Ethics in the Superintendency

The actions of malfeasance by a few superintendents undermine the credibility of honest, hard-working educators by Priscilla Pardini

A superintendent in Maryland accepts as a top honor in a national recognition program a $25,000 cash prize from a textbook vendor doing millions of dollars worth of business with his school district.

The wife of an elected superintendent delivers her husband's campaign literature to the schools in his Alabama district and asks principals to distribute the material in the mailboxes of school staff.

School board members in an Indiana district spend $4,100 of the money earmarked for publicrelations on an engraved Rolex watch for the district's retiring superintendent.

What's wrong with these pictures?

Perhaps nothing as appalling as the U.S. military atrocities in Iraqi prisons or the sexual abuse scandals rocking to the Catholic Church of late. Or as financially self-serving as Martha Stewart's lies to an investigator about a personal stock sale or as morally outrageous as Bill Clinton's personal conduct in the White House.

Yet, say the experts who study ethics in public life, one need look no further than the newspaper headlines to discover school officials in legal trouble. During just a four-week period at the end of the school year, the news media reported on a Long Island superintendent accused of embezzling more than $1 million from his school district, a North Dakota superintendent sentenced to probation for stealing a school district Jeep and securing reduced-price lunches for his children, a Colorado superintendent sentenced to six years in prison for padding his annual salary by up to $44,000 a year, a Nebraska superintendent arrested on a misdemeanor public indecency charge, an Arkansas superintendent who resigned after engaging in a fight with a local broadcaster, a Nebraska superintendent faced with losing his certification after using school district technology to distribute pornography and sexual jokes, and a Louisiana superintendent suspended for three days for plagiarizing a California superintendent’s letter to the community.

While still quite rare among school system leaders, experts suggest these moral and ethical lapses are undermining public trust in schools and their leaders institutions and individuals long held to a higher standard of behavior than their peers in corporate and political arenas. Incidents of financial kickbacks, nepotism and conflicts of interest may grab the news media’s attention. Yet potentially even more problematic are the seemingly routine administrative decisions school leaders make every day that can have a negative, long-term impact on a school or school district's moral compass.

To be sure, Ron Rebore, a professor of educational leadership and higher education at St. Louis University, says educators are “by far, the least [ethically] problematic” of our institutional leaders. What's more, the issue of principled leadership is being increasingly addressed through university-level courses and professional development programs for school leaders that focus on ethics. Consider, too, new legislation on ethical behavior that raises the standards of ethical behavior for all public employees.

Still Rebore remains concerned. “We are certainly tainted by what happens in society in general,” he says. “Every institution — the church, business, government, and we're part of government — is under suspicion. People don't trust us.” In fact, Rebore says today's moral climate has generated a “loss of innocence” reminiscent of the 1960s.

Thomas Sobol, who teaches ethics to aspiring school system leaders at Columbia University's Teachers College, gets the “sense that things are falling apart.” Says Sobol: “All that's going on, socially, politically and economically, is part of, reflective of and in and of itself an unethical situation that screams for attention.” And when it comes to his own field, says Sobol, a veteran school leader on the state and local levels in New York, “Education contains an important ethical dimension we've been neglecting.”

A Sad State

Research on the subject, some of which stretches back 36 years, suggests school superintendents confronted with ethical dilemmas can be expected to make decisions consistent with the AASA Code of Ethics less than 50 percent of the time. The first such study was conducted in 1968 by C. Roy Dexheimer, at the time superintendent of the Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES in Ithaca, N.Y. William C. Fenstermaker, an elementary school principal in Pennsylvania, replicated the study in 1994.

Both Dexheimer and Fenstermaker asked superintendents to choose one of several suggested responses to what they called “borderline ethical dilemmas” similar to those they might encounter on the job and then compared their answers to current AASA ethics codes. A total of 47.3 percent of those polled in 1968 and 48.1 percent in 1994 chose the responses considered “ethical.”

“Sadly for the state of the profession,” wrote Fenstermaker in 1996 for The School Administrator, “my findings, with few exceptions, nearly duplicated those obtained a quarter century earlier.”

Both studies, the most significant conducted on the issue involving top school leaders, found less experienced superintendents and those working in larger school districts most likely to make decisions in line with the code adopted by association members in 1962. (A streamlined version of the AASA code was adopted in 1981.) Both researchers also found a correlation between ethics and salaries, with those paid the most generally scoring higher.

California superintendents surveyed in 1999 by Karen Sue Walker, at the time a doctoral candidate at the University of La Verne in California, scored somewhat higher. Walker concluded in her dissertation, “Decision Making and Ethics: A Study of California Superintendents,” that the superintendents made ethical choices consistent with the statement of ethics adopted by the Association of California School Administrators the vast majority of the time. According to Walker's research, “most school superintendents make decisions that he or she believes to be right even when it is difficult.”

Anecdotal evidence tells its own story. Two high-profile cases surfaced recently. In Roslyn, N.Y., former superintendent Frank Tassone and Pamela Gluckin, the district’s former assistant superintendent for business and finance, were charged in early summer with felonies for allegedly embezzling more than $1 million each in school district money. The superintendent of nearby William Floyd school district, also on Long Island, asked the district attorney to open investigations of its two business officials. One was subsequently arrested.

Superintendents across the state “reacted with outrage,” according to Tom Rogers, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. “Stealing from a school system steals from children. That’s despicable.” Revelations of such alleged gross misconduct, he adds, threaten to unjustly undermine the public’s trust in all schools and fuel the ire of public education opponents. “Fairly or not, the actions of a few will reflect on all,” Rogers says.

Ethical Dilemmas

Lynn G. Beck, dean of the school of education at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., did her doctoral research on the ethics of school administrators and has published two books on ethics training in educational administration. She says there is much more to being an ethical school superintendent than deciding not to hire your brother-in-law as director of transportation or submitting inflated reimbursement requests for out-of-town travel. She makes a distinction between principle- or problem-focused ethics and narrative ethics.

Beck describes the former as the way one responds to specific ethical dilemmas — listening to the voice in your head, for example, that tells you not to accept the junket to Florida sponsored by the textbook company that wants your district's business. It also means making decisions to “allocate your resources in order to create the greatest good for the greatest number,” says Beck. Or not. “You could make an alternative decision to use a lot of your resources to meet a critical need, such as special education even though it benefits a smaller group.”

Other examples she cites: Deciding between the public's right to know and an individual teacher's right to privacy, or between a lucrative district contract with a soft drink company and more healthful, if less popular, vending machine offerings.

Beck says such decisions, to some extent, are judgment calls based on any number of factors, including both a superintendent's personal commitments and his or her need to be accountable to a school board. “It's usually a matter of weighing one set of policies, beliefs, values and sometimes even laws against another,” she says.

For example, while courts have given school officials the right to search student lockers, “How far do you go?” asks Beck. “How do you decide whose lockers to search?”

The process of making such decisions is complex. Superintendents need a forum in which they can “work with their colleagues and think through some of this in a thoughtful and safe way,” she says. Beck is heartened by her belief that most school leaders really do want to do what's best for their students. “The challenge is,” adds Beck, “what exactly does that mean?”

Narrative Ethics

Of even greater interest to Beck, however, is narrative ethics, which she broadly defines as one's orientation toward life. “It's a matter of seeing who you are, all you do, all your relationships as having ethical importance,” she says.

Beck says narrative ethics focuses more on making decisions than on solving dilemmas. It's the thinking process that goes into, say, deciding where to build a new school, or which students get which teachers, or whether to track students. It focuses on a school district's structures, says Beck, with an eye on avoiding and eliminating major inequities and rooting out unfairness.

Take, for example, a districtwide discipline policy that requires students expelled for disobeying certain rules to remain out of school until their parents come to school and meet with officials. “It may be a well-intentioned and effective policy,” says Beck. “But if it's being implemented in a low-income community where parents work hourly jobs, it forces parents to put their jobs or their children's schooling at risk.” Far better to have thought through that potential ramification before putting the policy in place than being forced to deal with related dilemmas after the fact, says Beck.

Joseph F. Murphy, who has co-authored work with Beck on the subject, agrees that “a lot of what principals and superintendents do is value-based.” Even setting up a school schedule, which at first glance might be considered a purely objective or organizational task, is “laden in values,” and administrators need to be aware of that, says Murphy, professor of education at Vanderbilt University. “It affects which kids go to which teachers, which kids go to which classes. … For years and years, low-track kids got bad teachers. That's a value issue.”

School leaders need to practice both principle-focused and narrative ethics, though Beck and Murphy worry more about the latter. “Administrators' training focuses a lot on outcomes,” Beck says, “but I want them to always be thinking of the ethical implications of the actions they take as they pursue those outcomes.”

New Challenges

School leaders have long confronted and continue to confront dozens of big issues teeming with ethical and moral implications. Among them: school segregation, the separation of church and state, special education, sex education, gender equality, the sexual orientation of students, racial and ethnic diversity, school safety, school choice, drug and alcohol prevention education and freedom of speech.

One of the newest, the commercialization of public education, is particularly troubling, says Clarence G. Oliver, dean emeritus of the school of education at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. He describes this as a policy area “where officials are beginning to fall into a trap.” A strong opponent of commercialization in public schools, Oliver likens it to a school “selling its soul.”

To be sure, it may not be illegal to enter into a contract with, say, a soft drink or fast food company that wants exclusive rights to sell its product in the school cafeteria. “But is it unethical?” asks Oliver, who teaches a course titled “Legal, Political and Ethical Issues in Educational Administration” to graduate students. “That's a judgment call. If it causes undue influence [on] and potential damage to students, I'd say it is.”

Oliver knows plenty of school leaders disagree with him. In their opinion, these leaders feel vindicated by the good they can do with the money that flows from such contracts. “For them, the money becomes the value, rather than the health of the students,” says Oliver, author of “Ethical Behavior — An Administrator's Guide: Ethics and Values in School Administration,” a publication he wrote in 2002 for the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration.

Still, advances in technology have ushered in other ethical challenges. School administrators are getting in trouble for the private use of school district cell phones or for using e-mail with school board members to circumvent open meeting laws. “They may seem like very minor issues and may not ever be detected…but it's still unethical,” says Oliver.

NCLB Pressure

As the university experts on ethics point out, with school administrators being held accountable for better student performance, it is student outcomes, as measured by standardized test scores, that are increasingly testing the ethical mettle of today's educators. “For the first time ever, the federal government has mandated that people achieve,” says Rebore, the St. Louis University professor. “When you want it badly enough, maybe you're faced with the ethical decision of whether or not to cook the test scores.”

In Washington, the state school superintendent’s office is investigating nearly two dozen reports of improperly administered standardized tests, according to The News Tribune of Tacoma. The newspaper, noting that some state legislators want closer monitoring of the state’s testing program, quoted one elected representative, Gigi Talcott, as saying, “I would like to believe that every classroom teacher, every politician and every car salesman is honest. But I know that’s not the case.”

A study by the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin determined schools that increased their accountability ratings by the Texas Education Agency between 1998 and 1999 tended to exempt more special education students from state standardized tests than schools with no rating changes or a decline in ratings. Although the report did not draw a causal relationship between the exemption rates and accountability scores, it concluded “only a careful examination of the situation at each school can give a clearer picture of how appropriate exemptions are for individual students.”

Then there's the case Beck cites of a low-performing urban school where officials decided to assign a group of students with the potential to do well on a standardized math test to a strong, certified teacher. “Their thinking was if they could get the scores of those 75 kids up, the whole school would look better,” says Beck. “But in the process they wrote off 80 other kids.”

To be sure, the plan worked. Almost half the students reached the desired standard. But Beck points out that while officials solved their immediate need — how to meet adequate yearly progress as defined by No Child Left Behind — success came at a high price.

“They justified their actions by saying 'Someone has to have the uncertified teacher,’” says Beck. On the other hand, had officials been practicing the kind of narrative ethics Beck espouses, the situation might never have arisen. “They would have concluded that it was not OK for any kid to have an unqualified teacher,” she says. “They would have asked, 'What are we going to do about this? It is not acceptable.’”

Chrys Dougherty, director of research at the Center for Educational Accountability at the University of Texas at Austin, says the move toward greater reliance on publicly reported test score data has spawned a new wave of fraud.

“Anytime you have any kind of performance information that people are paying attention to there is the potential for unethical behavior,” says Dougherty. “When the audit system in business broke down, you got Enron. In education, it's even worse because in most cases you don't even have a functional audit system in place to begin with.”

Dougherty’s center analyzes student achievement data in an attempt to identify successful schools. “Of course, if the data is corrupted, that is a real problem for us,” he says. Solving such problems involves more than simply relying on the ethics of superintendents. “Some percentage of the population is not ethical,” he says, “and that's true in any business that involves human beings. No occupation has figured out a way to screen people so that everyone they hire is ethical. Look at Catholic priests.”

Lacking Experience

Oliver, with Oral Roberts University, traces the problem of unethical behavior among some school leaders, in part, to the lack of experience he sees in those being hired today by school boards to fill superintendencies. Educators who entered the field in the 1960s and ’70s and rose through the ranks to become superintendents are retiring in waves. The vacancies they create are not drawing the quantity and quality of experienced administrators eager to assume the top berth, where they must deal with the stress of facing school board members, the teachers’ union, parents, taxpayers and those with vested interests, over budget shortfalls and unprecedented demands for accountability.

At a time when the stakes never have been higher for superintendents, Oliver contends, “many were pushed into the position. They haven't been adequately prepared. Some have just barely completed their certification. They may not have the training, experience or strength to stand up to the pressures being forced on them.”

Those entering without much experience in key decision-making roles are “more likely to fall into the trap of what appears to be an innocent proposal without considering the underlying ethical issues,” Oliver says. “You're more inclined to go with the first decision that comes to mind … [and] less likely to look at the consequences of unethical behavior.”

Murphy, considered one of the premier scholars in educational administration, cites inadequate ethics training for school administrators as part of the problem. He says both college-level and staff development programs traditionally have focused on topics deemed more “objective” or research-based. “Issues related to values or morals didn't even get on stage,” says Murphy. As a result, “you have a profession that didn't pay much attention to values … and what people began to do basically showed that.”

Legislating Ethics

Murphy credits Beck's research with generating a significant increase in attention to the importance of ethics in educational leadership training programs. “The social justice rubric has become one of [its] central pillars,” he says.

But can ethics actually be taught? Although Oliver concedes that individuals cannot be forced to embrace a particular value system, he says they can be made aware of ethics concepts and learn how to make decisions aligned with those concepts.

In his educational administration classes, Michael Arnold, an associate professor at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo., focuses on the ethical side of school leadership by using case studies or researching the work of historical figures considered to be ethical. “We use problem-based learning activities and analysis,” he says. “Students hear me ask that all the time. ‘Why did you make that decision? Whom did it impact? Is what you did moral, legal, ethical and good for kids?’”

As president of the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration, Arnold was instrumental in choosing ethical decision making as one of three major themes highlighted at the organization’s national conference in August in Branson, Mo.

The Association of California School Administrators addressed the ethics issue at a seminar in January. Titled “Leading With Credibility: The Role of Ethics and Integrity in the Superintendency,” the program drew about 40 superintendents willing to discuss ethical challenges and how to deal best with them.

Laraine Roberts, senior research associate at WestEd, which helped to run the seminar, says the idea to focus on ethics grew out of the superintendents’ concerns over unethical behavior in the corporate sector. Participants studied the literature on ethics with an eye on ensuring their own ethical behavior and helping others in their districts act appropriately. They discussed at length an ethical dilemma faced by a superintendent in the state. The conversations focused on “how to translate personal values into leadership action,” Roberts says.

One participant, Rich Fischer, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District in Mountain View, Calif., describes the seminar as a “very powerful” experience. “When you hear respected colleagues talk about their own ethical challenges, you realize you need to pay attention to your own and to make sure you're always doing things from a kids-first, ethical perspective.”

Fischer believes all superintendents face the same kinds of ethical dilemmas — “variations on a theme,” he says. “We need to create trusting and safe environments [in which] to share and examine difficult issues.” Yet superintendents seldom, if ever, have done so. Says Fischer, “It doesn't happen at your typical regional meeting.”

Professional codes of ethics and legislation on what Oliver calls potential ethical “potholes” — for example, political activity or gift acceptance — also can make a difference. But experts say such documents must be widely and repeatedly disseminated and publicized in order to be effective. To that end, the Illinois Association of School Administrators earlier this year routed to all its members information on the provisions of the state's new Ethics Act and Gift Ban Act, which apply to all school district employees.

Yet Dougherty, with the Center for Educational Accountability in Texas, says ethical behavior is ultimately the result of a strong internal motivation to do the right thing, coupled with the knowledge that unethical behavior could result in loss of respect from one's peers and legal and/or administrative sanctions. “You really need all three components in place,” he says, calling for codes of ethics backed up by a system of audits that immediately flags suspicious data or behavior.

A Wider Vision

When it comes to ethical acts and decisions, Sobol, of Columbia University, believes educators have a special obligation that transcends that of, say, a corporate leader. He believes schools and school leaders have a responsibility to make sure the education they provide is expansive, embracing not only diligence and accuracy but also imagination and creativity and an “ethical dimension” that addresses moral obligations and decision making.

Yet the former superintendent in Scarsdale, N.Y., fears the standards movement has “narrowed the scope and vision” of education to a body of knowledge and information that can be measured on standardized exams, reducing the role of school leaders to that of technicians. “Yes, you have to be smart to know how to balance the budget. And you have to be political to know how to get along with the board,” says Sobol. “But those are tools and attributes to use in pursuing the mission, not the mission itself.”

He believes most educators accept positions in school system leadership with a desire to do good work for many others. “Ethics and morality are very much involved in their motivation for entering the profession to begin with,” he says. “But once there, they don't tap it, encourage it or give it the scope it needs in order to flourish.” He challenges school leaders to express their values “in the way you treat people, in how you allocate time and money, in the kind of things you talk about and read, and in the quality of your interactions with people in the organization.”

Sobol is pessimistic about the current state of ethical decision making in education, but he is more hopeful as he looks to the future. He sees any number of younger superintendents and those aspiring to be superintendents “looking at what's happening in corporations, the church and the army, and saying, 'We have to do better than that.’”

Priscilla Pardini is a free-lance education writer in Shorewood, Wis.