State Codes Adorn Office Walls, But Few Have Bite

by Priscilla Pardini

Codes of professional ethics are surprisingly controversial in education. They are hailed as useful and significant by some and disregarded by others as meaningless.

On one side, critics contend that “relying on a code of ethics is to confuse ethics with law,” according to the Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Professionals, the naysayers add, “have no special rights or duties separate from their rights and duties as moral persons,” making such codes pointless.

Others, however, say adopting a code is significant for the professionalization of an occupation because it represents “one of the external hallmarks testifying to the claim that the group recognizes an obligation to society that transcends mere economic self-interest.”

Clarence G. Oliver, author of “Ethical Behavior — An Administrator's Guide: Ethics and Values in School Administration,” believes ethics codes serve a good purpose.

“Whether the code becomes a framed document on an office wall or a type of conscience-compass which is internalized,” Oliver writes, “it serves as a guide or reminder in specific situations and can indicate to others that the profession is seriously concerned with responsible, professional conduct.”

The AASA Executive Committee adopted its current code of ethics in 1981 Many AASA state affiliates have adopted their own codes, while other school system leaders are expected to follow codes of conduct established legislatively at the state level.

Lacking Consequences

Chrys Dougherty, director of research at the Center for Educational Accountability at the University of Texas at Austin, believes the enforcement of an ethics code is what makes a difference. “You have to take steps to make sure everyone knows about it and that it is taken seriously,” he says. Codes need to be backed up by laws or administrative regulations and by an audit system that includes consequences for infractions, he says.

While some large school districts now use their own investigators to look into alleged ethics violations, most such issues still are addressed at the state level, where the handling of complaints by ethics boards varies widely.

Tom Rogers, executive director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, is frustrated and discouraged by the way the process works there. “The code of ethics is itself fine,” says Rogers. “There's nothing in it you or I or anyone would object to.”

To be sure, the code, which applies to all K-12 educators, calls on them to nurture student potential; support challenging learning environments; collaborate with colleagues and parents; and advance the intellectual and ethical foundation of the learning community. The problem, says Rogers, is a qualifier — inserted in the code at the insistence of the teachers who comprise the majority of the board's members — stating that violations of the code cannot constitute grounds for discipline or job termination.

Language then incorporated at the insistence of the board's two superintendent members states that the code cannot be used to “diminish the authority of any public school employer to evaluate or discipline any employee under provisions of law, regulation or collective bargaining agreement.”

“What we've done is basically cancel each other out,” says Rogers. “We've gone to great lengths to make it absolutely clear that there are no consequences” for violating the code.

State Sanctions

Taking a decidedly different approach is the New Jersey State Ethics Commission, which rules on ethics complaints brought against school board members and school district administrators. The commission's complaint process, says Mark Finkelstein, president-elect of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and a commission member, “certainly has some teeth to it.”

If the commission finds probable cause to believe the state ethics code has been violated, it can recommend the state education commissioner reprimand, censure, suspend or expel a board member or administrator.

The vast majority of questions and cases before the commission deal with school board members, says Finkelstein, who is superintendent of the Middlesex County Educational Services Commission in Piscataway, N.J. He also previously served for 17 years on the school board in nearby New Brunswick and served as president of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Recent cases heard by the commission involved breaches of confidentiality, confrontations between board members and superintendents, and attempts by school board members to take on the day-to-day administrative work of the district. The commission deals with seven to 10 ethics cases a month, the highest volume in its history, Finkelstein says.

The longer he serves on the commission, says Finkelstein, who has been a superintendent for nine years, “the more I realize how important our work is. There needs to be a watchdog entity out there.”

Rogers agrees. “We may be able to learn from New Jersey.”


Several AASA state affiliates have developed codes of ethics or helped to shape others’ codes. Here are the web addresses for a few that have been published electronically.






New York:

South Dakota:
Professional%20Practices/ PAPSC/ethicsadm.htm