Ethical Leadership

As part of an overall educational philosophy, ethical considerations, along with aesthetics, provide an axiological framework of what makes a good school. The perception of what makes a school good has been associated with the notion of accountability which has given rise to high-stakes testing (e.g., No Child Left Behind Law) in ways that fundamentally limit how common assessments measure a wider range of student learning (Conley, 2011, p. 20). Reaching a point in today’s schools where “students...find [ethical reasoning] as important in their lives as content knowledge (Sternberg, 2011, p. 39) will place equal importance on how the curriculum, assessment, and instruction subsume issues of reality (i.e., metaphysics), knowledge (i.e., epistemology), and values (axiology). In turn, students become better prepared for college and a career when an educational and life-long philosophy mirror each other.

Ethics in schools, based on moral principals, embodies various dimensions of schooling:

community involvement, school buildings and grounds, classroom spaces, organization of knowledge, uses of learning materials, philosophy of education, teaching strategies, staffing patterns, organization of students, rules and regulations, disciplinary measures, reporting of student progress, administrative attitudes, teacher roles, and student roles (Wiles & Bondi, 2007, p. 46).

Within each of these dimensions, a variety of moral principles can be applied, especially notions of compassion, wholeness, connectedness, inclusion, justice, peace, freedom, trust, empowerment, and community (Glickman, Gordon, & Ross-Gordon, 2007). Indeed, given the 10 different moral principles to be applied to the variety of dimensions possible, prioritizing becomes foremost. Academic leaders (i.e., instructional leaders) therefore play a central role in how ethical behavior emerges at the school, faculty, and classroom levels such that a holistic approach to curriculum, assessment, and instruction afford learners the greatest probability of succeeding in a global society where many future jobs have yet to be created.

Areas where ethics play a central role

Ethics play a key role in schools; among faculty where professional development is the result of a democratic, iterative, and reciprocal communicative process; and within the classroom according to how student achievement excels through a democratic, iterative, and reciprocal communicative process among students as well. The three areas - school, professional development, and classroom - are not meant to be viewed as existing in isolation, but rather adapting to each other (i.e., as an overall complex system) temporally and spatially according to network principals, namely in terms of connection and contagion (Christakis & Fowler, 2009). A moral imperative thus becomes the skillful utility of a network that incorporates moral principals within the different dimensions that reside in each of the three aforementioned areas.

School ethics. Of the four major philosophies (i.e., idealism, realism, experimentalism, and existentialism), idealism and existentialism render a juxtaposition worth considering since both are considered at either ends of the philosophical continuum (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009); ethics or values are seen as being “absolute and eternal” at the conservative end, while existentialists view values as being “freely chosen” and “based on individuals’ perception” (p. 37). To resolve this juxtaposition, philosophies and their respective reasonings must adhere to the “four pillars of a professional learning community: mission, vision, values [or collective commitments], and goals” (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008, p. 166). Particularly, moral judgments are best viewed in terms of overall mission and vision statements that set out to achieve goals by establishing collective commitments.

Rooting school-wide goals in collective commitments comprises of equitably input from all educational stakeholders (i.e., board members, administrators, teachers, parents, & community leaders). For example, Adlai Stevenson High School, one of the most successful schools in the United States (DuFour, DuFour, & Eaker, 2008), creates collective commitments that ultimately drive what the faculty do on a daily basis. The following provides some detail:

Every candidate for a teaching or administrative position is asked to review them before applying, and the statements are referenced repeatedly as part of the interview process. The commitments are studied and discussed during new staff orientation as veteran representatives of the group review each commitment and stress its significance. Experienced teachers tell net staff members, ‘this is what it means to join this faculty. These are the promises we make to each other and to our students. These are the promises that have made us who we are, and we ask you to honor them.’ Upperclassmen mentors review the student commitments with incoming freshmen during the first week of school and stress, ‘these are the commitments the students who have gone before you have made to make Stevenson the school it is today. If you honor these commitments, you can be assured you will be successful here, and you will make an important contribution ot our school’s tradition of excellence’ (Wiles & Bondi, 2007, p. 150).

Action-based, collective commitments communicate not only express expectations in terms of what needs to be done at the individual level but are developed and adapted in such a way that groups of people are not marginalized. “Consensus decision-making” (n.d.) leads to a more professional learning community by virtue of taking one a collective and connective responsibility.

Ethics and professional development. Ethics and establishing a moral imperative is key to addressing the problems the field of education faces with regard to professional development. The problem with professional development is that it

(a) frames accountability in terms of summative assessments that assumes academic outcomes through simplistic relationships of causes and effects,

(b) adheres to a singular approach to differentiated instruction that focuses more on the program than on people and practices,

(c) ignores the importance of setting priorities,

(d) ignores that much of learning is unintentional and is emergent,

(e) recognizes that interaction is more important that simply the content or topics being discussed (Reeves, 2010).

To address these issues, a sense of right and wrong consequently drives the change process both in teacher behavior as well as individual perspective. Implementing change in how professional development is planned and implemented stems from a moral imperative towards a common good (both for the individual and the professional learning community) and not a top-down directive expressed in terms of an obligation imposed by those outside the school (e.g., state legislation, standards, etc.) (Reeves, 2009). Hence effective professional development remains ethical as long as professional learning, as opposed to professional development, endures through an ongoing, situated learning cycle that considers the learner, context, and the learning itself that emerges through the experience (Webster-Wright, 2009).

Professional learning and ethical behavior become apparent through an explicit moral code. Typically, a moral code is stated in terms of what a teacher can do (i.e., beneficence) and what a teacher cannot do (i.e., non-maleficence) (Ozturk, 2010) while other principles include justice, fidelity, and autonomy (Cook & Houser, 2009). If principals, for example, are fair and just, respectful of established rules and principles, and are mindful of individual freedoms and diversity, then so too will the faculty (Karakose, 2007). Essentially, modeling a code of ethics and professional learning transitions an individual from a novice to becoming an expert learner through ethical decision making; that is, doing “the right thing for the right reasons at the right time” (McDonald, Walker Ebelhar, Orehavec, & Sanderson, 2006, p. 162).

Classroom ethics. Classroom ethics builds a democratic, learning community. A democratic learning community involves “creating the kinds of ties that bond students together and students and teachers together and that bind them to share ideas and ideals” (Sergiovanni, 1999, pp. 120-121). Ties between students and teachers provide the basis for understandings the sociocultural complexities that influence academic progress. For example, pedagogy can serve “as a bridge between...home culture and the classroom” (Cammarota & Romero, 2011, p. 492) in ways that can benefit the community, referred to as “social justice youth development” (p. 490). As a matter of ethics, understanding what goes on at the homes of students can offer insight into a pedagogical perspective that both adheres to the curriculum as well as making learning experiences that are more relevant and meaningful for each student.

A classroom with international students can bring about ethic complexity. A common goal among parents from collectivistic societies (e.g., Kenyan, Mexican, Japanese, etc.) is that students should be moral and should maintain a strong bond with family; a goal that can be more different for those accustomed to a more individualistic society that places individual success as a top priority (Rothstein-Fisch & Trumbull, 2008). Moreover, a paradigm of sameness, or tendency to presume that international students, each with their own ideology, will assimilate to the dominate culture, is likely to continue especially among poor, urban schools where little parental involvement is commonplace (Caruthers, 2006). Even in terms of becoming bilingual, a non-equivocal notion, investigating how some students take on an additional language (e.g., English as a second language) and respective cultural underpinnings while others find it a challenge will lead to a shift from “‘colorblind’ philosophies” (Fitts, 2006, p. 356) to one that is pluralistic and more accepting in the way diversity is celebrated within a school.

Ethics play a role in how schools adapt values or collective commitments throughout the system, how academic leaders guide teachers in their own professional development, and how teachers promote a more equitable education within the classroom. Ethics and moral reasoning that align with the mission, vision, and goals of the school provide the direction and justification by which all educational stakeholders are to follow. Similarly, academic leaders guide novice and expert teachers alike via a moral code based on beneficence and non-maleficence. Finally, ethical behavior within the classroom leads to a more equitable learning experience based on the backgrounds and sociocultural upbringings that is specific to each learner. As a result, the academic leader (i.e., instructional leader) must mediate between collective commitments (i.e., values, moral code, moral reason, and moral judgment), professional development - more accurately termed as professional learning, and current teaching practices to avoid treating each discipline as separate and independent endeavors. In doing so, curriculum, assessment, and insturction is not seen as solely a specific issue related to the teaching practice, but more of connective and collective responsibility that is more likely to lead to greater academic achievement.

Ethical concerns relating to curriculum, assessment, and instruction

As ethical considerations regarding schools, professional development, and the classroom are not handled in isolation, nor are issues concerning curriculum, assessment, and instruction. The job of the academic leader is to find meaning and relevance to school goals and state and national standards in terms of the written, taught, and tested curriculum; student assessment; and differentiated instruction. The ethical academic leader (EAL) is the primary mediator through which all educator stakeholders voice an opinion and are given the freedom to act in ways that are beneficial and are consensual to all learners.

The EAL and the curriculum. An academic leader uncovers standards that can be incorporated within the curriculum in terms of big ideas and deeper understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007). An EAL can tie standards and the curriculum to the learner’s perspective. For example, 51 states and territories within the United States have adapted the Common Core State Standards Initiative (National Governors Association, 2009), which is a state-led effort, involving many teacher leaders in determining what students should learn. Many more academic leaders will be required to continue adding and adapting standards, sharing common assessment practices, and determining at a local level how the standards will be met. Determining how the standards will be achieved will take careful and critical pedagogical mindsets to assure that the student’s perspective and identity are not lost as they pertain to the curriculum.

Ethics, values, and culture play an important role towards the influence of individual perspective” (Hiriyappa, 2009, p. 85). Indeed, cultivating a learner’s identity can contradict educational ideologies that mitigate race as a factor in advancing the educative experience. For example, colorblindness, as an ideology, “is particularly persuasive because it seems to advocate for an equal and just society. However, in a just society skin color would not be associated with degrees of power or privilege” (Patterson, Gordon, & Groves Price, 2008, p. 97). One solution is by implementing a “critical language pedagogy” that aligns a learners identity through language that instead of ostracizing one’s ethic, value system, and culture, creates a curriculum that provides “opportunities for students to compare multiple perspectives on language variety and dialects, including sociolinguistic perspectives, widespread language ideologies, and students’ own preexisting viewpoints” (Godley & Minnici, 2008, p. 338). The role of the academic leader is to mediate between state standards, the curriculum, and those educational stakeholders that are involved in the teaching the curriculum (i.e., students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders) by allowing for open, iterative, and reciprocal discourse that is tolerant of diversity.

The EAL and assessment and instruction. The EAL champions formative assessment in schools. “Formative assessment is a planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures or by students to adjust their current learning tactics” (Popham, 2008b, p. 6). Since formative assessment entails both instructional adjustments on the part of the teacher and modifications to current learning tactics, the EAL’s role is to provide opportunities for sharing contextual circumstances by which such student-and-teacher adjustments and modifications take place. From an ethical standpoint, the benefit of sharing assessment practices throughout the learning community is to avoid assessment bias, or the “qualities of an assessment instrument [or technique] that offend or unfairly penalize a group of students because of students’ gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religion, or other such group-defining characteristics” (Popham, 2008a, p. 73). So not only must honest and deliberate discourse among students, teachers, and administrators cover student and teacher adjustments, but it should also be sensitive to students’ identity in the way in which they are being assessed.

Ethical instruction connects the building of cognitive structures with the affectiveness of teaching and learning. EALs who promote through assessment and instruction “metability” (Garner, 2007) or “ongoing, dynamic, interactive cycle of learning, creating, and changing” (p. xv) among learners and at the same time encourage a spiritual dimension to learning that include elements of “acceptance, curiosity, enjoyment, flexibility, patience, and perseverance” (p. 133), among others are creating opportunities for learners to not only gain knowledge and skills, but also to become more driven to act on that knowledge and skills through a “social emotional learning” (Hoffman, 2009, p. 533) or even an “existential intelligence” (Armstrong, 2009, p. 182). Students and teachers alike need to feel like they belong, that their contributions to a particular community has some form of impact, and that mistakes are celebrated as opportunities for improvement. It is the EAL’s job to assure that such an environment exist so that knowledge and abilities can be put to use in ways that benefit the individual as well as the group (i.e., school or network).

EALs are most effective then consistently taking part in ethical decision making. An EAL typically chooses between one of three different ethical decision criteria when choosing to take action: utilitarianism, rights, and justice (Robbins, 2001). A utilitarian approach to decision making seeks to take action in ways that benefit the higher number of educational stakeholders. Respecting the rights of students, teachers, etc. is another factor when making a decision that impacts the quality of learning in schools. And third, decisions are made by being fair or just to those who will be affected by the change. Of the three criteria, the utilitarian approach is least favorable because it ignores individual rights and personal equity (Robbins, 2001). EALs directly or indirectly answer to all stakeholders through the ethical decisions they make on a day-to-day basis. Some decisions will require consultations with other teachers, the EAL ultimately making the final decision, at times the team alone will make the decision, the EAL may make the decision alone, or the decision may be made between the team of teachers and the EAL (Alvy & Robbins, 2010). Thus, ethical decision making is a highly situational act that if done consistently well, can lead to sustainable professional learning and high-impact improvements to student achievement.

Ethical decision making occurs at various levels. Schools establish mission statements, vision statements, values (e.g., collective commitments and moral codes of ethics), and goals that not only must align with each other but also impact each other based on the major philosophy a school happens to adapt, typically choosing among one or more of the following: idealism, realism, experimentalism, and existentialism. The role of an EAL is to contribute to the development of these four pillars that make up a professional learning community (DuFour, DuFour Eaker, 2008) so that teachers begin respecting certain collective commitments through a certain moral code. Beneficence and non-maleficence, along with justice, fidelity, and autonomy, hence guide the novice teacher to becoming an expert in terms of knowledge base, skill set, and disposition. Finally, ethical behavior in the classroom lends itself well to building a democratic learning community among students. Many notions applicable to professional development and ethics also apply to the classroom with the central theme of recognition of sociocultural factors that negate the paradigm of sameness assumption based on “colorblind” philosophies. The EAL’s responsibility is to create an open discourse whereby teachers are able to share how ethics within their respective classrooms celebrate diversity and learner identity in ways that promote a more educative experience. School ethics, ethical professional development practices, and classroom ethics then link to how the curriculum is written, taught, and tested.

Academic leaders have a moral obligation to contribute to standards (e.g., the Common Core State Standards Initiative) then find innovative ways to develop a curriculum that is relevant and meaning to the students at a local level. The curriculum should promote big ideas and understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007) in ways that promote critical thinking skills. In turn, the EAL serves as a mediator in bringing together state standards, or what students should be learning, to a local level in determining how students are to meet or exceed said standards. Assessment and instruction, commonly viewed less as being separate distinctions and more as an iteration between informally assessing the students and making subsequent adaptations to instruction and students modifying future study tactics, is to unite cognitive development (i.e., metability) with a spiritual dimension of acceptance, curiosity, enjoyment, flexibility, patience, and perseverance (Garner, 2007). Therefore, the successful EAL will have the ability and wherewithal to know when to make key decisions, who to involve in the decision-making process, and will have the foresight to anticipate how the decision will impact each of the educational stakeholders in ways that both preserve individual rights and retain overall justice.


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