis­behavior? The ethic of care emphasizes personal relationships, and it challenges educators to consider how best to respond according to the needs of the individual.

The Ethic of the Profession. Educators must consider the context of the educational profession as they strive to make the most ethical decisions possible. By adopting personal and professional codes of ethics to guide their daily practice, school leaders can become more aware of how their individual beliefs and values impact decision-​making.

Leadership doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Ethical leaders must be informed by community standards, by professional associations, and by the professional standards and norms adopted by national and state educational organizations. Individual professionals are accountable to a worldwide community in their daily practice.

Principals who want to develop an ethical school culture should apply this paradigm to the decision-making process; in doing so, they can become more sensitive to the ethical implications of their actions and increase their moral reasoning capacity. And that can expand principals’ abilities to make decisions in the best interest of students.

Principals can also help increase the moral reasoning of their colleagues. By teaching and sharing the multi-​dimensional ethical paradigm with teachers and other personnel, principals can help reason through ethical questions and dilemmas and help make more informed decisions. Then, principals and teachers can work together to keep the student at the center of the educational process within a more ethical school culture.

D. Keith Gurley is associate professor of educational leadership and vice chair of the School of Education’s Department of Human Studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.