The Ethical Educator

A monthly scenario that poses an ethical challenge for school leaders along with four experts’ recommended actions for resolving the dilemma.

  • Shelley Berman,Superintendent, Eugene, Ore.

    Shelley Berman

    Superintendent, Eugene, Ore.

  • Sarah Mackenzie,Associate professor at University of Maine, Orono, Maine

    Sarah Mackenzie

    Associate professor at University of Maine, Orono, Maine

  • Roy Dexheimer,Retired BOCES superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y.

    Roy Dexheimer

    Retired BOCES superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y.

  • Mark Hyatt,Former president, Character Education Partnership, Washington, D.C.

    Mark Hyatt

    Former president, Character Education Partnership, Washington, D.C.

*Note: As of March 2015, Ethical Educator columns will be available on the School Administrator pages of the AASA website.*

Twin Trouble (February 2015)

Scenario: An assistant principal is a leading applicant to replace the retiring elementary principal. Her duties include students’ grade-level assignments for next year. The PTA president, with twin 1st-grade girls, reluctantly accedes to the school’s policy that twins be placed in separate classrooms. One twin is having academic difficulty and the teacher recommends retention. The girls’ angry mother demands promotion of both, blaming the teacher’s performance. As a member of the site council that will recommend the next principal, she criticizes the assistant principal’s leadership without mentioning her personal circumstances. The AP fears her promotional chance is about to be extinguished. She seeks the superintendent’s advice.

Click on a dilemma title below to read the panelists' recommended actions. Offer your own reactions and dilemmas to the editor ( for possible use in a future issue. You can also submit your dilemma by clicking here.

Click here to visit AASA's Code of Ethics.

Twin Trouble (February 2015)


Shelley Berman: Retention is a questionable practice, often resulting in negative social and emotional consequences without justifiable academic gains. In this case, the problematic nature of the practice is compounded by the recommendation to retain one of the twins. The recommendation raises questions about how the student’s learning needs were assessed, the interventions that were provided to address the child’s learning needs, the efforts of the teacher to involve the parent early when lags in the student’s performance became evident, and the monitoring of classroom instruction by administrators. The AP also would be well-advised to research the child’s kindergarten experience and determine whether any learning difficulties had been identified prior to first grade. The AP should also investigate whether a referral was made for a special education evaluation and the results of any such evaluation. A retention decision should be made carefully, with ongoing family involvement, and only after other avenues have been exhausted.
The superintendent should meet with the AP and explore these questions as a way of helping her reflect on the decision. The retention decision should be based not on saving face or on simply supporting the teacher’s recommendation but on the best interests of the child. The AP needs to understand thoroughly the reasons for the teacher’s recommendation, while still helping the teacher understand that there are multiple factors that need to be considered before a final decision is made on retention. If these issues have not been adequately addressed, it is not too late to reverse course and investigate ways to support the student in second grade. However, if the issues have been addressed and there are learning delays not related to a disability that could justify retention, communication with the family is vital to ensure a full understanding of the child’s needs. Such a dialogue may yield appropriate ways of supporting the student that may or may not include retention.
The issue of communication with both the teacher and the parent is a significant one in this case. It is clear from the mother’s angry response that she believes retention is not in the best interest of her child. The AP has to take the lead in building positive communication with the parent, not because it would be advantageous in her application for the principalship but because it is the only avenue to resolving this situation positively. No matter what prior communication has occurred, this moment represents another opportunity to listen carefully to the parent’s concerns and rebuild rapport and understanding. It may be beneficial to bring the teacher and parent together for a three-way dialogue to seek mutual understanding, diffuse tensions that have emerged and consider appropriate options to address the child’s needs.
The true sign of whether an individual is ready for leadership of a school is in handling challenging issues like this one while at the same time building strong relationships with both teachers and families. In the end, the AP’s ability to step back and either reverse this decision or gain the support of the parent is a meaningful test of her readiness to assume a principalship.

Roy Dexheimer: Tricky stuff. Find out if the placement recommendations are supported by data. Determine if the superintendent can override a site council recommendation. Let the selection of a principal play out, with faith that a majority will make a fair decision.
A footnote: In my experiences, a parent’s insistence is usually met on placement, despite the teacher’s recommendations. Otherwise, the mother will see to it that her prophecy is fulfilled by her attitudes at home.

Sarah MacKenzie: I can understand the assistant principal’s sense that her candidacy for the new position could be undermined. However, she cannot counteract the comments by the PTA president and member of the site council. Those are the person’s opinions and may or may not be directly related to the conflict over teacher assignments for next year. Furthermore, the assistant principal cannot take any action that would reveal confidential information about students to the site committee.
The most she can do is talk with the superintendent about her perception of the situation. I presume the retiring principal knows of the mother’s concerns and agrees with the assistant principal’s decision. I also assume the superintendent has assurances that the decisions made are in the best interests of the child. So it is likely the administrators must wait and see whom the site committee recommends.
The superintendent, as the person who makes the recommendation to the school board with regard to hiring, can speak at that point with members of the site committee if he or she wishes to understand their choice. The superintendent also can override the recommendation of the site committee.
The advice of the superintendent to the assistant principal should be to wait it out. The superintendent may be eager for this person to take on the principalship, or the superintendent might have some qualms about the assistant principal’s leadership, her handling of the teacher assignments or the supervision of particular teachers.
The superintendent must be circumspect but honest in advising the assistant principal. The superintendent does not want to give the appearance of any kind of collusion nor to mislead the assistant principal if the mother’s comments have some weight and are giving the superintendent reason to investigate more fully this person’s candidacy.

Mark Hyatt: There are two issues here. One is the possible promotion of the struggling twin and the second is the PTO president gossiping about the assistant principal.
Considering the unique circumstances associated with this dilemma, I recommend that the parent’s desire for promotion of both twins prevail. The family dynamics of this situation are profound. Keeping the twins at the same grade level, if possible, is important. Possibly an individual education plan in 2nd grade will help the twin "catch up". The social emotional aspects of this situation are worthy of great consideration. With the right “scaffolding", I think the twin can be remediated to success.
That said, as superintendent, I’d recommend to our assistant principal that she seek a moment of shared empathy in a meeting with the upset mother. I recommend this meeting be witnessed by a neutral third party, possibly the PTO vice president and/or the outgoing principal. If the motherhas relevant issues with the assistant principal’s job performance, then she can vet them in a constructive and direct way.

Scenery or Safety? (January 2015)


A stretch of highway in front of a school was the scene of a school bus accident with minor injuries. The same section has seen numerous other accidents. The county highway department recommends straightening the road for a safer route — an action requiring removal of several trees. This option has drawn public opposition because the trees are the last of a group planted by a famous former citizen on a piece of land considered an historic community treasure. Both sides take up the case in front of the school board. What action should the superintendent recommend?


Shelley Berman: Given that this decision is most likely up to the county government, the superintendent first should indicate that a school board meeting is not the most appropriate forum for this dialogue. If the school board wishes to take a position, the superintendent should ask the highway department what alternatives have been considered, such as a traffic signal, lower speed limits or other road modifications. 
Clearly, the historic nature of the property and the trees is important to the community. The superintendent should acknowledge the interests of those who advocate for history and conservation and seek a way to address those interests while still ensuring the safety of students. For example, perhaps a commemorative plaque depicting the historic area could be erected near the school. However, because the children’s safety is the paramount concern of the school district, the superintendent must come down on the side that best protects students’ safety.

Roy Dexheimer: The superintendent’s only position is that of guardian of the safety of the children in his or her charge. Go on record as favoring that option. Then it is a squabble between the highway folks and the historical trust. Help them negotiate a solution that improves safety and somehow preserves the trees, but stay clearly on record as endorsing safety as the priority. And be sure the board of education is on that same page!

Sarah Mackenzie: The superintendent is most concerned about the safety of students. He or she might be well advised to emphasize that stance and avoid weighing in on the question of taking down treasured trees.
If the superintendent were consulted on the issue by the county highway department, he or she might suggest ways that safety could be monitored and ensured through traffic-calming humps or safety officers overseeing traffic at especially heavy times and/or locations without taking down trees. But if the highway department insists on the solution involving the trees in order to solve the problem, the superintendent may well have to acquiesce to calm nerves and assure student safety.
But because citizens are coming to the school board and making arguments to that body, the superintendent and the school board have an opportunity to engage people in developing a third way. The late Rushworth Kidder describes that approach to solving similar dilemmas in How Good People Make Tough Choices: Resolving the Dilemmas of Ethical Living (Harper Perennial, 2009).
Although this issue doesn’t necessarily look like a major ethical dilemma, two “right” actions are in conflict -- preserving historically important land and trees versus maintaining safety. By encouraging those present to negotiate a resolution, the superintendent and the school board can produce a “win” for both sides. Of course, that resolution still must be argued before representatives of the county government. But a solution that is shared by people on both sides of a decision presents a united front that would have a greater possibility of acceptance, a political win-win too.

Mark Hyatt: Safety will rule in the end. But this delicate situation should be addressed in a very respectful and logical way.
The famous former citizen and historic site should be honored appropriately while moving the memorial to another location. Then the street can be straightened in accordance with the recommendations of the county highway department. 
Democracy requires all views be heard in a public forum. Then the superintendent can use this opportunity as a teachable moment for all stakeholders and share the reasons the famous former citizen was honored originally. The descendants of this famous person can be invited to attend a rededication ceremony when new trees are planted at the relocated memorial.

Siting the Homeless (December 2014)


The city has been attempting to find compassionate ways to address homelessness. Most shelters are at capacity. The city council decides to locate camping areas in a few public spaces where small groups of homeless individuals or families can stay temporarily, monitored by nonprofit social service organizations. The city manager has identified a camping area one block from a neighborhood elementary school and asks the superintendent if he can proceed with the plan. What should the superintendent do?


Shelley Berman: Finding sites that can support homeless individuals and families is both a courageous and productive act on the part of the city. The lack of effective public attention to homelessness is one of our greatest lapses in public policy. Although many people hold negative perceptions of homeless individuals, this population includes everyday individuals who have experienced a sudden loss of employment, costly medical issues, death of a family breadwinner, or other circumstances that could be overcome if appropriate assistance were extended. It also includes individuals who suffer from mental illness, struggle with addictions, or otherwise live on the margins of society. There is no one simple characterization of a homeless person.
Given the complexity of homelessness, the often negative perceptions that people hold of the homeless, and the reality of some homeless individuals behaving in ways that may not be a positive influence on children, it is likely that some parents and community members will be resistant to locating an encampment so close to a school. It may cause some parents to withdraw their children from the school or to insist that the district provide additional security when children are on the playground or walking to and from school. If it is not handled well, instead of being a positive expression of compassion and support, the camp may escalate tensions around addressing the homeless issue.  
The superintendent’s first step should be to recommend that the city hold a series of forums and community dialogues at the school and in other areas of the neighborhood to hear community feedback, discuss options, and potentially diffuse an issue that could undermine the city’s efforts to support the homeless population. For example, such a camp may be more acceptable if the individuals in the encampment are limited to families with children, particularly children who might attend the school and be supported by staff and neighborhood families. In addition, if the city hasn’t already done so, it may be helpful for the community to develop site location criteria for homeless camps and to develop mutually agreed upon parameters, thus clarifying expectations and establishing a way to judge current and future siting efforts. The school district could then offer suggestions for these criteria, such as designating sites within a certain distance from schools for families with children only and establishing firm polices around weapons, drug and alcohol use, etc.
Whether the camp is ever located near the school or not, it is likely that many students in the district are coming into contact with homeless individuals in the course of their daily lives. With appropriate planning and adult oversight, such a situation may present an opportunity for meaningful learning at the secondary level. Going beyond the typical service project of collecting food, bottled water, blankets, and clothing to be donated to persons living on the streets, arrangements could be made for students to research the issue in more depth through interviews with homeless persons and the organizations that provide support to the homeless, and thereby develop greater understanding and empathy for their situation. Shaping such viewpoints among our nation’s youth is a key step toward the adoption of public policies aimed at assisting rather than stigmatizing the homeless population.

Roy Dexheimer: Public schools are ethically and legally obliged to educate the youngsters who come to them. And homeless does not mean lawless. I believe the superintendent should welcome the kids and support the parents.
Make sure the new youngsters get breakfast and lunch at school. Make sure they have supplies. Ask the PTA to help with clothing. Alert the school nurse to the new challenges and ensure the kids have their shots. And be certain the board of education is especially well informed.
I would ask the social service agency to put families at this encampment, not unattached adults. If there are worries about young children walking to and from the school, ask social services to supply a monitor for those portions of the day.
Our craft requires us to run closer to challenges, not away from them.

Mark Hyatt: Homelessness is a vexing and chronic problem that continues to trouble both urban and suburban communities all across America. And try as we might to keep the homeless away from our schools, the reality is that they are already in our classrooms. According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, more than 1.1 million homeless students were enrolled in U.S. public schools in 2012. Today, more and more, we're talking about struggling families, with parents working multiple, minimum-wage jobs and their children doing homework in a different shelter every night.
Unfortunately, the homeless population today also includes many mentally ill men and women who have fallen between the cracks of our public health system and now live among us, unmedicated and unpredictable. Mainly for this reason, and how it bears directly on the safety of our schoolchildren, as superintendent, I would ask the city manager not to locate the proposed homeless camp so close to the elementary school. Our primary job as administrators is student safety, first and foremost -- even before academic achievement and whole child development.
So I would speak privately with the city manager to help her understand that I am not unsympathetic to the cause. I am just more sympathetic to the valid concerns of my students' parents and staff. I would explain that locating the camp so close to the school would likely lead to public protests and contentious news coverage. As a minimum, I would suggest the city hold a preliminary series of public meetings or town halls to get input from those affected by this matter.
Furthermore, on the issue of security, I would also express grave concern about relying only on nonprofit volunteers to monitor the camps. Due to the wide variety of serious problems often present in any homeless population, I would insist on at least some law enforcement involvement, as well as additional social services assistance from those skilled specifically in working with the homeless. 
Bottom line: I certainly sympathize with the problem. I will donate to the cause, and even volunteer to host fundraisers at the school. But at the end of the day, I strongly object to the proposed location of this shelter/camp. Our children need to be set up for safe, secure learning environments. If we are truly to succeed, parents, teachers and administrators all need this peace of mind, as well.

Sarah Mackenzie: I congratulate the city for being compassionate toward homeless people. I assume this is a city where the climate makes camping a realistic solution for them. As we know, though, the homeless population consists of many people who have substance abuse problems and/or mental health issues. These would not be appropriate people to place at this site.
If the superintendent has veto power and no other input, I imagine he or she would say that the campsite is not a good idea. I’m surprised the city manager would ask for the superintendent’s permission. Perhaps homeowners were concerned, and they may have suggested the city manager seek the school district’s permission.
If the superintendent has input into what occurs at the campsite close to the school, then there may be some middle ground. Monitoring of the site should ensure that people who stay there are families with children and that they will be provided with opportunities for other shelter as quickly as possible. In that case, I could see the superintendent acceding to the request. 
Teachers might be able to use the situation to help students learn about the problem of homelessness and assist them in developing compassion and empathy for people who are homeless.

Banking on the Hometown Choice? (November 2014)


The board of education is about to award a contract for the district’s banking services for the coming year. Two proposals are submitted — one from a local bank, the other from a bank in a nearby community. The local bank has had the district’s business for years and performed well. The bank in the neighboring community offers investment services not available locally. That bank also provides a better interest rate on day-to-day investments. At the board meeting, the local banker urges keeping the contract with the bank that employs constituents and taxpayers. The board president asks the superintendent for a recommendation.


Shelley Berman: The key to making a fair and objective choice among vendors is establishing a clear set of criteria within the request for proposals (RFP) that provides a way to value various aspects of the proposals, either through a point or priority system. In this case, much depends on how the RFP was written.
For example, one criterion might be that the bank has multiple branches for accepting schools’ deposits. Banks with a local presence would fit that criterion very well. On the other hand, banks with few local branches might offer technology solutions or courier service to improve their scoring in this area. Such creative approaches may gain them some additional points, but they would not rate as highly on this criterion as would a bank with many local branches.
Although including a local preference among the criteria used to evaluate RFPs for contracts and services may be a strategy for public agencies to stimulate their local economy and support their community, only some states allow that preference and only in limited circumstances. The district is primarily responsible to the community for managing its finances efficiently and for exercising sound stewardship of limited funds.
In the case at hand, because changing banking services has a significant impact on the district’s finance office, the superintendent should ask the finance staff to evaluate the two proposals against the criteria set in the RFP and provide their recommendation. If allowable and if it is delineated in the RFP, the review can take into consideration the value of local preference, along with the value of various service options, the quality of service, revenue from interest rates and other factors. If the RFP requested independent bids on particular services and the bids demonstrated that it was advantageous to split services between the two vendors, it may be possible to contract for services with both banks, thereby continuing the basic banking service with the local vendor and contracting for specific investment services from the other bank. However, this option would have to be carefully evaluated because dividing services between two banks could create greater complexity for the finance office and increase their workload. 
To provide a strong justification for the decision, the superintendent’s recommendation to the board should be based on the findings and evaluation of the finance office staff against the criteria within the RFP.  However, if the RFP didn’t delineate criteria sufficiently, the superintendent can recommend rejecting both bids and issuing a new RFP that provides the district with the greatest flexibility to assess quality and cost-effectiveness of services and the potential benefit of a local preference priority if allowable. 

Roy Dexheimer: This is a great case! Some school districts, especially those with multiple banks in their community, rotate the selection. In a one-bank district, you are conflicted by loyalty to the hometown bank employees and an obligation to use district resources prudently.
Unless there was a significant disparity, I would go with the local option. They employ your taxpayers, they know your staff and they are likely to work that much harder and personally on behalf of their neighbors. And they might just be influential in public support of the district's aspirations.

Sarah Mackenzie: The superintendent in making a recommendation must first consult existing policies for awarding contracts to ensure any decision is in keeping with those, e.g., policies and principles related to comparing competing proposals.
Then the superintendent must make it clear that the school system must be mindful of its responsibility to the community to seek the best financial arrangement it can. Granted, those school system employees engaged in deliberations about contracts may consider past performance and reliability of a vendor or provider, but that does not mean considering who is employed there. In fact, such considerations might be considered conflicts of interest.
As long as a decision is in keeping with existing policies, the superintendent should not be swayed by the urgings of a person who has an interest in keeping the contract if there is a better offer available. Furthermore, the superintendent has an obligation to all the taxpayers in the community -- not just those who work for a particular organization or company -- to be fiscally responsible. 

Mark Hyatt: As superintendent, I’d stay with local businesses to the maximum extent possible -- as long as the cost to stay local is reasonable. There are so many intangible benefits to a school district associated with spending local taxpayer funds locally.
The superintendent might consider working even closer with the local bank and asking if they’d consider sponsoring something like a scoreboard for an athletic facility, an annual college scholarship or a fundraiser for something the school district needs.
Competition is good for all in education. Hopefully this conversation with the local bank will make the decision to continue doing business with them an easier decision for the school board.

Idle Bystanders (October 2014)


A rural school sends youngsters with special needs to a shared program in a neighboring community. The youngsters wait for their transfer bus just outside the door to the school’s woodshop classroom. A bullying lad from the shop class terrifies one of the students with special needs by threatening to feed him into a band saw. Punishment for the bully is a no-brainer. But what about the boys who stood by, watched the threat and did nothing?


Shelley Berman:
This incident presents multiple learning opportunities. For the bully, it will be important to go beyond punishment. He needs to appreciate the impact of his actions, apologize and appropriately demonstrate his regret.

For the observers from shop class, punishment should hinge on whether they were actively involved or supportive. However, even bystanders can communicate endorsement of abuse. These observers need to learn why and how to intervene on behalf of others who are treated unfairly.

Special-needs students who observed the incident likely feel vulnerable. They need to know that bullying is unacceptable and learn how to bring incidents to the attention of adults or intervene appropriately.

For the entire school, it is an opportunity to understand the pain that threats and derogatory actions create, as well as the issues faced by students who may seem different. The goal should be to use this situation to cultivate understanding, tolerance and inclusiveness.

Mark Hyatt: Did the boys from the shop class who stood by feel empowered to take action to protect the special-needs student? If not, they need to know they are the protectors of everyone in their community — and have permission to stand up and speak out. Culture is king! Culture provides a level of risk prevention that cannot be attained with rules and regulations. Culture provides greater discipline than disciplinary action.

If the students in the scenario knew that tolerating bullying behavior was wrong, then there is a much better chance that the boys who stood by would have said something. It’s tough to stand up for what’s right, but if good school culture is reinforced daily starting at the top, it’s much easier for everyone to stand up, speak out and maintain a safety supportive school culture.

Sarah Mackenzie: Because this incident occurred in a different district, one would hope and expect that the woodshop students who were bystanders to the incident would be counseled regarding what happened. First of all, they should be questioned as to the facts of the situation. This action alone may help them to realize what they witnessed and their role in it. Some may have actually assisted in the bullying and, at the very least, they provided an audience for the incident. Some may have wanted to counteract the bullying but may not have known what to do.

Even if a school has a bullying prevention program, these students need a more focused understanding of the role of bystanders, specifically their culpability if they do nothing to protect others or prevent bullying behavior. Ideally, these students need to understand the consequences if they fail to act in the future. Of course, any future punishment in a situation like this depends on the policy of the school and district.

Roy Dexheimer: Probably not much can be done in the way of formal action, unless there is a specific school policy advocating consequences for refusing to intervene. A conference with bystanders and parents might be useful. What the superintendent will learn is that youngsters in rural areas (and maybe all places) are advised by parents to mind their own business. Parents may fear reprisals toward their own sons and daughters by the bully and his or her friends.

The Retributive Board Member (September 2014)


An administrator is moved from a principal position to a less critical administrative role in the central office after several years of poor performance on the job. The new superintendent, as part of an administrative reorganization, transfers him to a department led by an individual with high expectations of all staff. The transferred administrator, seeing what is likely to happen, retires but then runs for the school board. Once elected, he makes it clear he intends to press for nonrenewal of the superintendent and the resignation of the supervising administrator. The superintendent assumes the other board members are unaware of the circumstances surrounding their colleague’s underperformance. With his contract up for renewal, what should the superintendent do?


Shelley Berman: This case is troubling, not only because of the ethical dilemmas and personal conflicts it poses, but also because such circumstances arise all too frequently. Similar to the ethics provision that legislators not become lobbyists for a time after leaving office, states should establish provisions that restrain staff membership on school boards for a comparable time period.

The confidentiality provided by personnel policies prohibits the superintendent from sharing past performance information with the board. The superintendent should seek to strengthen relationships with the other members, while meeting with this new member to develop a more constructive relationship. If the new member continues to pursue an antagonistic or duplicitous role, he may undermine his own alliances on the board. However, the situation may eventually diminish the superintendent’s ability to lead, and it may be wise to begin preparing for a move to another district.

Roy Dexheimer: This superintendent created his own conflict. Why was the inept principal not evaluated sufficiently in the first place? Why was the second transfer permitted when it was sure to fail and thus look premeditated? If this was an intended outcome, why wasn’t the school board of that moment forewarned and asked for at least tacit approval?

Were I the superintendent in this quandary, I’d go to the board president and lay out the sequence of events. If the board president believes the disgruntled new board member is a solitary voice, the superintendent should try to ride it out. If others have joined the chorus, I’d update my resume.

Sarah MacKenzie: The superintendent has the right to inform the board members of the potential conflict of interest on the part of the newly elected board member. He can put it forward in these terms: He and the new member have a history that may have an impact on what the member says as he seeks to argue against renewal of the superintendent and possibly other administrators. It is very much within the superintendent’s rights to bring this situation to others’ attention in light of what the former employee is saying is his agenda as a board member.

The superintendent should bring this information forward before any discussion about his performance or his contract is initiated. It is relevant to the pending discussions.

Mark Hyatt: Our superintendent is on the high moral ground. Moving his newly elected board member to a new position was the right thing to do for the children, teachers and other administrators, too.

As for pressing nonrenewal, the new board member might have some challenges. Most superintendents and intermediate supervisors who are known for maintaining high standards will have the support of a majority of stakeholders. I recommend the superintendent talk with the board chair and explain his concerns and solicit advice from the chair in private.

A Yearbook Yikes (August 2014)


Three months after the yearbooks are distributed, a parent meets with the high school principal and superintendent to complain her daughter’s photo had an offensive word superimposed in her hair. While it’s difficult to spot, everyone in the small, rural community is aware of it. The mother wants a total recall of the yearbooks and a 100 percent reprint of books, paid by the school district, for eventual exchange. Based on modest returns after a month, the superintendent realizes the impossibility of retrieving every yearbook and wants to order a third of the original number. The mother of the distraught girl is threatening legal action. How should the district respond?


Shelley Berman: Although it means additional costs and increased effort, it is appropriate for the school district to work with the victim’s family to find an acceptable solution. The probable reason for the low exchange rate is that students treasure what others have written in their yearbooks. As an alternative, the district could offer to replace the affected page. As long as the district makes a good-faith effort to correct the problem, it is unlikely to be legally liable.

The thoroughness of the district’s effort communicates to parents its commitment to respectful treatment of all students. Even if it requires calls to students’ homes, the district’s commitment to a remedy demonstrates it won’t accept disrespectful and personally harmful conduct. The district should investigate how the transgression occurred and apply appropriate consequences.

Roy Dexheimer: The district has an obligation to make every effort to identify the person(s) responsible for the offensive photograph and to administer consequences. The superintendent also should make it known that reprinted versions of the yearbook are available for exchange. But, like the postal system’s printing of a stamp’s image upside down, who will give up a collector’s item?

The district should make an official apology to the student and the family. A lawsuit is inevitable over the fact this happened at all. It won’t be based on incomplete retrievals or unhappiness with a lenient punishment for the perpetrators.

Sarah Mackenzie: I’m surprised the administrators in this case agreed to the initial plan. If the offensive word was at all obvious, the adviser or some other adult would have seen it and ordered a new photo before the books were printed and distributed. It is easy to alter an image through Photoshop. The yearbook company can provide copies of the new photo with a glue-on backing to place over the original one in the book. The adviser could have held off the distribution until the replacements arrived.

I would recommend the superintendent order replacement photos and have them placed over the originals in the books retrieved by the school. The school district cannot be responsible for gathering up all of the others. The school could publicize the availability of replacement photos. After three months, most yearbooks are already gathering dust on shelves only to be retrieved for class reunions, if at all.

Mark Hyatt: Mistakes are excusable if we own up to them and make the damaged parties whole. Yes, this will cost money, and most school districts don’t have surpluses, but being the leader means we must “do the right thing.” As leaders, we strive to operate in good faith with parents, so we must accept responsibility for the oversight and reprint the yearbook.

An apology from the superintendent and principal to the student and her family is appropriate. A letter to the community with an offer to replace 100 percent of the yearbooks is fitting.

Our first duty as school leaders is to “do no harm to students.” This student was harmed.

Declining a Pay Increase (June 2014)


A school district that has just endured significant budget reductions settles a difficult contract negotiation with the teachers' union by agreeing to a small salary increase that results in a further reduction of teaching positions. The superintendent's contract indicates that she will receive no less than what is negotiated with the teachers. Several board members ask the superintendent to refuse to take any increase as a statement to the community. Should the superintendent reject her expected salary increase?


Shelley Berman:
Unlike teachers, who frequently have job stability thanks to tenure and a union that negotiates on their behalf, a superintendent’s employment, and often salary, depends on performance. Therefore, the superintendent’s contractual benefits should be considered independent of negotiations with bargaining units.

However, because the superintendent is a community leader, his or her actions have political and symbolic import. When a district is under significant economic stress, it may be a beneficial statement to the staff and the community for the superintendent to demonstrate that he or she recognizes and shares the burden of these reductions.

This statement could consist of accepting only the same increase given teachers, refusing to take any increase at all, forgoing a performance bonus or making other sacrifices in salary or benefits. In this situation, it appears reasonable for the superintendent to accept the suggestion of her board and decline a salary increase this year.

Roy Dexheimer: Absolutely not! In my judgment, the ethical lapse is with the school board members for even asking.

A contractual agreement must be honored. To think depriving a single staff member of a contractual increase will make one of the excessed staff members feel better is absurd, and it certainly won't balance the budget. And this delivers a clear message to other staff: "You're next!"

A personal note: As a superintendent, I twice volunteered to forgo contracted increases (I volunteered, but was not asked to do so). Not a single person in the district said "thank you," not a single person recalled the gesture a year later, and my superintendent colleagues in the region were furious – at me! 

Sarah Mackenzie: I do not see an ethical issue in this scenario, but I do see a political one. The school board members who made the request for the superintendent to refuse the raise are hoping to appease the community and perhaps the teachers who have been riffed. Some might consider it a smart political move for the superintendent to refuse the raise, but I believe the superintendent should not do so.

If the superintendent does not receive a pay raise, she is losing money certainly for that year but also over her career. An earnings plateau of a year or more has an effect on future earnings. In fact, inflation could mean the superintendent ultimately ends up making less than she was during the present year.

The school board members can make the request, but they have negotiated a contract with the superintendent. They are responsible for ensuring the people they hire receive a decent wage for the duties expected. Their decision to reduce the number of teaching positions is in keeping, in a way, with the notion of maintaining pay for teachers at a level that reflects this essential obligation. In creating pay scales for all employees, school boards consider such things as experience, longevity in the system and in the role, and salaries in comparable districts.

The board, though, could make the case that the superintendent should receive the same percentage raise as the teachers. This would be in keeping with the contract and also work for her and them politically. The board and the superintendent then could highlight that, in this difficult year, the superintendent is receiving the same raise as the teachers.

Unmagnetic Appeal (May 2014)


A new superintendent in an urban district almost immediately receives complaints from parents and community members that the district's magnet schools are drawing the brightest students out of neighborhood schools. Upon investigation, the superintendent finds these schools have far fewer economically disadvantaged, minority and special education students than the neighborhood schools. Yet these schools have been highly successful in keeping middle-class families committed to the public schools rather than placing children in private education. How should the superintendent respond?


Shelley Berman: This situation is common in urban school districts. Magnet schools, offering either more rigorous academics or specialized programs, have been created for a number of reasons, including to prevent middle-class flight in response to desegregation efforts, to ensure that middle- and upper-class parents remain committed to public education in a district with low-performing schools, and/or to stem the tide of students transferring to charter or voucher-supported schools.  Magnet schools that are intended to promote integration are often located in less-advantaged neighborhoods.  To foster an environment that is attractive to parents, these schools typically establish academic criteria for admission, thereby ensuring a student body that is academically proficient.

In launching magnet schools, the primary objective is generally to balance magnets and neighborhood schools in such a way that the district provides options for parents and maintains strong support for public education.
However, over time magnet schools can have an unintended and negative impact on neighborhood schools and on the district as a whole.  Because they are more readily accessed by students and families who have had prior academic success, specialized talents or social capital, magnets tend to enroll fewer economically disadvantaged, minority and special education students, thereby exacerbating the achievement gap.  They can, in effect, achieve unofficial status as elite schools within a system, leaving the impression—and potentially the reality—that neighborhood schools are lower performing and less rigorous.  Therefore, magnet schools can accentuate the disparity in performance among schools and concentrate historically underserved students in neighborhood schools.

The overall impact of a magnet policy depends on the percentage of students in a district, or from particular neighborhoods, who attend these schools.  If there are only a few magnets with limited enrollment or if the magnets offer specialized programs that are not strictly for high-achieving students, they may not have a significant impact. 

However, if the magnets siphon from neighborhood schools the top five to ten percent of higher performing or economically advantaged students, they can undermine confidence in and support for neighborhood schools and contribute to serious inequities, as asserted by the parents in this case.  In districtwide choice programs, they can also create a cascading impact or domino effect by drawing from particular neighborhoods, which then draw from the next tier of popular schools, until some schools are left with the most marginalized or disadvantaged population of students.

Alternatively, inequities between magnets and neighborhood schools can result in parents withdrawing those children who are not selected for the magnet schools and sending them to private or charter schools instead.
Having been a superintendent who inherited this problem, I consider it to be one of the most politically volatile issues district leaders can confront. Dismantling the magnets is not politically viable, nor would it support equity and diversity because returning students to neighborhood schools can perpetuate the socioeconomic and racial segregation stemming from residential housing patterns.  At this time, there is little federal or community support for desegregation plans that would provide socioeconomic or racial balance across schools, leaving few alternatives for a district interested in equity to pursue, other than magnet schools.

Well-crafted magnet policies can be effective in retaining middle-class and even upper-middle-class investment in a district.  The key challenge is to ensure equitable representation of the district’s diversity within the magnet schools, as well as attractive and effective programs in all schools. Successfully meeting this challenge demands a shift from thinking about diversity as exclusively a benefit for the traditionally underserved to recognizing diversity as an asset for the academic and social development of all students. 

A superintendent can pursue several strategic initiatives that, taken together, will address to some degree the issue raised by these parents. None are quick fixes and all require board as well as administrative action.
The first strategy is to require the magnet schools to prepare student recruitment plans that ensure enrollment of a more diverse student body, as well as a sufficiently strong support system so that these students have equitable opportunities for success, and then to hold the schools accountable for meeting those expectations.  The district would need to monitor the diversity of the student body as well as the degree to which achievement gaps are closing, not only in grades, attendance and discipline, but also in access to such advanced programs as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

The second important strategy is to identify attractive programs that can be placed in neighborhood schools to build confidence in and support of these schools.  At the elementary and middle school levels, these options might involve special music, art, science or math programs.  At the high school level, these programs might be IB, AVID or professional career themes.  With some additional differentiation among the neighborhood schools, the district might open choice more broadly so that parents could have a choice among multiple neighborhood as well as magnet schools. 

The above approach necessitates a third strategy, which is additional financial support to strengthen and maintain these programs over time, particularly the ones in disadvantaged communities.  To accomplish this long-term support, the district needs to implement an equitable school -funding formula based on a school needs index.  This index should include such factors as the percentage of highly mobile, economically disadvantaged, historically underserved, and special education students, as well as other demographic factors that influence student performance.

Because many of these magnet programs are placed in inner-city schools in order to support integration and the reclamation of neighborhoods, a fourth strategy is to identify a neighborhood catchment area for each magnet that enables neighborhood students a choice between the magnet and another neighborhood school.  This approach provides balance between selective and neighborhood enrollment, as long as students aren’t tracked into separate programs.
Cumulatively, these strategies can help guide a district in establishing a balanced approach to magnets, but it is essential to continually monitor the degree to which the district is achieving equity, as well as retaining its market share.  It can be beneficial for the district to produce an “equity score card” as a way to examine and reflect on how district policies are impacting diverse groups of students.

Magnet schools can strengthen a system if designed through an equity lens that views diversity as an asset to the success of all students.  Magnet schools can provide programs for which there may not be a sufficient critical mass in a neighborhood, such as a Montessori or language immersion elementary magnet or a performing arts or career technical high school.  They can support the goals of integration and diversity by bringing together from various parts of a city students who would otherwise be more isolated in neighborhood schools.  School location, admissions policies, funding priorities and the parameters of choice are keys to addressing the equity issue. 

There will never be a perfect solution that meets all needs and satisfies all stakeholders.  The only viable response is one that brings together diverse constituencies within the community to consider the issue and develop effective magnet policy recommendations.  Principals play a particularly critical role in the development and implementation of magnet policies because of the inherent competitiveness among schools that choice policies create.  Their commitment to promoting the district’s overarching goal of equity and their participation in the development of a policy that equitably balances competing policy goals is key to its success. 

In this scenario, the superintendent needs to involve the board, staff, community members and parent representatives in developing a dynamic and productive magnet school policy that strikes a balance among offering desirable programs, ensuring equitable access and success in those programs, and promoting the strength, effectiveness and attractiveness of all schools in the system.

Roy Dexheimer: Magnet schools are essentially taxpayer-supported components of the local public schools. They exist to encourage special potential in students -- the performing arts, the sciences, creative writing, etc. As such, a district’s magnet schools have obligations. 

Certainly a credible and equitable entrance policy is important. Gifted teachers are essential.  Adequate resources help a lot. But I am a product of my era, so I'll argue a moral and ethical obligation to have the demographics of a magnet school match those of the entire district. 

Establishing attractive enclaves for middle- and upper-class students is a desirable by-product, not a first priority. Indeed, mixing the economic classes is a higher goal. Time for the superintendent and school board to step up and lead!

Sarah MacKenzie: One might argue there is no ethical issue here. Students have applied to magnet schools, met the qualifications and been accepted. Furthermore, the school system has greater political capital because parents who might have abandoned the town’s schools have remained committed. All the students are in the same public school system that offers a variety of schooling configurations to ensure students’ various learning needs are met.

So, what’s the harm? Even if equitable opportunities are available to all students and certain schools seem more appropriate for particular students, the ethic of critique means that an examination of a process or a structure in the realm of public education that seems to advantage some while disadvantaging others is in order.
It’s important for an education leader to use several lenses to examine situations, so it is very appropriate for the superintendent to consider the ethics of justice, care and critique. The ethic of critique is described by Robert Starratt, author of “Building an Ethical School” in Education Administration Quarterly in May 1991, this way: “The ethic of critique, based as it is on assumptions about the social nature of human beings and on the human purposes to be served by social organizations, calls the educational administrator to a social responsibility, not simply to the individuals in the school or school system, not simply to the education profession but to the society of whom, and for whom he or she is an agent. In other words, schools were established to serve a high moral purpose, to prepare the young to take their responsible place in and for the community.”

Applying these lenses yields some questions for this situation: Are students getting what they need in the separate schools? Is it fair to have students separated in this way? Are certain students more advantaged in this situation than others? What is fair to all students? It’s not easy to rock the boat and to question how things have been done and/or when things seem to be moving smoothly and parents especially influential ones are pleased with the system.

I would suggest the superintendent consult with leaders (administrators and teacher leaders) in the district to learn as much as he or she can about how the situation evolved and then explore with them the extent to which the situation, the structures and hidden assumptions may be privileging some students over others. These conversations will most likely extend in to the school community as parents and other citizens contemplate the issues of how to be just as well as benevolent. I don’t prescribe a particular action. The decision about what to do in any situation like this depends on what the leaders uncover about values and beliefs coupled with how they push and probe others to delve into values like justice and equity. Exposing the inequities, though, should lead to more equitable opportunities for all students.

Granted people have varying views of the purpose of schooling, of education. The superintendent will undoubtedly uncover tensions engendered by disparate views if he or she asks some hard questions like those suggested above. A system leader’s responsibility is to conduct pragmatic activities that keep a system functioning efficiently; however, he or she also has a responsibility to investigate practices and work to ensure equity of opportunity and provide for the needs of all students.

Mark Hyatt: As the late Rushworth Kidder of the Institute for Global Ethics would say, this poses a classic "right versus right" ethical dilemma. We must struggle to find the answer that is “more right” and to engage this new generation of highly involved parents.

 As the new superintendent then, my first priority is to assure parents that I understand their concerns. I will remind them that my job, too, depends on the success of their neighborhood schools. In this way, by establishing from the outset that we all share the same goal in ensuring the quality of our students’ education, I would hope to build trust among parents and other vested community members who, as a result, may be more willing to give my opinions a fair hearing.

Similarly, I would want them to feel that their input is equally valued. Toward that end, I would opt for a series of smaller group meetings at individual schools rather than the districtwide open meeting that so often devolves into a media circus of competitive grand-standing when controversial issues are on the agenda.

 As to the specific issues involved here, in Colorado we adopted a “catch up, keep up and move up” educational philosophy several years ago. We use longitudinal analysis to compare public schools with similar challenges and percentages of at-risk students. If, for instance, an inner-city school saw its student proficiency rate climb from 25 percent to 35 percent proficient over a year, that would be good. Each year, low-performing urban schools can receive extra funds to help them catch up.

Today’s evolving educational landscape is becoming increasingly diverse. But our mission remains the same to produce tomorrow’s leaders in science, medicine, technology, the arts, etc. As superintendent, my job is to ensure that our school system offers choices in a “fair, equitable, and transparent” manner. Magnet schools have their role, but that does not diminish the mission of the neighborhood schools. And just as federal funding guidelines encourage districts to “aggregate” Title I funds in certain schools to serve at-risk students, I believe it is fair to allow magnet schools to exist. I agree that every child needs to have equal opportunity to succeed. But at the same time, we cannot hold back the other students who have already caught up, kept up and moved up. As long as they are still allowed to excel, the district can justifiably put extra emphasis on those peers who require more attention. In the end, it's a win-win for everyone.

An Accidental Drinking Discovery (April 2014)


A high school coach returning to his small community after the year-end holiday break stops at a restaurant in a neighboring town, where he spots three of his senior basketball players enjoying a beer. These are upstanding students (one is the son of two teachers in the rural district), and it was purely coincidental that the coach stopped there. The students had signed a preseason pledge to not drink during the season – which up to that point was an undefeated season, in a basketball-crazed town. What action should be taken by school or district administrators?


Shelley Berman: Understandably, the families, school staff, student body and community will be disappointed to learn these three student-athletes violated their pledge. In spite of the fact their transgression was discovered purely by accident, these players need to face the same process and consequences that any other student athlete would confront in similar circumstances, most typically suspension for a number of games. It is the obligation of the coach to report what he saw, just as it is the obligation of administrators to ensure that due process and appropriate consequences are administered based on the school’s and district’s codes of discipline.

Even in a basketball-crazed town whose school boasts an undefeated season, it is important to deliver a consistent message both to athletes and others that underage drinking is unacceptable, as is the failure to honor one’s commitment.

In the long run, this situation will work out for the best and serve as a teachable moment if the athletes acknowledge and apologize for their violation and if the community supports the coach who reported it and the administration as a way to deter other students from committing similar violations.

Roy Dexheimer: Seniors have to set the pace. These lads agreed to a guideline. They were discovered by bad luck but discovered they were. And their coach understood his ethical obligation not to look the other way.

If the agreement between coach and players proscribed a penalty, the superintendent should back that policy. If there is no fixed penalty, then the superintendent needs to apply one. If the young men have had exemplary records otherwise, go with a suspension of two or three games. If they are frequent benders of the rules, step it up.

Sarah McKenzie: Rules are rules, and pledges are pledges. The point of committing yourself to a team and to the attendant responsibilities will be lost on these students if the coach does not share the information with administrators so he and they can mete out the appropriate consequences.

There is no way the responsibility for disciplining these students which, I imagine, will result in their being suspended from some number of games at the very least, should be evaded. Furthermore, if the coach were to neglect his responsibility and pretend he didn’t see them at the restaurant, he would be in even more serious ethical trouble. Tantalizing as it might be to slip out of the restaurant so the students wouldn’t see him, the coach must act. He is the enforcer of the rules and a role model for the students on the team and all the students in the school.

Even if the coach is not a teacher at the school, he still has to recognize he is an educator whose job is to ensure that students learn important lessons. And they won’t learn them if their teachers and coaches are swayed by a citizenry who seem to care only about success on a basketball court.

We can imagine that the students and their parents may argue that this incident was a one-off, that the students should be given a lighter penalty or even simply a warning, that they will know better next time. The coach and the school administrators need to stand firm for the good of the students and the community, which nurtures them. Students’ understanding of their obligations and the meaning of commitments cannot be sacrificed to a winning season no matter how much it might help the morale of the town and the reputation of the school in the town.

Mark Hyatt: "Do the crime, do the time," I say.

This scenario provides the perfect opportunity for these young men to learn to be better people, not just successful athletes. Yes, we all make mistakes, but when we willfully disregard pledges we have made -- even if these three seniors were of "legal" drinking age -- then we have to know there will be consequences. When young people give their word, they have to know it means something. So this is an invaluable teaching opportunity for all involved to grow and learn. As the saying goes, people only change for two reasons: Either they "see the light" or they "feel the heat."

Granted, suspending these three seniors for multiple games and limiting their playing time  likely will derail the basketball team's undefeated season. So the decision will not sit well with parents, athletic boosters or other fans in this small town. But school is supposed to be about learning, and lessons are not limited to the classroom. Fortunately, most school districts already have standard penalties in place for infractions such as this, so the process should be allowed to take over. This should defuse some of the vitriol that may be directed at the coach and allow him or her to share it with the district.

Personally, I believe in “graduated sanctions” for various infractions of rules. If these were underclassmen, then the penalties would likely be lessened. But given that all the violators here were seniors, their leadership of the team has been harmed, so they must be dealt with in a way that is more instructive to the younger players.
To accomplish this, I recommend imposing an array of sanctions, both on and off the court. Potential penalties may include: (1) Suspension from a number of games; (2) Writing letters or giving speeches to the team for “letting them down;” (3) Engaging with mentors as a condition for graduating, meeting weekly with younger teammates to discuss lessons learned; and (4) Community service hours or other creative sanctions, if no set standard is listed in the student code of conduct.

In the end, it’s all about the adults that these boys will become. This infraction shouldn't define who they are, but our response to it can color how they will forever view the world. If they see the rules applied fairly and consistently to them, then it will help them to grow into the type of citizens we want raising families and leading our communities in the future.

A Confidentiality Conflict (March 2014)


Eager to boost the school district's image, a superintendent hires a part-time communication consultant who is the education reporter for a small weekly newspaper that covers the schools. The newspaper's publisher warns the reporter about the ethical perception but sanctions the relationship. The district pays her $75 an hour for 150 hours of work over six months. She publicly discloses her consulting arrangement only after being called out by a rival news outlet. In her defense, the consultant says she signed a confidentiality agreement with the district at the beginning of the contract, in which she committed not to use information obtained in the performance of her duties for any other purpose. Was the district wrong to hire a reporter to concurrently work as a consultant?


Shelley Berman: Given the importance of communication, it is appropriate for a superintendent and board to seek support for improving it, and the perspective of local media is a valuable source of input.

Although it may have been more advisable to contract with a public relations firm, the district’s hiring of the reporter does not violate ethical standards. A more significant dilemma exists for the newspaper, which must ensure unbiased reporting in light of the confidentiality agreement the reporter signed with the district. The competing news media may question the credibility of the reporter and her newspaper and may even suggest the superintendent is attempting to put a positive spin on the coverage of difficult and potentially controversial issues.

Though hiring the reporter may not have been the wisest choice, the superintendent should be honest about the contract, acknowledging the district’s need for assistance in communicating important decisions and issues to the community. The superintendent may opt to share some examples of the recommendations provided by the reporter so that the public can weigh whether her consultation was worthwhile.

Although some people may criticize the district for investing resources in external communication, if the consultation results in improved communication, then staff, parents and the community will appreciate being better informed and the district will ultimately benefit from their engagement.

Roy Dexheimer: I have to agree with the editor: It's a breach of ethics and common sense to do this (not to mention making an enemy of the disgruntled news outlet), confidentiality agreement or not.

News reporters have a responsibility to find and reliably report the truth. Being a paid fox in the henhouse isn't the right way to accomplish that. And the paper risks missing legitimate news stories because of the reporter being co-opted into the school system or bound by that confidentiality agreement.

I recognize this is a small town, and you sometimes do what you have to do. But that doesn't make it right.

Sarah Mackenzie: This whole situation is ethically repugnant. No self-respecting news organization should allow a reporter to take a job with an institution whose activities he or she covers. And a school system that hires such a person is essentially involved in bribery. Harsh words, but that is what it looks like to an onlooker and, obviously, to rival news outlets. Furthermore, even though the amount is not large, taxpayers might have concerns about money allotted to “boost the school system’s image” as opposed to spending addressing student learning.

I realize we are discussing a journalist who has definite public relations and writing skills and who can supply those at bargain prices to a school system which, no doubt, is watching every budget expenditure. That amount of money to a struggling professional trying to cobble together a living is a big deal. My daughter was told by a potential boss at a newspaper, “You’re going to have an exciting and challenging career right out of college. But realize that in 10 years when you compare yourselves to those with whom you graduated, you will not be making close to the kinds of money they will be making.” We in education could say the same thing!

Nevertheless, altruistic purposes and the small amount are not an excuse for sloppiness. The system could hire someone who is retired or a freelancer who is not a local beat reporter. The journalist could change her beat -- preferably not covering education, but at least not covering this particular school system. As the mother of a freelance journalist and board member of a newly founded charter school, I’m sympathetic to both sides. But this situation does not pass the “smell” test, and both parties to this arrangement have much to lose if this set of circumstances continues.

The “rule of publicity” helps people ponder, “Would this be acceptable behavior if everyone knew about it?” Or “Would you do this if your own child were sitting on your shoulder watching you?” People in

Mark Hyatt: This uncomfortable and unnecessary situation is better avoided all together by hiring an experienced public relations coordinator without this type of conflict. (And due to the economy, the market is full of them.)

To guard against even the appearance of impropriety, the school district must have a clear conflict of interest policy and be committed to applying it consistently. Also, the district should know that a reporter is never truly “off the record,” so the idea of putting them on the district payroll clearly crosses an ethical line that appears to be buying favorable coverage from the newspaper. For this reason, I am surprised that, in this case, the newspaper has endorsed this situation. After all, the newspaper's reputation suffers even more than the school district's if and when the relationship is exposed.

As leaders, we always must think twice about putting people (including ourselves) into situations that might tempt good people to do the wrong thing. Setting ourselves up -- and the people under our authority whom depend on us -- for success every day in every way, is what good leaders do.

A Challenged Hiring (February 2014)


The son of an assistant superintendent applies for a job as an elementary school principal in the school district. Of the two leading candidates, he is clearly better qualified with relevant experience, and an unofficial decision is made to select him. But before school board action is finalized, word leaks out. The other candidate – who on paper meets all of the qualifications for the post – says he believes he was passed over because of nepotism. How should the superintendent respond?


Shelley Berman: A response to this case hinges in part on the size of the school district. In a small district, the assistant superintendent might supervise principals directly or be in a line relationship to the person who would supervise the son. It would be difficult for staff to have confidence that a fair and credible supervisory relationship exists, which in turn would make it challenging for both the principal and the assistant superintendent to be effective in their positions. 

By contrast, in a large urban or county district, an assistant superintendent might have supervisory duties at another level, in another section of the district or in a completely different department. This separation would lessen the perception of possible bias or influence and would facilitate supervision from a neutral perspective.

In the scenario above, if the school district is small and no official decision has been made, I would not accept the recommendation of the hiring committee. While the recommended candidate may have the potential to be a terrific principal, the personal circumstances could seriously compromise his ability to lead. It is not worth the risk for the candidate, the assistant superintendent or the district. However, I would offer to write a letter on behalf of the candidate if he chooses to apply for a principalship in another district. 

On the other hand, if the school district in question is large, before making a final decision I would review the process thoroughly to ensure that nepotism had not influenced the decision and that there would be sufficient organizational distance between the two parties.

Roy Dexheimer: I have to agree with the editor: It's a breach of ethics and common sense to do this (not to mention making an enemy of the disgruntled news outlet), confidentiality agreement or not.

News reporters have a responsibility to find and reliably report the truth. Being a paid fox in the henhouse isn't the right way to accomplish that. And the paper risks missing legitimate news stories because of the reporter being co-opted into the school system or bound by that confidentiality agreement.

I recognize this is a small town, and you sometimes do what you have to do. But that doesn't make it right.

Paula Mirk: Forms of favoritism, such as nepotism, can seem -- and sometimes -- are a violation of fairness, one of the core ethical values most human beings share worldwide. But reverse favoritism can be just as unfair. If the assistant superintendent’s son is clearly the better candidate, specific documentation should back that up in every step of the process.

As a matter of course, because of the optics but also because of the real bias of parents, the assistant superintendent should not be involved in the hiring process. The process should be “blind” -- without names -- to the degree possible, ensuring candidates are compared only on the merits. While both candidates may meet the qualifications, presumably the final choice is the best candidate.

The superintendent should be apprised of all this evidence and completely confident about the choice. She or he also should protect the privacy of all candidates in any public or private response (such as in reviewing the process with the unsuccessful candidate). Generally, that means describing the step-by-step hiring process to demonstrate it was fair and effective, providing assurance there was thoughtful and in-depth discussion at every stage and proclaiming support for the final decision.

Mark Hyatt: The superintendent needs to clearly state that hiring decisions are not his alone and are made based, first and foremost, on a candidate's skills, past performance, experiences, references of trusted sources and assessment of character. Moreover, future performance considerations are tied to assessment testing, behavioral interviews, predictors of future performance and the candidate's existing record. 

Further information gathered in the form of detailed and objective references are always useful, and care must be taken in this case to show that the candidate's father was not involved in either the deliberation or the decision-making process. 

The interview process, in this or any case, must include a panel of independent stakeholders with the authority to move a candidate forward or not, regardless of the superintendent's personal preference. In so doing, the panel's recommendation takes the final decision away from solely the superintendent. In the end, this ensures that hiring is done based on quality and character, and as a result, it should effectively insulate the superintendent from charges of nepotism or other forms of favoritism.

The Flexing of a Benefactor's Strong Arm (January 2014)


A prominent community member who contributes significantly to the local education foundation is dropping broad hints to the superintendent that she wants her daughter admitted next year to the school district’s selective high school, which has entrance criteria. Occasionally, parents have requested similar meetings, and the superintendent has obliged, but these did not involve apparent attempts to strong arm. Should you give additional consideration to the daughter’s application?


Shelley Berman: Admission to the district’s selective high school must be based on consistent application of the entrance criteria and a fair process for selecting entrants. Allowing individuals to use their influence to “purchase” seats at the school through donations to the district would undermine the integrity of the school and the confidence of the public. It would set in motion a cascade of requests based on political influence and financial means.

If the superintendent makes it a practice to meet with parents interested in having their child attend the school, those meetings should simply be a discussion of the entrance criteria, the school’s curricular program, and the academic expectations of students. The superintendent should make it clear to anyone with whom he meets that he has no influence on or participation in the selection process. In general, it would be best for the superintendent to remain at a distance from the admissions process and to refer all interested parents to the principal or guidance counselors at the school for these conversations.

Selective high schools often have a built-in bias toward students possessing the cultural capital that accompanies higher socioeconomic status, including the educational advantages of growing up with parents who have degrees from higher education and the means to provide enriching experiences. In order to ensure that these schools are equally accessible to students of all economic means, the criteria for entrance should be broader than test scores, which can reflect cultural biases. In addition, the district should provide enrichment experiences for younger talented and gifted students from economically disadvantaged homes to prepare them for the challenges of meeting the school’s entrance requirements. On an ongoing basis, the district needs to track the demographics of the selective high school’s student population to determine whether it reflects the racial and socioeconomic diversity of the district as a whole, and make adjustments as needed to its programs and policies to ensure such diversity.

Roy Dexheimer: The superintendent has established a precedent of acceding to parental requests for entrance to the selective high school – a questionable practice! However, if the girl in question does meet previous standards for intervention, she does not deserve to be denied entrance because her parent is a boor. Admit her, but create a paper trail to the parent that she has been admitted solely for her qualifications and not because of his intervention.

Paula Mirk: You should not give additional consideration to the daughter’s application if the only reasons for doing so are the parents’ prominence and their significant contributions. With any “apparent attempt to strong arm,” a red flag is in order and further steps should be examined very carefully, perhaps using the “Front Page Test.” If the superintendent agrees to discuss the daughter’s admission and this is reported on the newspaper’s front tomorrow, how will the superintendent defend the action? 

It’s hard to imagine an acceptable reason for the meeting as stated, so such a meeting should not take place. Their daughter’s application should be subjected to the same process as everybody else’s, and let the chips fall where they may. The superintendent might even consider appealing to the parents to understand that such a meeting could hurt their daughter’s chances, instead of improving them.

Mark Hyatt: During my tenure leading a highly selective charter school system in Colorado, we had an annual enrollment of about 3,000 students and a waiting list of more than 4,000. On more than one occasion, I recall parents actually calling us from the hospital delivery room to put their newborns on our list for admission five years down the road. Many would call prior to moving to the area to secure a coveted slot.

Competition was intense, so leadership put very strict rules and procedures in place for weighing admissions. But that didn’t keep some parents from offering me money, ski trips, sports tickets -- in exchange for admitting their child ahead of others. On the opposite end of the spectrum, others opted for intimidation, threatening lawsuits if junior was rejected.

Fortunately, because we had very detailed policies, processes and procedures (3 P’s), it was much easier for my office to disengage from all the lobbying. Of course, I was always happy to meet with parents and listen to their concerns about our procedures. But, as I told them, it was a representative committee of stakeholders who had developed the 3 P’s. My job was to enforce and execute them.

Only one time do I recall making an exception. Sadly, it was a special case where a parent had been killed in a car accident and, at the request of the surviving spouse, I granted admission to a sibling so that she and her grieving sister could attend school together. Short of the extremis of death, though, we stuck to the rules and were consistently supported by our parent-elected school board.

Every year on back-to-school night, I would tell parents, “You won’t have any problems with our rules, until we have to enforce them for your child.” So, whether we’re talking about imposing discipline or enforcing other policies, exceptions are not impossible. But they must be limited to the rarest, most extreme cases.

In the scenario presented, I will acknowledge that our “deep pocket” donor does deserve a hearing, but not any special consideration beyond the merits of her argument. In the end, fairness demands that the big-money donor simply has to get in line with all the other parents and wait her turn.

Backing Off a Public Vow (December 2013)


Two girls, one white and one black, have a ferocious fight in a high school hallway. The white girl is severely beaten. The school staff is outraged, as are the victim's parents. The principal suspends the black girl and turns over to the superintendent the question of further consequences, as required by policy. The principal also vows, before the superintendent has ruled, that if the aggressor is returned to school, he will resign. The superintendent, after gathering facts and holding a hearing, believes a suspension of six months is justified. What do you do, however, with the public declaration by an excellent principal that he will resign if the girl returns?


Shelley Berman: This case is troubling on several levels: the differential discipline administered to the two students, the appropriateness of the punishment, the principal’s public pronouncement and the racial overtones of the entire incident.

School fights often involve improper actions on the part of multiple students, with shared culpability. This case raises the question of whether, had it been the white student who severely beat the black student, the investigation would have resulted in a different level of punishment or different determination of culpability. In this case, the black student has been determined to be culpable and the white student innocent. Although that may indeed be the case, there also may be more complex circumstances that need to be explored.

The principal and superintendent should address the particulars of this incident, and the police may become involved if assault charges are pressed against either girl. However, the actions of the principal raise significant questions about the climate at the school and the context in which this fight occurred.

The very fact that a six-month suspension would be considered, given the strong likelihood that it could lead to the student dropping out, reflects an environment that is punitive and potentially prejudicial, rather than one that pursues alternatives to ensure all students’ success. The focus of discipline in this situation needs to be on calming the anger that has emerged and providing counseling, restitution and reconciliation for the students.

In terms of the principal’s statement, the superintendent needs to do more than inform the principal that his words were highly inappropriate and exacerbated the situation. If I were superintendent, I would tell the principal that if he feels that strongly, I’d be glad to accept his resignation now. On the other hand, if he admits to having erred and spoken in the heat of the moment, he needs to diffuse what could easily become a racially divisive situation, accept the student’s return and talk with the faculty and parents about how the school can become a better place that meets all students’ needs and prevents future incidents. He needs to ask himself, his faculty, the student body and the school community what steps can be immediately initiated to create a climate that fosters respect for diversity and positive aspirations for all students.

Finally, the racial issue cannot be ignored. Besides being a serious altercation between two students, this fight may signal an environment that creates or allows alienating or oppressive conditions for black students. In public schools nationwide, black students face harsher discipline than white students—even for the same transgressions — and receive a disproportionate share of suspensions and expulsions. What passes for discipline is in some cases a cloak for unrecognized or unacknowledged institutional and personal prejudices.

If the school climate left this student open to discrimination without recognition and support from administration or teachers, fighting may have been an extreme expression of her anger and frustration. Although this does not excuse her actions, it demonstrates the necessity for students of color to have competent, supportive, and trusted teachers or administrators with whom they can discuss racist incidents and freely express their fear, anger and frustration.

The superintendent and principal also need to examine the school’s discipline data for significant disparities; investigate the background of this incident in terms of both the school’s climate and the relationships between racial and ethnic groups; and assess the faculty’s and administration’s attitudes, perceptions and expectations of students of color. My hunch is that there is more to this situation than simply a matter of discipline. Unaddressed, these underlying factors could lead to other serious incidents in the school, as well as lowered performance by students of color.

Roy Dexheimer: The facts called for a lengthy suspension (and home tutoring). The next conversation is with the principal, to talk quietly about his understandable declaration to the staff. Point out your obligation to make decisions on facts, not tacit pressure from staff or principal.

Give the principal choices: Let him explain to the staff that he felt strongly about the incident, but in calmer moments also felt the consequences were appropriate or offer to go to the staff yourself, take their heat and anger, but make clear that the principal had followed through and you, in turn, had refused to accept his resignation. Bottom line:  Both girls deserved a chance to move on after a long cooling off period, and a fine principal deserved to continue his stewardship influencing many other young lives.

Paula Mirk: The school principal made a mistake, no doubt in an emotionally charged state and perhaps under pressure from his constituents. Let’s hope that his remark had nothing to do with the race of the aggressor but was a reaction to the brutality of the beating, which is indicated by the significant length of suspension once the facts were gathered.

Because the two girls involved in this incident are students of his school, the principal will need to find the forgiveness not only to welcome both back but to commit to addressing the issues that have led to this behavior in the first place. By vowing to resign if one of the girls returned, he signaled that for certain students, in certain circumstances, washing one’s hands of a child in need is justified.

Our broadest purpose as educators is to prepare the next generation to be responsible, respectful and compassionate contributors to society, and as adults in a school context we must model and uphold such values. The superintendent now should urge the school principal to make a public apology about his remark, explain why it was irresponsible to do so and describe the steps he plans to take to help both girls on their return to the school.

Who Pays To Be at the Table? (November 2013)


In the name of networking and building positive relationships with community partners, school district department heads routinely purchase tables at fundraising dinners for other community organizations. These tables are filled mostly by school board members and top-level administrators in the district. Is this expenditure of public funds appropriate?


Shelley Berman: This situation presents a common but uncomfortable challenge for district administrators and boards of education. Districts often are asked to purchase tables for a wide range of events, such as dinners in which an organization awards student scholarships, events honoring local legislators for their contributions to education and events raising funds to support programs for youth. The occasions often serve as public acknowledgement of the important relationship between the community organization and the school district. The events allow the organization’s members to see district leaders participating as a community partner, and they enable district leaders to demonstrate publicly their support for these causes.

In some communities, governmental agencies such as the mayor’s office, county government or public utilities also purchase tables at events, and the citizens view this practice as an appropriate way to demonstrate the partnership between the private non-profit sector and the public sector. At some events, the keynote address or other program component qualifies as professional development for district leaders or board members.

The way these tables are purchased also varies. Some districts purchase tables from district funds to show their support for, partnership with or co-sponsorship of community organizations that assist young people. Other districts may coordinate the purchase of tables on behalf of the board and district leaders, but those who attend actually pay for their seats with personal funds. Still other districts rely on funds raised by local education foundations to purchase tables at important events.
Regardless of the potential benefits that can be derived from supporting community partners by purchasing tables at their events, some districts believe this practice is -- or their community would construe it to be -- a misuse of public tax dollars and so avoid it completely. This perception is even more likely to be the case in difficult economic periods, such as those occasioned by a nationwide recession or the shuttering of a major local employer. In these districts -- indeed, perhaps in many districts -- it is advisable that board members, administrators and other district staff purchase the seats from their own personal funds rather than from district funds and rotate representation among district leaders to preclude anyone from incurring excessive costs.

However, even in those communities where the purchase of tables is accepted as a reasonable way to demonstrate the partnership between the private non-profit sector and the public sector, specific guidelines should be enacted and enforced to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. For example, decisions about purchasing tables should be made through an open process at the district level, not by individual departments. There must be sufficient oversight and a system of checks and balances to prevent the potential misuse of district funds.

Most important of all, if a district chooses to underwrite the cost of tables at organizational events, complete transparency about these transactions is essential. The costs should be limited and clearly identified in the district budget. Participation in any specific activity should also take into consideration whether the goal is simply fundraising or if there is a broader purpose such as recognizing community leaders, honoring students or celebrating important accomplishments. For those events that are selected, it may be appropriate to offer seats to a diverse group that includes teachers, support staff, students or parents who are involved in the partnership or the programs that the organization supports, thereby benefitting a diversity of staff and constituents rather than just district leaders.

Having a consistent and open process not only helps the district make better decisions, but also provides clarity for all those who seek the participation of the board and district leaders at their events. In the end, how a district responds to this ethical question is in large part a reflection of the circumstances peculiar to that community at that point in time. Each district’s leadership and board should determine whether the end (inter-organizational support) justifies the means (use of public dollars) and, above all, should ensure that any public review of the practice of purchasing tables would not distract from or become a detriment to the district’s primary mission of educating students.

Roy Dexheimer: Attending functions for supporting community partners is probably a good thing. Attending fundraisers with district funds is probably not a good thing. Such events should be encouraged for staff and board members, but at their personal expense. More specifically, it seems OK to attend the annual meeting of the local chamber of commerce and cover the cost of a meal. It does not seem appropriate to attend a $100-a-plate dinner to raise funds for a new chamber facility, using school district funds. This would be especially egregious if a school board member or administrator was a major supporter of the project.

Paula Mirk: Strictly speaking, it’s not ethical to do this if the money used to purchase a table is taxpayer money. I understand the importance of networking and of building positive relationships with community partners, but any time taxpayer money is involved, we have to be cautious of slippery slopes. There are many ways to network and build relationships, after all. If a department head truly felt a community organization could advance the learning of students in that department, it might be wiser to organize a way to raise funds for the table.

I also sense a question mark about “school board members and top level administrators” enjoying these events. If the department head wants to serve the students, is the logic for superintendent and school committee participation clear? The “headline test” could come in handy for this purpose. Could it read “students, parents, teachers and leadership all enjoy a community organization event” instead of “top brass once again get to sit at the table?” That would be a factor to consider on many levels, not least of which is this: How are our students best served in this case?

Karl Hertz: It probably would be hard to find a statute in most states that specifically prohibits this situation. Therefore, in analyzing the expenditure, leadership would be wise to consider public perceptions for an answer. While “building positive relationships” is indeed a good thing, it is hard to imagine the average citizen would endorse this practice. In my experience, the school board and administrators felt it was good to be at such events and happily paid for the tickets because it gave us considerable peace of mind.

A Failure to Disclose (October 2013)


A candidate for school district communications director with an impressive résumé touting 30 years of public relations experience does not mention a pair of noncriminal state ethics commission violations for a conflict of interest and lobbying incident almost a decade prior. A few days after his hiring, a local newspaper discovers via a Google search the individual had been assessed a $14,000 fine for the earlier acts. He submits his resignation to the superintendent the next day. Should the superintendent promote a statute of limitations on past mistakes?


Shelley Berman: The issue in this case is not whether an individual can overcome past mistakes, but whether it is appropriate and responsible to reveal these past mistakes to a prospective employer so that an appropriate decision can be made prior to the individual’s hiring.

In this case, the candidate took the right action in tendering his resignation immediately. The superintendent would be wise to accept that resignation because the candidate’s lack of candor about the earlier ethics violations compromises the integrity that a school communications director needs to demonstrate to be credible in the eyes of the press, community and general public. 

The position of communications director is a very sensitive, highly public position. If the candidate had revealed the violations earlier in the hiring process, the superintendent would have had an opportunity to consider whether they were sufficiently egregious to disqualify the individual simply based on the facts in that situation. Depending on the circumstances of the violations, had the candidate provided some evidence of his integrity in addressing them when they occurred and in his years of experience since, the superintendent could have chosen to make a case that the individual’s impressive record, openness, remorse and length of time since the violations provided sufficient justification for offering the candidate the director position. However, such a stance would present a significant risk to the credibility of the superintendent and the district.

The superintendent needs to have the utmost confidence in the trustworthiness, credibility and competence of the district’s communications director. In this case, the candidate demonstrated poor judgment and insufficient ethical standards in not being straightforward about the earlier violations and thus further compromised his career.

Roy Dexheimer: The ethical lapse here is not in making a mistake and then making restitution. The lapse is the candidate’s failure to be forthcoming in the interviews. It's one thing for the superintendent to be able to say, "We knew about this, and I've decided it's tolerable for a second chance." But it’s quite another to learn about it for the first time in the newspaper following the appointment.

Paula Mirk: More importantly than promoting a statute of limitations, the superintendent should research the situation thoroughly and take this opportunity to talk about forgiveness, if the case warrants it. 

Certainly the candidate should have been honest during the interview process, not just because such transgressions do tend to come out nowadays but as an opportunity to demonstrate his evolution in ethics during the decade since the incident. He could have discussed what he learned from these mistakes and how he has done his job differently as a result. Then there would have been time to plan a response to the press. Now the superintendent can only assess the facts of the earlier incident, the regrettable outcomes of this candidate’s earlier decision making and the growth demonstrated since then.

The superintendent should provide informal support to the candidate if that ethical growth has taken place, and when others ask, offer the reminder that all of us make mistakes and often we benefit in learning from those mistakes.

This modeling by the superintendent may be the vital signal and substance needed at the school level to empower forgiveness toward young people and their mistakes.  A punitive, inflexible approach to discipline engages rules but often doesn’t engage values such as compassion or respect or even honesty. 

The superintendent can’t reinstate the candidate – and a $14,000 fine may suggest serious enough violations not to warrant it. The emphasis can be: “We all make mistakes, and let’s take this opportunity to consider our response when others, especially our young people, are guilty of tripping up.”

Karl Hertz: It is always kind to give a person a second chance. However, in this case, one needs to dig deeper to find out what questions the candidate was asked before he was hired. It is common today to ask if a candidate has legal actions from the past or other matters that may be embarrassing to the school district or the candidate.

In this scenario, the ethics violations of the past have been labeled “noncriminal,” but they certainly are embarrassing both to the candidate and the district. Otherwise, the candidate would not have resigned the next day.
By leaving out this piece of past history, he is going to have to live with the loss of the position. He would be wise to candidly and immediately inform future employers of his problem in the ethics case.

The Slacker and the Self-Starter (September 2013)


Two K-12 directors responsible for math and literacy curricula in the school district often must work together to get a common project completed. One director is a self-starter and routinely works extra hours to do a job well. The other makes contributions but is a 40-hour-a-week person who is content to let her colleague shoulder most of the load. Should the superintendent continue giving extra assignments to the self-starter in order to get work done and meet timelines? Or will this lead the strong performer to burn out or transfer to another school district in the region?


Shelley Berman: It is the responsibility of the superintendent to set high expectations for all district leaders.  Effective leadership means taking charge and moving the district forward. District leaders must be self-starters and devote whatever time is needed to ensure the job is done right and that projects go smoothly and are completed on deadline. If an individual is not meeting those expectations, it is essential to have the difficult conversation about why that slippage is occurring and how it can be addressed.

Granted, it is important and reasonable that district leaders have a balanced life and that the demands on them are manageable. However, in my 20 years as a superintendent, I have yet to meet an effective district leader who simply works a 40-hour schedule and allows others to pick up the extra load. If the superintendent in this scenario is aware of the habitually disproportionate effort and ignores it, he or she is shirking the responsibility to develop professional behavior within the staff.
In this case, the superintendent needs to make expectations clear and assign projects that can be equitably balanced between the directors. If the 40-hour-a-week person still doesn’t step up and meet the expectations for shouldering a fair share of the workload and responsibility, it is time to have a respectful conversation about taking a different position that requires less initiative and a more routine schedule. The 40-hour director need not be made to feel guilty about doing less work than the colleague but must choose among priorities and make a decision that addresses the needs and expectations of the district.

Roy Dexheimer: Fascinating dilemma. The gaps in achievements between self-starters who go extra miles and by-the-job-description employees can be frustrating to everyone (including the employee doing the minimum of what's required and who is made to look bad by a zealous colleague raising the bar).

I think it is questionable for the superintendent to give extra assignments to the harder worker, however tempting that might be. Tasks should be assigned with clear timelines and expectations for outcomes to both employees. That being said, it appears my sainted grandmother was right in still another of her aphorisms: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person."

Paula Mirk: This is a fairness issue, important in many ways, not the least being the tone and signal regarding “group work” that could even trickle down to students and how they work together. By making good choices at the adult level, the superintendent could be influencing the culture of practice around projects and collaboration in classrooms. 

The superintendent should find a way to commend and motivate the self-starter while not alienating or in any way discriminating against the person who does an adequate, 40-hour-a-week job. 

The phrases “content to let her colleague shoulder most of the load” and “giving extra assignments” seem key here. Colleagues should share their loads if they’re collaborating, but the aggregate shouldn’t exceed what’s possible within the parameters of their job. If the superintendent is giving “extra assignments” that are actually required, then there’s certainly potential for burnout and transfer. 

If, on the other hand, the projects are designed with optional extra assignments – components the self-starter can choose to take on – that’s a different story. The choice to do extra work should result in credit or advancement that is communicated to both teachers in advance. Both the choice to go the extra mile and the choice not to should be honored.

It’s not uncommon to hear from students that they loathe group work. Since collaboration is a 21st-century skill all our students need to develop, it’s critical we design processes to make project-driven learning successful for all involved.  When the superintendent goes to the trouble of setting up the core requirements and the optional assignments for professionals, a model is being provided that can also help disenchanted students re-engage with group work in their classrooms.

Karl Hertz: Every sizable organization has “40 hours and out” people. The superintendent might well start by deciding whether the curriculum projects needed to be shared. This in itself could give relief to the more dedicated director.

There are many ways to reward the more productive person. They could include pay, recognition and advancement. The key is not to have hard workers feel they are being exploited.
The superintendent may wish to give the shirker a less than glowing evaluation. It is important that people clearly know there is dissatisfaction.

When friction exists, it is often helpful to sit down both individuals with the superintendent, put the leader’s impressions before them and let the dialogue develop. In this circumstance, doing nothing is not fair.

A Gay Principal's Aspirations (August 2013)


A candidate for a middle school principalship – someone who has taught in a neighboring school system – is passed over for the opening. He contends he has been rejected because he is openly gay. Some parents at the school with the vacancy have voiced concerns about having their children under the daily direction of gay employees. How should the superintendent deal with these complaints – from the parents as well as the gay teacher?


Shelley Berman: Sexual orientation cannot be a factor in the hiring process. Federal law (Title VII) prohibits employment decisions based on gender stereotyping, and about half of the states have laws expressly prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in employment decisions.

Apart from legal considerations, best practices in hiring exclude discussion of any personal issues unrelated to job responsibilities, including a candidate’s racial or familial background, sexual orientation or political beliefs.

Whether or not the applicant files a complaint with the district, the superintendent has an obligation to investigate and determine if the process was biased. If it is found there were comments or discussion about the candidate’s sexual orientation that influenced members of the hiring committee, the superintendent should void the decision of the committee and restart the entire process. If a complaint is filed with the EEOC or the state counterpart of the EEOC, that agency will initiate a formal investigation and the process will assuredly become a lengthier one. This fact underscores the need for the district to conduct its own investigation promptly and — if it uncovers evidence that the hiring decision was based on unlawful considerations — to immediately correct its process.

Although societal values have changed dramatically in the last decades around the issue of openly gay individuals, some parents are still concerned when gay teachers and administrators are in a position of authority relative to their children. The superintendent should see this situation as an opportunity to engage with these parents and listen carefully to their concerns. It is only through school leaders’ listening and responding appropriately that parents can become more at ease with the inclusion of all types of diversity.

After spending time listening, the superintendent can respond to parents’ concerns by emphasizing it is inappropriate for any staff member to advocate for a particular sexual orientation and that sexual orientation has no bearing on one’s professional abilities. Any staff member hired by the district is expected to hold high moral standards, and it is anticipated that someone who is openly gay will hold those same standards. If, in the judgment of the hiring committee, an individual is found to have professional assets that will serve the district better than those of other candidates, the district should take advantage of the opportunity to have that person join the district. Sexual orientation has no role in the decision.

Some parents may still find this stance personally difficult. The superintendent needs to grasp this situation as a teachable moment that may broaden the perspective and understanding of these parents and enable them to become more open and appreciative of the opportunity to be inclusive. At the same time, the superintendent must take a firm and positive position on professional, moral and legal grounds.

Paula Mirk: Documentation, as the data for decision making, is so important just for cases like these. The superintendent should have a clear picture of the process for choice of principal and, even if the details are confidential, the factors or criteria for selection shouldn’t be. The process should reaffirm the laws of the land by being “blind” to gender, race or sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, the superintendent also needs a process to help parents understand these inalienable rights. The process should underscore the district’s commitment to fairness and respect, and should perhaps include an element about parental responsibility in a public school environment.

All of us should be committed to schools that do not discriminate, particularly in a public school context. If parents are raising “gay employees” as an issue, they’re undermining the district’s and their own children’s ability to operate according to a basic philosophy of our nation, which public schools represent.

Roy Dexheimer: Assuming that the candidate wasn't passed over for this reason, I think both the candidate and the parents ought to be reassured that a selection was based upon merit and experiences, that the school district fully recognizes its obligations under the appropriate statutes and that no evidence has emerged to support the allegation of sexual orientation as a factor in the decision.

The parents, in particular, need to be firmly assured that the district did not in this instance, nor will it in future instances, discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

Karl Hertz: There are clearly two key parts to this administrative challenge: the assertion by the candidate that being gay was a consideration in not getting the position and the parents’ expression of concern with the children being under the direction of a gay person.

Ethically and legally the school district must make it clear what its policies regarding the topic are. Hopefully, they have past practices that they may cite to demonstrate they have taken the appropriate path over a period of time. This in itself may help the candidate understand that his sexual orientation is not the reason for the district’s decision.

The parents, too, may need to see the policies and decisions of the past as a basis for the current actions. It is likely that explanation of nondiscrimination laws will have considerable impact on the parents.

My analysis is based on the assumption the district did act appropriately, legally, ethically, within policies and without prejudice.

Sales in the Classroom (June 2013)


A couple with two children in the school district donate time and money to computerize a successful remedial math program started by one of their children’s middle school teachers. Several educators, including a private school administrator, have come to observe the program in action and are interested in using it in their classrooms. The teacher would be pleased to sell the program to them and other math teachers. May the public school classroom serve as a showroom for interested visitors and should the teacher be allowed to profit off her idea?


Shelley Berman: The teacher deserves credit and acknowledgement for creating a successful remedial math program, as do the donors for supporting its development. The ethics question at the heart of this case is the issue of conflict of interest. Marketing one’s own materials in the course of one’s employment as a teacher has the potential for undermining public trust in the independence of teacher/administrator judgment in the selection of programs and materials.

Given that the teacher developed and tested the math program as an outgrowth of her employment, the product is not legitimately a private product that she can market or sell. If the program was developed in the scope of her teaching duties or during school time, even though it was funded by donations, she does not “own” the program unless there is a district policy specifically allowing it. This precludes using her classroom as a showroom to advertise a program from which she -- or relatives or friends -- may profit because she would be using her position and district facilities for personal gain.

In most states, statutes and guidelines for public employees make it unlawful and/or unethical for this teacher to use her position to obtain financial benefit for herself or for a private business to which she has a connection. A teacher may operate a private business while employed by a district, but should not use public time or facilities to promote or profit from that business.

Roy Dexheimer: This involves the mysterious world of intellectual property. The first dilemma is that of parents who support the classroom with their kid, which sets in motion the prospect of teachers competing for well-to-do kids in their classrooms.

As for the profits from the successful program, I am nervous about that especially since it was funded initially by those parents. Perhaps one option is for the school or the math program to share the profits. (I think this might often be the protocol of research universities.) But a case can be made that teachers who develop unique programs for their classes are free to market them if they can find a buyer. Most textbooks are initiated that way.

To help find a resolution, I'd engage the school district attorney.

Paula Mirk: Mixing classrooms and commercialism is a slippery slope because it risks an impact on the primary purpose of classrooms and schools. If the computerization of this program adds value to the product, it’s even more slippery because the intellectual property rights must be worked out with the parents supporting the venture as well.

To keep the situation squarely focused on learning and serving students, any aspect of sales and production should happen off-site and through off-hours channels such as publishing companies. Meanwhile, making the classroom a place where learning is shared beyond the walls can be stimulating and gratifying to students and their teacher.

An orderly, nondisruptive process to acquaint educators with an effective approach, practice or teaching tool could be justified if observation were required. But the focus should be on shared learning and should not involve commercializing or using student experiences toward sales.

Karl Hertz: Individually, the parts of this scenario do not present an ethical problem. Parents helping financially is laudable. The teacher having intellectual property is creative. Showing people what we are doing in public schools is commonplace. Profit is a good outcome. Each of these variables standing by itself is fine.

When the ingredients are interwoven, this mingling brings on the potential unethical pitfalls. Should the parents share in the profits of the teacher’s intellectual property? Should the public school classroom become a showcase for promoting a profit-making scheme? Should the school system share in the profits? Are school policies being violated? Who would realize any profits from this? One can easily see work for lawyers in this scenario.

This is a complicated ethical question when we join the four major variables. The parties to this case might be wise to put aside the profit feature of this dilemma.

A Bullish Board Demand (May 2013)


A board member has a 12-year-old nephew in another state who commits suicide in response to persistent bullying. The board member insists the district should require every student in grades K-8 to participate in an anti-bullying curriculum for 30 minutes a week. He contends student safety is the one priority that trumps academic achievement. At a public meeting, he says the superintendent would be “ethically remiss” for not tackling this problem — even if it means cutting out time from academics. How should the superintendent respond?


Shelley Berman: The board member’s emotional response to his nephew’s suicide is understandable, as is his desire to take whatever measures are necessary to prevent bullying. Suicide produces significant trauma in families, and its causes are complex. As in this case, bullying can be a contributing factor, often in conjunction with other circumstances.

Schools can and should take an active role in helping to prevent bullying. It is important for all students to understand the dynamics of bullying and how to best intervene and seek adult assistance. However, an anti-bullying curriculum offered thirty minutes each week is likely to have limited impact because it does not deeply penetrate the students’ environments — the environments where bullying takes place. The most powerful preventive program for bullying is a strong, school-wide, social-emotional learning program that teaches students positive social skills, creates a caring community in the classroom and school, and supports the development of social responsibility among students.

To create such a program, administrators and teachers need to be as thoughtful in structuring the social environment as they are in implementing the academic program. Through such strategies as class meetings, community-building activities, peer mentoring, service learning, parent involvement, and discipline that emphasizes social development over rewards and punishment, schools can foster students’ social development, along with conflict resolution and collaboration skills. The social curriculum can create the scaffolding for students to feel safe while learning and to carry those skills into environments beyond the school. Classrooms where respect, tolerance and social support are the norm create a foundation of social-emotional safety that both prevents bullying and supports academic progress. Integrated into this larger context, curricular discussions of bullying can present helpful case studies of how to identify and address demeaning verbal, physical and cyber acts of aggression.

In response to this grieving board member, and to help him understand how a comprehensive approach can be more effective than a narrow curriculum, I would share the research collected by such organizations as the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the Developmental Studies Center. I would also ask him to attend conferences and seminars on the subject so that he could help provide the necessary leadership to encourage the board to take a more comprehensive approach. His passion and understanding could help the district create a more positive social and academic climate, while addressing his desire to prevent bullying that may contribute to youth suicide.

With this approach, curricular time constraints do not need to pit anti-bullying against instruction in core subject areas. Social-emotional learning enables an anti-bullying climate to permeate the students’ entire academic and extra-curricular day — an approach more likely to have a significant impact on the lifelong interactions of impressionable youth.

Roy Dexheimer: The superintendent must respond diplomatically, and not in public. Does the school district already have a policy in place? Can the bereaved uncle be reminded by the board president that policies come from the full board, not an individual member (and resist the temptation to point out the tragedy occurred in another district, and perhaps they are the ones in need of a policy)? 
The superintendent also should gently point out that bullying is only one cause of youth suicide, and the district ought to look at the broader picture, not just bullying. In any case, if the district does not have these policies, it's time to form an inclusive task force to debate and formulate them, in a timely way.

And it would be a nice gesture if the superintendent sent a note of condolence to the neighboring district.

Paula Mirk: The school board member is right:  it would be “ethically remiss” to provide only academics in any of our schools, given that the broadest purpose of our public education system is to contribute to a better society through our students as future leaders and participants.

But the superintendent knows this is not an either/or issue. It’s possible, and preferable, to integrate an ethical lens into all activity of a school by building a culture based on integrity. Schools that use questions about “what’s right” to undergird programming, discipline approaches and communication and as a vital dimension to curriculum create meaningful learning environments with a better chance of meeting the needs of all students on a variety of levels — not just academic.

Also, there is no reason to limit this focus to K-8. Adolescence is a formative, impactful opportunity for ethical development. Infusing the life of high schools with substantive, relevant questions about “who we are” stimulates learning while contributing to emotional and societal well-being.

Karl Hertz: “Ethically remiss” is a significant potential culpability with which to threaten a caring educator. Who would want to feel responsible in the unhappy eventuality that a bullying tragedy happened? In fact, the school board member may be subconsciously passing his own potential moral role to the superintendent should something untoward happen to a child.

If we think about this situation, the same sort of potential blame could be threatened if a superintendent did not put an armed guard at each door of every schoolhouse. Ethically, the administrator must weigh all the obligations of teaching the children and keeping them safe.

Society calls upon educators for ever more responsibilities. We are called upon to keep our youngsters from taking drugs, to teach them not to smoke, to impart economic education, to encourage and demonstrate the acquisition of information through technology, to impart a non-offensive human growth curriculum, to honor people of all races, religions, ethnic groups and nationalities and to teach math, science, reading, language and history in more depth than ever. Oh, and we are not to neglect the arts, music and physical education.

The ethical thing to do is to blend the topic of bullying into the curriculum with all the energy that is extended to the other important topics.

The Slacking Staffer (April 2013)


A long-term support staff employee in the school district has two years remaining before he’s eligible for full retirement. He has been a valued employee. In recent months, he frequently has been late to work and no longer performs work to standards. Others in the department are tired of carrying this person's load and want him fired or transferred to another department. How should you proceed?


Shelley Berman:
The first step is for the department head to meet with the employee and have an honest conversation about the changes that people perceive. The tardiness and other behaviors that are affecting his work could have many causes.

It is important to understand the employee’s personal situation and to determine whether specific factors might be addressed. For example, there may be a health- or family-related explanation that could be acknowledged and temporarily accommodated. Alternatively, the district may have a suitable vacancy in another position that would re-kindle the employee’s career interest and enable him to work until his full retirement date. On the other hand, the individual may actually be ready to retire. A conversation with his department head could help clarify his interest in an earlier retirement.

As a valued, long-term employee, he should be treated with respect, dignity and honesty so that he can understand the impact his work-related actions are having on others. Correspondingly, and in fairness to the district and his co-workers, he is responsible for cooperating with his department head to devise a plan that ensures he either meets the expectations of his assigned position or sets an imminent date to retire.

Roy Dexheimer: Past history counts in seeking a gently fair solution. Clearly, it isn't right for anyone to have someone struggle in his or her tasks. If there is another assignment within the capacity of this staff member that would be useful to the school district, find it. Perhaps there are medical reasons that might justify an early retirement. Find a way to give a two-year sabbatical without pay until retirement is reached. Other staff will respect these efforts on behalf of a longtime colleague.

It isn't ethical to leave someone in a position he or she cannot perform, which burdens other staff and deprives students of the teaching effort they deserve. But it's also unethical, in my judgment, to ignore an entire career of distinguished service. Find a solution that is right for both the district this employee.

Paula Mirk: This right vs. right dilemma pits the needs of the individual against the needs of the group in an all-too-common scenario. While the teacher must be recognized for his years of service, he also must maintain performance and expectations like everyone else.

Immediate communication with the teacher is in order. Why is he burning out and what can take place to help him? The teacher must be made aware of the impact of his behavior on others (while not spelling out their wish to fire or transfer him), and specific, reasonable goals must be established within a satisfactory timetable.

Karl Hertz: The situation calls for candor. The staff member must be confronted with the problem of not meeting expectations. Given the individual is not ill or facing some personal challenge unknown to his fellow workers, the answer may be found in his reaction to being confronted with his shortcoming.

If the individual promises to do better, he should be given the opportunity. Or the employee might bring forth conflicts in the work environment that makes him unmotivated to attend to duties. I had an employee with such a problem, and we found a position for him as a delivery person who worked alone and returned to excellent work habits.

It is not ethical to do less than a person’s best, but long effective service deserves the chance to improve. However, the institution and the effective education of children come first, and a person must realize the reality that he may be yielding his position if a return to good performance is not realized.

Cookies at a Cost? (March 2013)


Central-office administrators and principals in a school district routinely use their funds, which come from tax dollars, to provide beverages, snack foods and cookies at after-school meetings and at work sessions during the workday. A director of homeless shelters in the community privately questions the superintendent about whether this practice is appropriate and should be condoned.


Shelley Berman: I find the question raised by the director to be both ethically and logically problematic in that it redirects attention away from the real issue and presents a false choice between snacks for public school educators and meals for the homeless. The question frames the problem as one of appropriate expenditure of limited public resources when the real ethical dilemma is the failure of our society to adequately fund two societal obligations — high-quality education and the eradication of homelessness.

The fact that the wealthiest society in the world neglects to provide a safety net of social supports and economic policies to address poverty and eliminate homelessness is, in itself, a serious ethical issue. Regrettably, the rise of selfishness as a justifiable ethical position and its expression in “no tax” policies have served to escalate rather than address homelessness, as well as to wrongly pit valuable social programs against one another.

In addition, the question raised by the director suggests that public servants who are doing their best to educate the vast majority of the country’s poor children should somehow bear more responsibility than other groups for addressing homelessness. Would the shelter director equally indicate to the Chamber of Commerce, other business associations or private schools — all of which provide refreshments at meetings as standard practice — that such snacks are ethically problematic and that those funds should be donated to the homeless shelter instead? In addition to this potential double standard, the director’s question implies a false choice since any decision to not expend resources on snacks would have no direct impact on funding for homelessness.

The question of whether the provision of refreshments at meetings is a justifiable expenditure of public funds can be a sincere one. School districts offer refreshments — if they can afford even a minimal level of such hospitality — because the meeting or workshop asks staff to go beyond their normal classroom duties and to participate in after-school activities. Teachers and administrators work an exhausting daily schedule. If a modest beverage or snack enables people to participate more fully and enhances their productivity, then the small investment of resources is well worth it and is entirely ethical.

However, to focus on schools’ provision of simple snacks, rather than on the root policies that allow homelessness to continue, misdirects our attention away from the real issue and supports an attitude of disrespect for public educators. Maybe the shelter director should raise the larger ethical issues surrounding homelessness — and raise them with an audience of community leaders that extends beyond the school superintendent who is dedicated to serving much of the same clientele. Rather than quibbling over the disposition of limited public funds, the superintendent and shelter director could instead join forces to advocate for a full array of social services including what is needed in schools, particularly for social supports for homeless children, and for jobs, food and shelter for the homeless of all ages.

Roy Dexheimer: Wrong dilemma. The school is not responsible for poverty in Haiti or hunger in the Congo. The more relevant dilemma, I have the temerity to suggest, is to justify the cost of these goodies (which can be surprisingly high over a year) if the school district has cut art supplies for students or musical instruments or library books. Then, despite the goodwill and friendly tone refreshments bring to a meeting or a workshop, it isn't right.

It’s a tough culture to change. I know I tried many times!

Paula Mirk: Within reason, taking care of employees should be a standard practice related to the core ethical values of fairness, compassion, responsibility and respect. But funding for this should be reasonable and budgeted in the public record.

If such a practice got the attention of the director of the homeless shelter, it may mean the spending outlay was excessive enough to attract attention and scrutiny. There may be an opportunity here to engage faculty in connecting to the needs of the homeless shelter, to invite the director to visit school and talk about needs and challenges there and to build faculty awareness about what others don’t have that they may take for granted. This could lead to positive learning for faculty and eventually students.

Karl Hertz: This scenario brings to mind what is described as “unintended consequences.” When school people use tax dollars for refreshments at meetings after the students’ school day, it is likely they hope to build morale. There is no devious intention.

However, the tax money that is sent to the schools may not be seen by the average taxpayer as being used for refreshments for the staff. Now, here come the unintended consequences. School people doing their best to have a creative motivated atmosphere may find themselves defending a no-win situation.

In some districts, money realized from vending machine profits are used for motivational purposes, which also may be questioned, but hopefully such an approach protects the schools from ethical questions.

Punishment for a Pilferer? (February 2013)


The bookkeeper at the school district’s high school is found to be pilfering small amounts of money, now totaling about $500, from the student activity fund. The fund consists of money collected by various student organizations and contributions from parents. It does not include public tax dollars. The bookkeeper is a single parent with a good work record over seven years and no criminal history. In the past year, her preschool-age daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer and needs expensive treatment and medical travel not covered by her health insurance policy. Should the school district press charges?


Shelley Berman: Although the bookkeeper has a good work history, her recent acts of theft betrayed the trust that parents, staff and the district placed in her. Granted, she faces challenging family circumstances and may have made a poor decision out of a sense of desperation. However, an employee’s personal situation does not justify the appropriation of even small amounts of funds that were intended to benefit students.

Indeed, had she asked colleagues and others for support during this difficult time in her life, it is likely many would have offered assistance. The fact money was stolen on multiple occasions points to an unacceptable pattern of behavior. While one cannot help but feel compassion for the daughter’s medical condition, at this point a simple expression of remorse by the bookkeeper would be an insufficient response. The public trust has been violated, and it is neither just nor appropriate that the bookkeeper remain in her position. The district has an obligation to press charges that will likely result in a misdemeanor offense and, potentially, restitution of the funds.

Paula Mirk: Since public dollars were not pilfered, the district has some discretion about what to do here and pressing charges is one of many ways to respond, but perhaps not the most instructive. 

Just as with student discipline, the hope in this case would be that learning takes place and the stealing is never repeated. Seven years of good work should count for something, and we all can feel compassion toward someone with the difficult financial and personal situation this bookkeeper faces. 

It would be irresponsible to do nothing, and this is an opportunity for modeling core ethical values for our students. The bookkeeper should be warned, should be strictly supervised for a specified period of time but should also be required to meet with those student groups affected, to discuss with them the temptations presented and the error of her ways, and to express her regret directly.

Roy Dexheimer: This one is tricky. On the one hand, you’re looking at the established record of a valued employee over the years and the poignant story of family illness. On the other hand, you face the danger of precedent. Following the lead of our beloved Supreme Court, I'm likely to take my chances with challenging precedents. 

My recommendation would be to meet with the employee, set up a program of minimal repayments (e.g., $ 10 a month), put a record of the incident in her personnel file, pledge to remove the record from her file when the debt is repaid and there are no further problems, and put better accounting procedures in place for the non-taxpayer funds in the district.

Keeping a deserving and maybe desperate life intact seems more ethical to me than pressing charges and adding to her misery.

Karl Hertz: When weighing the ethical question in this case and discerning the greater good, one is confronted with a relatively minor offense being compared with the consequences of the woman losing the position. If we assume the offense is not public knowledge, then the secondary effects of this decision about pressing criminal charges become relatively insignificant and a simple relocation to a position where the person does not handle money could occur quietly.

If on the other hand there is public knowledge of the offense, then concern over secondary effects becomes a factor. For instance, if children know about what has happened and are given the notion that stealing will be forgiven the first time, another variable comes into play.  In such a scenario, there would have to be ramifications of the pilfering, even if they were not formal charges.

Overvaluing Volunteers (January 2013)


Community members have responded to their town’s worsening budget situation by volunteering at the libraries in each of the school district’s six schools. They commit so many hours that the district has laid off a couple of long-term full-time employees. Having fewer employees means a slight reduction in property taxes, but it harms those left jobless. Should the school district’s leadership reconsider the extent to which it relies on volunteers?



Shelley Berman: Communities want quality schools. In their compassion for children, community members often step forward to fill gaps emerging from schools’ financial difficulties. Bringing volunteers into the school in support roles builds on individuals’ generosity in a way that clearly benefits students and staff. It also educates citizens about the challenges teachers, schools and the district face in hard economic times.

Faced with declining revenues, many schools reluctantly reduce or eliminate media specialists and other special area staff. Class sizes increase and support services to children decline. Using volunteers as a stopgap measure is an acceptable response until conditions improve. However, volunteers should not be used to intentionally replace employees in order to reduce taxes. If labor reductions are necessary, they should be made thoughtfully, systemically and ethically, not opportunistically.

Taking advantage of volunteers’ generosity in order to replace employees compromises the community’s well-being and quality of life and its sense of fairness to individuals who serve the common good. It replaces professionals qualified to offer exemplary services with well-meaning but untrained individuals who cannot provide students with a comparable level of service and reliability.

Taxes sustain our common commitments and the common good. The district’s role is to maximize opportunities to improve the success of children and to present the community with a realistic request for funding that best meets students’ needs. When the community’s economics seriously compromise its ability to raise sufficient revenues, schools have to adjust, but these decisions should be based upon students’ best interests. The district should not replace employees with volunteers simply as an expedient way to reduce taxes.

Nevertheless, this district should seize the opportunity to welcome and encourage volunteers. Volunteers can supplement, rather than supplant, the support provided to students through alternative uses of their time and energy that do not entail taking employees’ jobs. The district has an opportunity to provide added support to children, while educating the community about the importance of adequately funding schools so that students have the learning experiences necessary for success.

Paula Mirk: On the face of it, this might seem like a “individual versus community” dilemma – meeting the needs of a couple of long-term, full-time employees conflicts with the fiscal benefits to the community the volunteers represent. But the school district should first and always judge which situation is in the best interests of the students, regardless of individual circumstances or of financial gains.

Long-term, full-time employees can represent value-added for the district or not, depending on how much expertise they’ve developed in their role or through professional development. It’s hard to believe this would be an “all things being equal” dilemma because volunteers may or may not have skill sets equal to or better than long-term, permanent employees. Rather than using tax dollars or joblessness as the measure, the district must carefully consider which people are doing the best job for the students – probably case-by-case.

Roy Dexheimer: Volunteers are wonderful. They often perform tasks others don't have time to do, and they can be great ambassadors for school support in the community (or the opposite, now and again).

However, they are not necessarily dependable or even knowledgeable about protocols in some instances. There is skill required in managing a library, and while extra hands are welcomed, sometimes you need more, not less, professional time to oversee volunteers’ efforts. Volunteers are not replacements.

This isn't so much a matter of ethical behavior as much as it just isn't smart management. Would we lay off police officers or firefighters and replace them with eager but untrained volunteers? Not likely.

Karl Hertz: The situation posed is whether property taxes or staff members being left jobless should take precedence. To answer this dilemma, one should first answer the pressing question of how this may or may not be affecting the children. It may be in the children that we find the “greater good” that is so important in ethical cases.

For instance, if the volunteers are willing folks but not providing for the needs of the students, such as not having technology skills, the school district’s leadership may have the ingredient that tips the scales in favor of rehiring the employees. On the other hand, if the large number of volunteers is doing as well or better than the staff had done, the scales may tip in favor of moving forward with the volunteers.

By going to the heart of the matter, namely assessing what is best for kids, a choice between two potentially beneficial situations may be answered.

A Pass to the Basepaths (December 2012)


During player tryouts for the freshman baseball team at the district’s high school, the coach is asked to give special consideration to a boy whose father recently died of cancer. The boy is not very good at baseball, unlikely to be among the 15 who earn roster spots. The community is pressuring the coach to “do the right thing” for the boy and a family coping with tragedy. They say some things transcend baseball skill. But what about the better player whose spot he would be taking? What is the right action? The coach comes to you for advice.


Shelley Berman: The community’s concern and desire to support the student is an important expression of compassion. It should be acted upon in a meaningful way. However, given the cut policy for making the team, placing him on the roster of 15 would not be beneficial or equitable for that student or for other students. It could even lead to some resentment from non-selected players and their families and friends.

An unearned selection is not the kind of expression of care and support that would help him recover from this loss. If the student is interested, the coach might consider involving him in another capacity, such as equipment manager, scheduling assistant or data recorder during practices.

There is a larger ethical issue related to roster-cut policies. Athletics in high school and below should be about learning, development and teamwork, particularly at levels lower than varsity. I’m a strong believer in a no-cut policy that provides opportunity for all students, even those with physical disabilities, to participate. Schools can support expanded rosters or multiple teams at various levels and schedule appropriately competitive games that provide all students with the opportunity to develop and enjoy being part of an athletic team.

If the school had a no-cut policy in place, the student’s participation would have been a question of choice, not exception.

Joan McRobbie: This is a very tough dilemma for a coach. Fairness to other players seems to dictate sticking strictly to merit, choosing only those players who earn selection during tryouts. Yet cutting this boy seems heartless under the circumstances. And despite pressures from community members sympathetic to this boy, there will be pushback from others if they feel better qualified players were denied.

Rather than box himself into just these two choices, the coach may want to consider alternative courses of action. One is to expand the number of players on the roster. The size of the roster was likely based on multiple factors, including resources. But the number is also fairly arbitrary. Expanding to 16 may look too obviously like an accommodation for this boy, but is that a bad thing?

Even if the roster stays at 15, the coach will surely consider this is a freshman team. Players this young are still growing and developing and can improve in all sorts of ways over the coming months and years. This boy may practice intensively, improve markedly and have a very good season.

Moreover, it is the case that school sports are about more than winning — or should be. A good coach takes many factors other than baseball talent into account when deciding who will make the team. Among those are human concerns, such as how much the chance to play can mean for a boy trying to cope with the loss of his dad.

Coaches are important teachers of caring and citizenship. This is a chance to demonstrate for the players and community that being a team means more than going for trophies, that competitiveness without compassion is hollow.

Might some players or parents be unhappy? Of course; that’s a coach’s lot. But the community will win no matter what happens on the scoreboard.

Paula Mirk: The more I’ve worked with these kinds of dilemmas, the more I’ve learned that we adults actually have a tendency to underestimate or misplace the needs of our students.

By freshman year of high school, this boy is likely to know his own abilities and limitations as well as anyone else.  He may need all sorts of help to meet his needs in such a tragedy, but putting him on the baseball team is risky. It sets him up as  in some ways unable to cope and in need of special favors, and he will know he didn’t earn the spot. Thinking creatively about other ways for the boy to feel the warmth and strength and support of his community may be a more respectful way to go.

Being part of some kind of group or team would surely be a healthy next step for him, so perhaps a conversation during or after tryouts is in order.  The coach could simply ask:  “if you don’t make the baseball team, what other kinds of contributions would you like to make at your school?  What other ways would you like to be involved?”  I have been surprised frequently at the candid, practical way students assess themselves, read the terrain and understand their own best fit.

Roy Dexheimer: Unless there is a league rule limiting the number of players to 15, make this lad No. 16. If a rule exists and he really is not better than a single player on the roster, make the student a manager and let him play during intra-squad scrimmages. But get him involved. Some moments call for common sense, not rigid ethical hair splitting. This is especially true in small, rural communities.

The Mandatory Field Trip (November 2012)


Early in the semester, the school’s Advanced Placement’s English teacher tells her students they must attend an opera in the spring being performed about 50 miles away. Each student is expected to purchase a $65 ticket, though the school is providing transportation. The teacher asks each student to sign a "contract." Five girls on the lacrosse team discover a schedule conflict. They are told they will need to find their own transportation to the opera. Failure to attend will mean loss of the full year's credit. Parents are livid. How might you resolve this?


Shelley Berman:
Attending an opera is a wonderful cultural experience that provides enrichment for students. However, it is unreasonable for a teacher to require all students to spend $65 and attend an opera 50 miles away, even if transportation is provided. It is also unjustified for the teacher to make full credit in the course contingent on attendance at the opera.

Any course encompasses an accumulation of knowledge and skills and is not dependent on one event. In addition, a student’s high school experience is multi-faceted; scheduling conflicts such as this one will inevitably emerge and need to be resolved with respect for the student’s commitments and evolving skill in decision making.

Faced with this situation, I would insist that the teacher ensure adequate scholarship resources for economically disadvantaged students and offer an alternative assignment for those unable to attend, regardless of reason, with no academic penalty attached for choosing the alternative.

Paula Mirk: I would side with the parents on this one.  As superintendent, I would immediately reverse the teacher’s decision and make the trip optional.  Then I would have a direct conversation with the teacher and the school principal.  A policy may need to be put in place to reassure the parents and certainly stronger communication systems.

The policy might require anyone to get approval from administration before expecting students to come up with cash for any purpose.  It might also require that any extra costs be delineated before a student chooses to take a course.  Some parents in this AP class already may have had to scramble to find the cash to pay for the typical AP costs that land on students. The opera ticket could feel like adding insult to injury.

There’s a second layer to this story that is also an ethical concern. The English teacher needs to be aware of the possible conflicts – besides the monetary ones – her plan poses. Somehow, the school needs a system for making sure everybody is aware of students’ co-curricular commitments, so that no student is forced to choose between a sports obligation and an academic obligation.  The AP teacher should be aware that some of her students are involved in lacrosse and should be scheduling with consideration or working with the lacrosse coach so they don’t trip over each other.  Expecting the students to find their own transportation is bad enough, but threatening “loss of the full year’s credit” is totally unreasonable.

Examination of communication systems is in order at this school on a number of fronts. The superintendent needs to take action to make sure faculty members model the respect and responsibility expected of the students. Using the language of “right vs. right decision making” may help this teacher’s thinking and development in ethics.  While it is certainly right to provide interesting learning opportunities for AP English students, such as a night at the opera, it’s also right to keep in mind family financial strains and conflicting student obligations.

Roy Dexheimer: I hated when teachers put youngsters in these dilemmas. My guideline was the first standard in our AASA Code of Ethics: "… makes the education and well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision making.”

Aside from the conflict with lacrosse, if a family cannot afford the $65 for a ticket, the whole AP year is a failure?  And should we bind kids to "contracts" made in the fall when the year's events are not fully known (e.g., the team unexpectedly qualifying for a lacrosse playoff).

I would direct the teacher to enforce that "contract" with a more creative and realistic solution for the conflicted students, such as renting a PBS video of the opera and writing an assigned essay. Or, if they choose, accept a failing grade for the opera attendance but not failure for the whole year. Use some common sense, for heaven's sake!

Joan McRobbie: The conflict with lacrosse has to do with the time of departure of the bus taking students to the opera. If the lacrosse players are being told to find their own transportation, we can assume there may be time to drive the 50 miles after the game and still get to the opera in time. So the parents believe the bus should not leave until the game ends. And the teacher likely feels this would be calling it too close for a theater arrival of a busload of students.

If this is the case, it’s reasonable for the teacher, who planned way in advance, to insist on a departure time that ensures sufficient leeway to get a large group of students seated before curtain time. The contract she insisted on indicates that she has run into this kind of problem before.

I would tell the parents that I understand their concern but that the opera commitment must be honored, including the need for the bus to leave at the pre-planned hour. Athletics are important, but when sports schedules conflict with academics, academics come first. The parents need to work out alternative transportation. And I would also talk with the lacrosse coach and the athletic director to ensure they are reinforcing appropriate messages.

Beyond that, I would consider this a tip-off that we may need a culture check. I would call an informal meeting with faculty leaders, the athletic director and student and parent representatives to review how prevalent conflicts of this sort may be. The real agenda would be discussion of community values and school policies. Are we in agreement about priorities? What written, verbal and symbolic messages are we sending about how we balance academics and athletics?

Chances are, the discussion would bring some simmering issues to the fore. The group could then identify a few low-key action steps to air and resolve these issues. Even better, by meeting at regular intervals to address inevitable problems that arise around athletics, this group could become the mechanism that makes the driving values explicit the best form of prevention.

A Lesson in First-Person Reality (October 2012)


For a course in a doctoral program in educational administration, students (most of whom are superintendents or assistant superintendents) have been studying underserved and marginalized groups that comprise a large part of the area’s student population. For one project, the professor requires each student to spend an afternoon walking in the shoes of a member of such a group — for instance, a homeless person requesting money, an overweight person shopping for clothes, a same-sex couple visiting a wedding store. Jeremy, an Ed.D. student working as an assistant superintendent, tells you he’s unsettled by this assignment, wondering about using deception as a learning tool and whether he should raise a question of integrity? What might you advise?


Shelley Berman: It is reasonable for a professor to require that students more deeply understand the lives of underserved and marginalized groups. John Howard Griffin’s experience, recounted in the 1961 classic Black Like Me revealed both the overt and subtle ways black people were disparaged and how the majority culture accepted this treatment as the norm. Although society is now more aware — and hopefully more compassionate — regarding the everyday challenges faced by marginalized groups, a simulated experience is clearly a way to deepen our understanding.

However, Jeremy’s concern about using deception as a learning tool is a viable one. The TV series Candid Camera justified its decades-long premise of deception as a harmless way to make us more thoughtful about our behavior patterns. Similarly, the Milgram experiment, involving the supposed infliction of pain on another person, yielded startling insights into human responses to authoritarian direction. However, such experiments now are considered unethical because of the psychological harm they caused to unwitting participants.

Today’s mega-doses of “reality” TV have further blurred the lines between fact and fiction, perhaps contributing to our confusion about ethical propriety. With the possible exception of carefully designed and controlled scientific experiments, to intentionally misrepresent oneself or a situation is ethically problematic and dishonest and has no place in a program for developing educational leaders.

Jeremy should be encouraged to suggest to the professor some alternative, non-deceptive strategies for increasing empathy with members of underserved and minority groups. One approach could be to accompany a gay friend or colleague to a wedding store to discuss plans for an engagement ceremony. Another tactic could involve spending time with an individual from one of these groups, shadowing him or her through the daily routine. Volunteering in a homeless shelter, mental hospital or nursing home for the indigent or attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous would provide alternative opportunities to listen to and interact with marginalized individuals and to develop understanding without resorting to a ruse.

Paula Mirk: I would counsel Jeremy to raise the question of integrity.  When we think through ethical issues, “intuition” often plays as strong a role as “rational thought.”  Jeremy’s intuition is telling him to speak up, and my tendency is to validate that.  We live in a time when rational thought trumps most everything. There is some evidence we’re increasingly trained away from listening to our intuition, and leaders need all the resources they can muster when making important decisions. Intuition is an important decision-making resource.

That said, my own point of view about the professor’s assignment is different from Jeremy’s.  I’m not sure how one would stage “an overweight person shopping for clothes.”  But in the other two examples  — homelessness or same-sex couples — the professor isn’t requiring you to lie and claim publically to be what you’re not.  People may assume you are homeless if you wear scruffy attire and a sign that says “please help me.” People may assume you are in a same-sex relationship if you shop at a wedding store with a partner of the same sex. But that’s part of the point, isn’t it? The benefits to Jeremy experiencing firsthand what it’s like to be a victim of assumptions and unfair attitudes would seem to outweigh the possible sense of deception someone might feel if their own assumptions led them to discriminate or act with prejudice.

While I would counsel Jeremy to speak up about his integrity concern, I would hope the professor could show Jeremy that part of this learning experience has to do with attitudes and perceptions, not just the literal truth.

Joan McRobbie: This professor, apparently aiming to teach empathy, perhaps is an admirer of journalistic classics like John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me (1961) or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed  (2001). But those writers chose their assignments and immersed themselves in long-term efforts to live another’s life, then share the experience broadly through their books. Empathy was the driver, not the goal.

It’s harder to see the value of an afternoon’s random act of pretense. This “requirement” also feels insulting to mid-career adults in a doctoral program who should have a say in shaping their own assignments in keeping with the goals of the course. And it would seem the professor could anticipate responses like Jeremy’s. Many individuals would object to misrepresenting themselves and deceiving others. Minimally, the class should have the chance to discuss the assignment, express their qualms and suggest other options, such as interviews, that would be experiential without violating anyone’s integrity.

Perhaps Jeremy saw the Fox News segment where John Stossel scruffed himself up and sat outside a New York subway station one afternoon, panhandling. He didn’t try to make ends meet for a year on $7 an hour, as Barbara Ehrenreich did, to experience the reality of the working poor. Instead he let people give him money for a couple of hours as part of an effort to demonstrate his contention that we’re becoming a nation of freeloaders. He later gave the money back. But it was enough to make any viewer queasy about the idea there may be a trend toward briefly masquerading as someone from a marginalized group.

I would advise Jeremy to show his leadership by gathering his like-minded classmates and jointly taking this up with the professor. The professor may not have thought this through from all perspectives and may well appreciate the insights and be open to change.

Roy Dexheimer: A case can be made that role-playing is a legitimate instructional activity. It's a stretch to condemn it as deception. There is a purpose in this particular role-playing, deliberately moving us out of our comfort zones to create an empathy for the underserved in our school populations. (I don't believe this ought to be extended to impersonate those carrying out illegal actions, such as drug addicts and child molesters.)

On the other hand, we are ethically bound to respect the well-being of our students. While continuing the assignment for the majority of the class, as the professor overseeing the assignment I'd look for an alternative for a genuine conscientious objector. (Maybe have Jeremy re-read Oliver Twist.) Our role as teachers is to push the limits for our students, but not to the point of violating those limits.

Partying Lacrosse Players (September 2012)


High school athletes today commonly sign a commitment saying they won't use alcohol and won't appear any place where alcohol is being consumed. The principal discovers on his desk that someone anonymously has left several photos of students, taken at a Saturday night party. The principal uses her Facebook account to search for other images and finds one where two beer bottles appear on a table adjacent to six members of the boys and girls lacrosse teams, all seniors who are college-bound. The principal threatens to suspend the students from their teams for two weeks. Parents approach you in protest. Some feel the principal is too lenient, and some believe she is overreacting. How do you respond?


Shelley Berman: Letters of commitment by high school athletes and their families have become common. When the investigation of a violation reveals a breach of this commitment, schools have typically pursued this kind of suspension consequence.

There are two ethical questions related to this scenario. The first is whether it is ethically appropriate for a school to take away a student’s privilege of participating in athletic activities as a result of off-campus conduct. In circumstances where students violated the law, as in underage possession or consumption of alcohol or drugs and where there are clear policy and practice on the part of the school, the district has a responsibility and an ethical obligation to respond in a manner consistent with its disciplinary policies.

In this case, when student-athletes and parents sign a letter of commitment, they are acknowledging that behavior beyond the schoolhouse doors can result in consequences. Participation in athletics and other extracurricular activities is considered a matter of privilege, not a right — and the loss or suspension of that privilege does not implicate the student’s federal constitutional rights to a public education. However, the clarity and scope of the policy itself are important. It may be clear that a student party where students were drinking is a violation. However, is being in a room where a parent is drinking a beer also a violation? Assuming that being in a room where a parent is drinking alcohol is not a violation, what was the situation in this scenario?

The second issue is whether it is ethically appropriate for an administrator to base disciplinary decisions on, or even pursue, evidence posted on the Internet. When informed of a potential violation of school policy, an administrator has an ethical obligation to perform a thorough investigation. This search could include evidence accessed from what students post, but must include interviews with students and parents. Because photographs can be easily altered, the principal should seek corroborating evidence that students were present at a party where alcohol was consumed.

In this case, being given photographs of the party anonymously is troubling, but provides a rationale for searching for other evidence that might confirm that these snapshots were accurate. The follow-up investigation with students and parents, however, is critical in determining what actually happened.

Therefore, if the investigation was a thorough one that revealed sufficient evidence to pursue consequences and if, in the judgment of the administrator, a two-week suspension from participating on an athletic team was determined to be an appropriate consequence consistent with other similar incidents, I would support the principal’s decision.

Paula Mirk: This school leadership dilemma determines the Kantians, the Consequentialists and the Confucians in a room! 

In the Institute for Global Ethics’ conceptual framework for resolving tough ethical dilemmas, we explore these three camps — loosely based on their philosophical traditions. These are the three most common ways folks around the world will approach this kind of difficult gray area. Confucius was first credited with what we call the “Care-Based” approach to resolving dilemmas.

In the case of these high school athletes, he might consider being on the other end of this dilemma:  “As a high school student photographed unknowingly, would I feel unfairly treated?”  Immanuel Kant represents our “rule-based” approach. Kant wasn’t interested in the literal rule, but in the more abstract standards or guiding principles from which rules develop. The Rule-Based thinker might take a stand that supports parents concerned about a slippery slope:  “Where are our standards for privacy in the world today?  If a principal can invade Facebook space and then retaliate, where will we ever draw the line — could we also justify surveillance equipment in students’ school-provided laptops?” 

However the Consequentialists, or “ends-based” thinkers, might side with a hard line against the offending students by quantifying the greatest good for the greatest number in this case. Surely all the scholar athletes obeying the rules and staying away from alcohol will thank the principal for holding the bad apples accountable. Future athletes staying away from alcohol because of the principal’s strong stand will be better off as will the wider community safe from drunk drivers.

The fact that seniors are involved is important. A mark on their record can make a difference to the college-bound. Fine details can become defining: Are adjacent empty beer bottles grounds for assuming someone is consuming alcohol? It will be important for the principal to have a clear, well-developed and well-reasoned case for her decision.

Joan McRobbie: First, I would assure the parents that the issue of athletes and alcohol is taken very seriously, as are these parents’ concerns about the appropriate way to deal with the episode at hand. Then I would meet with the principal and the district’s athletic director to clarify exactly what’s going on.

This incident is a site-based issue, but athletic behavior codes are generally district-level, board-approved policies. “No alcohol” pledges are responses to the high priority communities place on prevention of teen drug and alcohol use, especially recognizing the influence of athletics in adolescents’ social norms and culture.

Given that, it’s critical that such policies be clear about expectations for athletes’ behavior and about consequences for breaking the pledge. The fact that the principal is “threatening” to temporarily suspend students from playing suggests either that the penalties are not clear or that the principal sees reason in this case to consider not enforcing the policy. Either way, there is now also a communication problem involving hot button issues of sports season records and college admissions status.

Let’s assume the policy is clear. But the principal tells me and the athletic director that she’s conflicted because the lacrosse students involved are so close to graduation and have otherwise good records. There is even some question whether any alcohol was consumed at the party.

Before threatening suspension, the principal should have consulted the athletic director, whose job it is to provide guidance on athletic policies and decisions. At this point, I would have the principal and athletic director together convene the parents, the students and the school’s lacrosse coaches to calm everyone down. They need to determine the facts and work out a resolution that honors the pledge and is fair.

With the future in mind, the principal then needs to communicate the decision and its rationale to the school community. Her message should emphasize student health and safety, personal responsibility and the partnership of educators and parents. Follow-up action should renew a focus on the school’s drug and alcohol education program and revitalize dialogue on these issues among coaches and athletes.

Roy Dexheimer: Seems clearcut, but in this age of digital photo alteration, can you trust anonymous snapshots? Can you prove these kids were drinking? If the policy says they can't be in a place where alcohol is consumed, what about the home where parents may have a beer now and again? Can you prove the photo depicts a situation of beer "being consumed"?

Despite these doubts, the suspension probably should go forward on circumstantial evidence, thus prompting a warning to potential violators and potential false witnesses. There are consequences, even for circumstantial evidence.

In regards to the students being college bound, I would not notify those colleges of this instance, but I'd surely caution everyone to expect that consequence for a repetition.

Reserved for Heavy Hitters (August 2012)


The inner-city headquarters of the school district has a limited number of adjacent parking spaces for staff members. An administrative support staffer who arrives early many days finds the only spots available are reserved for the later-arriving administrators and department heads, forcing her to park her car much further away. Is it ethical for the others to receive preferred parking spaces based on their professional standing in the school system?


Shelley Berman:
What the staffer views as an ethical issue is actually a matter of efficiency and communication. Many district-level administrators and department heads regularly have meetings either at schools or in the community. Sometimes these administrators are in and out of the central office several times a day. In addition, these administrators often are running on tight schedules between meetings. Providing them with reserved spaces close to the central office enables them to save valuable time that would otherwise be spent looking for parking spaces at some distance from the office, thereby reducing time spent in productive work.

Organizationally, reserved parking spaces are a matter of efficiency. Most of the administrative support staff remain in their offices from the beginning to the end of the day and therefore do not need to either be close to the building or to worry about finding a parking space during the day when the limited spaces are already occupied. 

To prevent or quell resentment among other staff over what appears to be preferential treatment, it would be appropriate for the superintendent to communicate the rationale for allocating reserved spaces. It also would be helpful if other staff members who consistently use their vehicles on district business during work hours could be given the option to request reserved spaces or to access the existing reserved spaces whenever the designated administrators/department heads would not be using them for the day.

Joan McRobbie: Parking turns into a difficult problem in school districts where the central office has many more employees than convenient parking spaces. It doesn’t seem fair that a hard-working employee who must arrive early has to park far away when high-ranking officials later slip into convenient spaces.

On the other hand, many people with high-level roles are required to dash in and out throughout the day to attend meetings and events in far reaches of the school district and community. Given their jobs’ intense demands and tight scheduling, it can be imperative that people with these responsibilities have parking that makes it logistically possible to meet the demands.

Parking dissatisfaction is widespread, not just at urban school district headquarters but at many other workplaces as well. At a minimum, policies for assignment of spaces should be clear and consistently applied. They should also be periodically reviewed by a committee convened for this purpose, with recommendations sought from the range of stakeholders. Solutions should include incentives that lower the parking need (e.g., spaces reserved for carpool vehicles; covered and secure bicycle parking; and/or pre-tax commuter accounts to pay for public transit).

Paula Mirk: At first, this might seem like a trivial issue, but it means a lot to anyone facing a parking shortage day after day. And if the ethics of this parking tradition never have been explained, the preferential structure could easily build resentment among the ranks. 

It could seem unfair to the staffer who needs a place to park as much as administrators and department heads do. These small things matter, especially if they’re disrupting your schedule day after day. If respect and fairness are core ethical values, who gets to park where becomes a way to demonstrate them. It can come down to an educational philosophy about inclusiveness and the goal of our moral perimeters.

Are we teaching extension and application of core ethical values as widely as possible?  Then re-examining the basis and traditions of parking might be in order. Was there an ethical basis for it in the first place? Perhaps the superintendent is out visiting schools and therefore arrives late but needs to be able to use time efficiently since taxpayers are paying that high salary. This could be a valid reason for maintaining the status quo and understanding this could help to calm the person left searching for a spot each day. Usually, explaining the ethics behind a tradition goes a long way in diffusing resentment or preventing it from building.

If this isn’t a convincing rationale, perhaps revisiting the parking structure is justified, and a case can be made for treating each job in the system equally when it comes to time or to hardship. When we talk to faculty and staff about the “hidden curriculum” in schools, often the parking space routine comes up. Just taking a moment to unpack the issue and underlying ethical values can go a long way toward mending fences.   

Roy Dexheimer: Is it ethical? Probably. Is it a good practice? Probably not, in terms of support staff morale.

Reserved parking is a common perk for administrative staff. If it is to be changed, first check to see if there is a written policy and/or contractual obligation. Lacking those, the options are fun to ponder. A lottery? Alphabetical by last name? Employee of the month? A doctor's medical excuse? Function (e.g., a nurse who needs to be out and about)?

This one is a loser for whoever is responsible for making a change in practice. Move on to more significant issues.

Grading Tricks (June 2012)


After a new high school biology teacher assigned final semester grades, two students asked him to reconsider the C’s he gave them. One got just what his test scores indicated. The other was close to a B-minus, and while he did poorly early on, he worked hard, sought help and improved significantly. The teacher raised his grade to a B-minus but did not alter the other student’s. Nowhere in the course description or the district’s grading guidelines does it state that improvement can be a factor in grading. The parents of the child with the C have come straight to the superintendent to complain. What position would you take on this issue, and how would you explain your position?


Shelley Berman: The first issue to be addressed is one of process. Grading is the prerogative of the classroom teacher, who is in the best position to make a judgment about student learning based on the student’s performance. In some districts, board policies and teacher association contracts actually specify the teacher’s ultimate authority in grading. Therefore, I would not take an immediate position on this case but would ask the parents to speak directly with the teacher. If the issue were not resolved to the parents’ satisfaction, they would then be referred to the principal. Only at that point could the principal’s decision be appealed to the superintendent.

The second issue is whether the teacher was justified in changing the grade of one student but not the other. Unless a school has developed a consistent set of grading standards for teachers to use, different teachers will use different standards. Some will average the scores of assignments and tests, others will integrate multiple aspects of learning that could include effective participation in class, while still others will use proficiency-based practices designed to assess the degree to which students met the learning targets by the end of the term. When it comes to grading, fairness, consistency and transparency are essential so that students and parents understand how a student’s work is evaluated. By engaging teachers in determining the grading standards they will use, a school or district engenders greater consistency across classrooms and generally prevents situations such as this one from arising.

In this case, the teacher may not have been as proactive in preparing and sharing his syllabus as he could have been, thereby opening his grading to questions of fairness. It also might have been prudent for him to first consult with a more senior teacher, the department head or the principal for guidance on how to handle a student’s appeal. It is fair for students to request reconsideration of a grade if they believe that there was some factor not considered or an error inadvertently made by the teacher. Although I would hope that this happens infrequently, it is reasonable for a teacher to change a grade if the justification is sufficient.

What appears to have been a factor in this teacher’s decision to change the grade was the degree to which the student met the learning targets by the end of the term. Although I would be reluctant to interfere with teacher grading unless there was an egregious problem, if proficiency were the basis for the teacher’s decision, I would support the teacher. However, I would be concerned that the teacher’s decision was consistently applied to all the students in the class. I would recommend that the principal meet with the teacher and ask to what degree this proficiency standard had been applied and whether it had been applied equitably so that no student gained an unfair advantage. The principal should encourage the teacher to make the best decision possible that could be upheld as fair and consistent across all students in the class.

Given that this is a new teacher who may not have a great deal of experience in grading, it would be important for the principal to work with him to refine the standards by which students are graded, and the delineation of those standards in the syllabus for the course, so that this circumstance is prevented in the future. More important, at the beginning of each term, each teacher should provide his or her supervisor and all students with a copy of the grading procedures and criteria for each course. To the extent possible, this information should also be shared with parents via open houses, parent-teacher conferences, on-line, and other means.

Joan McRobbie: As superintendent, my position would be that this needs to be addressed at the school. I would explain to the parents that we take their concern seriously, and that they need to talk directly with the teacher and principal. My office would help set that up, and I would follow up to ensure that the matter had a satisfactory resolution.

That said, I would talk with that principal and also take steps to reinforce the awareness of all principals and teachers of the need for transparency and fairness in grading. It’s a matter of principle as well as a fundamental school responsibility. In today’s high stakes climate, it’s also increasingly a matter of public urgency.

Principals should ensure that every teacher not only has clear, written grading policies aligned with those of the school and district. Those policies need to objectively reflect student academic achievement, not subjective judgments of attitude or effort. Such traits are important and should be acknowledged, but separately. Grades are about providing students with feedback on what they know and can do as distinct from how hard they tried.

New teachers need guidance to ensure that grading policies are tied to clear academic goals and that the evidence and measures to be used are specifically delineated. They also need an awareness that the grading process must be the same for all students and clearly communicated to students and parents.

In this example, the principal needs to work with this new teacher and the complaining parents to resolve the problem, which arose because an inexperienced teacher with good intentions lacked support for thinking through grading policies and actions. The principal can use this experience as a prompt for strengthening and communicating fair grading practices school-wide, thereby building community trust in the values that drive the school—an invaluable asset when difficulties arise.

Paula Mirk: A new teacher sometimes learns the hard way that it’s important to set standards and guidelines early in the semester so that students and parents understand the basis for grading. One way we demonstrate core values like responsibility and fairness in our schools is to deliberately link such ethical values through our grading systems. It’s appropriate for a student who worked hard, and who is “erring” toward a B-minus, to receive some signal that taking responsibility for learning has been worth it. The other student does not seem to be able to demonstrate the same work ethic profile.

As superintendent, I would point this out in a meeting with both the concerned parents and the teacher present. Then in a separate conversation, I would encourage the teacher to provide information about his grading basis each school year, to both students and their parents. I would stipulate that grades should not be connected strictly to test scores, but to the other kinds of expectations we have for students, such as the hard work and consistency defined by values like responsibility and fairness. This situation opens up the opportunity for a faculty-wide discussion about grading and the hidden curriculum. Are our grading systems sending the message that only test scores “count”, or are we also signaling that ethical values are an equally important preparation for our students’ future?  

Meanwhile, in a separate conversation with the parents, I would also encourage upholding another core ethical value in future:  out of “respect” for the teacher, his classroom should be their first stop, not the superintendent’s office. This is also a great topic for a school wide parent forum:. “Our expectations, your expectations” could be the title!

Roy Dexheimer: If the teacher had already factored improvement into the grade or if the teacher had not made it clear to the students that an improving trend line would be a factor in final grades, no change is appropriate.

Our teachers have reasonable latitude in grading, taking into account effort and improvements, but those boundaries must be established in advance to create a culture of fairness. 

Didn't seem they were in this case.

The Delayed Dismissal (May 2012)


The superintendent discovers a female teacher may be having an affair with an 11th-grade female student. The initial confrontation with the teacher elicits a denial. After a weekend of thinking about the consequences, the teacher confesses. The superintendent’s first inclination is to fire the teacher on the spot. But only four more weeks remain in the school year, including exam preparation.  Would it be a better, less disruptive plan to insist the teacher leave the profession when the school year ends in another month, forbid the teacher to have any contact whatsoever with the student and begin a quiet counseling process with the student?


Shelley Berman: A teacher who is having a sexual relationship with a student — be it physical or via telephone, Internet, or social media — presents a very serious ethical and legal problem. The teacher has abused her authority, misused her position and, depending upon the state, may have committed a crime. A superintendent faced with this kind of information must first ascertain that the information is credible. If it is, the superintendent’s response should be neither to confront the teacher nor to contemplate “low keying” the situation until the end of the year.

The appropriate legal and ethical response is to place the teacher on administrative leave while an investigation is conducted, notify the student’s parents of the information that the superintendent received, and contact the appropriate legal authorities so they can pursue an investigation.Each state has laws about reporting sexual misconduct. Although these laws may differ in detail, they generally require immediate reporting to law enforcement and child protection agencies whenever a mandatory reporter has reasonable cause to believe that a sexual crime has been committed against a child.

There is little question about what latitude a superintendent has in this kind of situation. As disruptive and as painful as it may be, the superintendent and the district have an obligation to act immediately and allow the legal system, with its higher standards of due process, to take its course. It is very disturbing when a teacher violates the basic trust invested in her or him by parents and the public, and the district bears direct responsibility for responding promptly and decisively. Also, in many states, when the superintendent reasonably believes that a teacher has engaged in acts of gross neglect of duty, including any sexual conduct with a student, the superintendent must report it to the teacher licensing board promptly in order to permit the licensing board to consider disciplinary sanctions against the teacher.

Once these initial actions have been taken, the superintendent can then focus on working with the student and her parents to determine how the district can best support them. The superintendent also needs to ensure that an effective substitute teacher is in place as quickly as possible and that staff members are prepared to handle student/community reaction if the news becomes public. Should it eventually be determined that no laws were broken and that the justice system has no penalty to impose upon the teacher, it then falls to the district to follow its own policies, which will almost certainly result in the teacher’s resignation or termination.

Because such incidents have the potential to significantly disrupt a school’s educational process, it is essential to thoughtfully and pre-emptively manage the situation. A strong and immediate response assures students and the community that the district will not tolerate abuse of students and helps restore the school’s focus on its academic mission.

Joan McRobbie: The superintendent needs to let the teacher go. Immediate action sends a strong message that the teacher’s behavior is a major ethical breach and will not be tolerated. The student should go into counseling, and the superintendent should work with the principal and faculty to create ways to help all affected students deal with the issue as well as overcome this huge distraction and prepare for exams.

The alternative plan of waiting a month not only hedges about the seriousness of the teacher’s actions but is unlikely to curb disruption. The teacher’s continuing presence would create an environment of extended speculation among students, staff, and parents about what happened. As a news story, it could take on a life of its own, with reporters and cameras showing up daily. An already bad situation for the student in question could become considerably worse.

Removing the teacher deflates the sense of ongoing drama. But in the aftermath, people will want the superintendent to address their concerns, which may range from “Are our children safe?” to “The district discriminated unfairly against a wonderful teacher because she’s gay.”

Internally, the superintendent needs to ask, is this an isolated incident or a culture problem? Assuming the former, there nonetheless needs to be facultywide discussion. Externally, personnel policies constrain district leaders from discussing the particulars, but the superintendent can convene parent/community meetings to discuss policies, school values, and the safeguarding of students.

Particularly important is ensuring that students have ways to air their reactions face-to-face with key teachers or counselors who can facilitate dialogue about teacher-student relations, sexual preferences, and “how we treat each other in this school community.” Especially for the sake of the student victim, it’s critical to address social media and seek and support student leadership in averting its potential for destructive consequences.

Paula Mirk: This would be a complicated situation indeed if the superintendent didn’t have a confession directly from the teacher. It might be less disruptive to exam schedules and prep to keep the teacher on, but I’m more concerned about a potential disruption in students’ lives for years as a result of this serious breach of trust on the part of their teacher.

Taxpayers, parents, school leaders and young people themselves trust our teachers to honor their responsibility in students’ lives. We trust them to respect the enormous power differential between teachers and students based both on role and on age.

I would fire the teacher on the spot. I would not want to risk any ambiguity about the basic responsibilities of teachers and the basic right to respect of each young person in their care. I would certainly seek a counseling process for the student involved, but would also open up a dialogue with all students and teachers about trust as the lynchpin to a functional, comfortable learning environment. There is no way of knowing which other students may have been affected by observing this situation in their midst, so opening communication pathways is very important. The concern here is not a concern about sexual mores per se, but the broader abuse of power implied by this situation. Furthermore, the gender of the student is immaterial. Any student must feel confident that he or she can interact with teachers in a respectful dynamic centered on his/her best interests as a learner.

Roy Dexheimer: Right decision, wrong reason. Exam prep isn't a factor. However, after establishing consensual and non-predatory circumstances, extricating two people from their inappropriate relationship with enough dignity to have a future is part of our role in giving second chances. Get the teacher's resignation (in writing!) as of the year's end, insist that teaching will not be a part of her future, require no further contact with the student, counsel with the student to be sure she is coping, and give her a deadline to tell her parents, or  you will.

As a matter of full disclosure, I encountered exactly this situation as a superintendent. An otherwise excellent teacher moved on to another career and a productive life. The student was an honor graduate, a Rotary Exchange Student, a scholarly graduate of a fine liberal arts college, a wife and mom for two sons, and a great community member.

Second changes are worth us taking risks now and then.This was the only instance where I thought the participants would move on successfully (and, interestingly, it was the student, not the teacher, who was the aggressive partner!). In all other instances, I fired the intrusive teachers immediately, including one of our best teachers (health, of all things) who impregnated a 10th-grade girl. Then he had the audacity to ask me for a reference!

Hallway Propaganda (April 2012)


A long-term substitute at your high school notices a lot of partisan propaganda taped to the outside of a colleague’s classroom door. He teaches wood shop and world history, and this material is unrelated to both. It included a Jokeresque image of President Obama with the word “socialist” underneath. With students a captive audience, has the teacher crossed the line of appropriate behavior by sharing his political or religious views in the classroom? The long-term sub thinks so and has brought the issue to you. How will you handle it?


Shelley Berman: Faculty members are representatives of the school district. They have freedom of speech within certain limits of the district’s curriculum, but clearly not the discretion to propagandize their own viewpoints and positions. Education involves teaching students how to critically think about important social and political issues, not what to think about those issues. It may be appropriate and beneficial for a teacher to use highly propagandized materials in a lesson about propaganda or to engage students in critically thinking about the divergent positions and arguments around an issue. However, the goal of all teachers should be to create a safe environment for students to hold and discuss multiple perspectives on issues. Instruction that is politically positional, or the posting of materials that are propagandistic, shuts down that dialogue, inhibits respectful interaction, and silences dissenting voices. It undermines the educational goals to which we aspire.

In this case, the teacher appears to have stepped well beyond what is germane to quality instruction or the district’s curriculum. In posting the derisive image of the President, disparagingly labeled, the teacher might possibly have intended to engage students in a profound discussion of the strategies implicit in propaganda. However, given the materials’ hallway placement and the subject area assignment of the teacher, the action more likely reflects the teacher’s political beliefs and is an effort to enlist students in those beliefs. Such behavior is not an ethical or legally authorized practice within the schoolhouse doors. Recent court decisions affirm the authority of a school district to restrict teachers from stating viewpoints or covering topics that do not mirror the district’s curriculum, particularly when the teacher’s statements or actions present information that is self-serving, deliberately false or intentionally defamatory.

However, this situation is not simply a legal issue but an ethical one — and one that goes to the very core of an educator’s responsibility. As an administrator, I would request that the teacher remove the poster — or if the teacher were still absent, I would personally remove the poster. I would specifically not ask the substitute teacher to take any action, by word or deed. I would then meet with the teacher to discuss the rationale for posting the materials and determine if they were being used in an appropriate instructional manner in the context of the district’s curriculum. If they were not and instead were simply a way for the teacher to express a private political viewpoint, I would issue a directive to the teacher to refrain from such actions and, depending on the teacher’s response, would potentially take other disciplinary action.

Joan McRobbie: School and school district grounds are politically neutral. It should be clear to all employees that they cannot conduct political activities during on-the-job hours. Those activities include use of email or copy machines for political advocacy, circulating political petitions, wearing a campaign button during the school day — and posting materials that advocate political positions or intend to influence the support or opposition among students or others. So, yes, this teacher has crossed the line of appropriate behavior.

It is, of course, appropriate for a teacher of world history to engage students instructionally on issues related to political systems and parties, including discussion or assignments related to political campaigns. But as teachers promote knowledge of democracy and critical thinking about complex issues, they need to avoid partisanship or advocacy. Teachers often find themselves walking a difficult line when the class addresses controversial issues. But a derogatory image of the president on a classroom door is a straightforward violation. It not only violates a school district’s ethics code but sets a poor example for students in terms of civic dialogue.

I would send this teacher an email with a friendly reminder of the school district’s policy, including a link to the policy, which should be available to all employees online. And I would follow up (without involving the sub) to ensure that the image is removed. If it appears that similar activities are occurring elsewhere in the school, I would issue a reminder in the regular staff bulletin as well as review and discuss this aspect of the ethics code at a faculty meeting.

Paula Mirk: It feels like this is really a building principal’s issue, and the fact that it has reached the superintendent tells me there’s a leadership gap where leadership is needed. There’s no formula for a lot of ethics questions, and this case is no exception.

But such gray areas are wonderful teachable moments and professional development opportunities. I think the opportunity here is for that school’s leadership, faculty and staff to get clear on what their core values look like in practice. I think such a discussion would produce broad agreement that “Jokeresque images” and labels like “socialist” do not teach the political discourse skills we need our students to learn toward a healthy democracy. It’s an approach to politics that is lacking in the core value of “respect.”

It would be better for this to be a conclusion reached rather than a top-down decision made, because clearly some learning and thinking about this topic needs to take place at the faculty level (not only the woodshop teacher, but those other teachers who believe in respectful discourse but took no action) and on the leadership level (the principal, for example, who didn’t have the awareness or the skills to address the issue) of the school.

Roy Dexheimer: A smart first step is to review the District's policy manual to seek guidance. (And if there is no policy, start writing one for the future!).

Also, make sure the board of education is made aware of the issue and the ramifications, immediately. Long-term subs usually live in the district, and are counted on for current gossip. Better the board hears from you first. Standards 4, 5 and 6 of the AASA Code of Ethics would support these actions.

Public school teachers have every right to hold political opinions. They do NOT have the right to promote those opinions to their students, exclusive of all others. If they do express those opinions, it must be with clear indication of the bias and within the context of defensible lessons.

There needs to be a conversation with the teacher to see if there is any teaching moment in these postings. For example, a unit on the power of political cartoons and how to read them. However, that ought to be kept in the classroom. Students and staff passing by won't know the context, if there is one. So, the posted materials outside the classroom come down. We can teach and talk and debate about conflicting points of view, but not indoctrinate nor display materials carelessly.

As a matter of courtesy, thank the substitute teacher for bringing this to your attention (which, by the way, you should have discovered yourself by walking around!), and note that you are giving the matter attention. Then tell your school attorney to gather materials for when the local teacher union and ACLU come at the district for restricting freedom of speech.

The Double-Headed Job Search (March 2012)


After a lengthy search for a deputy superintendent with both budget experience and knowledge of curriculum and instruction, you find a “perfect” candidate who appears ready to relocate. At the final negotiation, the candidate indicates that because the spouse would be quitting her teaching job to relocate with him, that his acceptance is contingent on giving his wife first consideration for a position somewhere in the school district. The human resources director balks at the request, but you are reluctant to lose this candidate after such an extended search. What’s the right thing to do?


Shelley Berman:
In today’s highly competitive job market, the employer is prone to think only about how well the applicant meets the demands of the position. Family issues are often irrelevant, especially when the candidate is local and the spouse is already managing his or her own career and personal interests.From this perspective, we live in a highly autonomous world where the individual and the organization look out for their own interests.However, that approach may not be the best one in all employment situations, particularly when the organization is interested in hiring someone who would have to relocate.Although one could say that the individual chooses to move and must accept the consequences of that choice for spouse and family, I believe there is a better, more humane point of view that serves the organization as well as the individual and his or her family.That approach is to provide support, within bounds, to assist the spouse and the family in relocating.

From this perspective, it is reasonable for a prospective employee to request assistance and for the organization to provide some level of support for the spouse’s search.There is no obligation on the part of an organization to employ the spouse, and there are limits on the extent to which an organization should help in the job search of a spouse.It is also reasonable for the prospective employee to indicate that his or her acceptance of the position is contingent upon the spouse obtaining a suitable position in the same locale, even though that stipulation may eliminate the individual from consideration for the position.

In this case, the Human Resources director and the superintendent should have had the foresight to consider family-related issues early in the candidate review process, thus preparing themselves to address these contingencies during negotiations. Assuming the district wants the new deputy superintendent to be a stable and long-term employee of the system, Human Resources should make an effort to accommodate the interests of both working members of the family, while adhering closely to legal and ethical standards opposing preferential treatment.Given that financial demands often require that both spouses work, and given that both may have serious professional interests, school districts need to respect the value of finding solutions that strengthen the ties of the family to the district and the community.Having the foresight to address this as an integral part of the hiring process avoids its becoming an issue raised by the candidate in the final stage of the negotiations.

In the case at hand, depending on the size of the district, district policies, and reporting relationships within the district, it may not be appropriate for the wife to be offered a teaching position within the district. If it is accepted practice that spouses of district-level administrators may work in the district, the spouse should be given the option to interview for an open position within the district. However, it would not be appropriate to guarantee selection for such a position, nor to create a position for the spouse in order to close the deal. Such a step would be tantamount to increasing the compensation package for the advertised executive-level position—at the taxpayers’ expense. It would certainly be appropriate for the district to alert the spouse to potential classroom openings in surrounding districts, as well as non-teaching positions in other companies or non-profits that might match the spouse’s interests—especially given that such positions in the business world are not always advertised, but instead are filled through organizational networking.The district is not obligated to employ the spouse or to find a position for the spouse, but has an organizational interest in providing assistance in the spouse’s search for employment.

In today’s corporate world, it is commonly understood that when you recruit someone for an important position, you are extending an offer that impacts the entire family. If an organization is requiring an individual to relocate, it is viewed as appropriate to think about a suitable position for the spouse and educational arrangements for children. However, in the field of education, many superintendents and board members have not yet embraced this approach to recruitment.

Public school leadership is a demanding field at both the local school and district levels, and strong, qualified candidates are in short supply. It is naïve to think that top-tier candidates can be identified and hired within a short timeframe with no consideration given to the welfare of the applicants’ families. We in education espouse the concept of the total child thriving as a result of the support given by the entire family-school partnership. Applying this same philosophy of support to our employees is a logical extension that entails understanding and creativity, but should not and must not cross the boundary of professional ethics.

Joan McRobbie: Much as I may want to hire this candidate, he appears slightly less than perfect now that he has stated a condition that essentially asks me to act unethically to ensure that he takes the job. The HR director is right to balk. Even in more-normal economic times, the candidate’s wife would need to apply for open positions and go through the same hiring process as other candidates. But in today’s adverse fiscal environment, with many positions being cut and the rate of new hiring much slowed, I would see it as an even more surprising lapse in judgment for this candidate to suggest that we give his spouse preferential treatment.

Giving him the benefit of the doubt, however, I would likely remind him that ethical practice in a public service environment means avoiding nepotism and even the appearance of impropriety. That said, I would let him know that his wife is, of course, welcome to apply for any open positions she qualifies for. I might offer to connect his wife with someone in HR who could help her identify job openings. I might also connect him with other people or resources in the community as a means of helping his wife identify positions in other entities that she might explore.

I would hope his response would be to back away from the initial demand, expressing regret that he overstepped in his eagerness to ensure that his move does not negatively affect his family. If he instead holds firm and calls this a dealbreaker, then we will likely be better off not having him join our team.

Paula Mirk: Leadership is a crucible “a big test of your beliefs,” mostly because everybody’s watching.  If you decide to make an exception in this case, there’s likely to be a deluge of requests from others or complaints from those who were turned down in similar instances.  Sure, it would be great for a spouse to get the job s/he needs or for your school system to offer “package deals” for employment, but unless you offer the same opportunities to all new hires it’s going to look like favoritism…because it is. 

What’s wrong with that in the long run?  Besides ignoring the core ethical value of fairness, it leads you down the slippery slope of corruption or at the very least the appearance of such from the outside, which destroys people’s ability to trust you, which destroys the functional culture you are charged with building and sustaining as superintendent.

Roy Dexheimer: The AASA Code of Ethics echoes the do no harm guideline of physicians. It says: “make the well-being of students the fundamental value of all decision-making and actions.”

Therefore, I view the request of a "perfect candidate" for a critical position in the district, who will affect the lives of students and staff and community, to be perfectly reasonable. In my experiences as a superintendent over four decades, the challenge of a trailing spouse came up often, and I tried to find a position for that spouse in our district or a neighboring district, or in other jobs which matched the career of that spouse. When you ask an exemplary candidate to give up a job and move a family, plus spousal employment, this effort seems appropriate.

There are, of course, ethical dimensions to the process. No current local teacher may be displaced for the spouse, either by release from a job or forced reassignment. All collectively bargained contractual obligations must be met in good faith, including an interview and reference checking. Salary placement must conform to the usual protocols for teaching staff. And by all means, the superintendent has an ethical obligation to keep his or her Board of Education fully informed.

Finding strong "perfect candidates" with experience and knowledge of instructional strategies is crucial to the District's success. If you can add what is likely to be an effective teacher to the staff or the region, so much the better.  It is a win/win for everyone…except perhaps the grumpy human resources person. Time for some serious feather petting!

Charity for a Grade (February 2012)


Your district’s athletic director is recommending you fire the popular coach of the girls’ tennis team at one of your high schools, two months into the season. The AD contends the coach did not include on her resume the fact she lost her coaching position previously at a college in another community. The coach says she left it off because “I did not feel it represented my performance.” What should you, the superintendent, recommend?


Shelley Berman:
The practice of offering bonus points on graded exercises and final averages may seem like a harmless vehicle for encouraging service to others, but the parents who are objecting are making a legitimate point. The issue, however, is a bit more complex than that simple framing.

One of the most important roles educators play is fostering the development of the skills, attitudes and values of responsible citizenship. Central to responsible citizenship are an appreciation of the common good and a commitment to helping those in need. It is a responsible act for teachers to highlight issues within the community for which students can provide the kind of assistance that both helps address the need and encourages the development of an ethic of service. Therefore, the issue here isn’t about whether the act of service is a viable one for educators to encourage but whether those acts should be rewarded through the grading system.

In order to address that point, it is important to understand that there is an essential difference between community service and service learning. Community service involves acts of service such as food and clothing drives or fund-raising for victims of natural or human disasters that are independent of the curriculum but are positive acts to engage students in support of the common good.

Service-learning activities, on the other hand, are acts of service deeply tied to the curriculum in which students study an issue and engage in service as an authentic avenue for demonstrating both their understanding of the issue and of ways that individuals can make a difference on that issue. Clearly, students can and should be graded when the acts of service are part of the curriculum and thus linked to learning.

Acts of community service are best encouraged when they aren’t tied to a grade but instead tied to the achievement of some larger community goal, such as the number of grocery bags of food or a target dollar amount that students desire to raise for a cause. Therefore, it may be best to suggest to teachers that they not provide incentives within the grading system for acts of community service but that it is fine to integrate service learning into the student accountability system.

The teachers who are providing the bonus points could make a viable counterargument that grades themselves represent extrinsic rewards and that we consistently use these extrinsic rewards to encourage participation in learning. Therefore, using extrinsic rewards for service through bonus points is not very different.

This raises a much deeper and more difficult issue about the meaning of grading. I hope we are shifting our thinking about grades away from seeing them as extrinsic rewards to designing them as assessments for learning and as feedback to students so that they can advance their understanding. In this context, the addition of bonus points for community service does not enable students to better understand how they can advance their own learning while, alternatively, integrating assessment of service learning can serve that purpose.

Joan McRobbie: The teachers are acting on their impulse to ensure the greatest possible help for those in need. Admirable as that is, the parents are right in saying that it sends students an “end justifies the means” message. Moreover, in today’s education world, where tremendous emphasis is placed on accountability for student results and stories in the news media describe teachers cheating to make student achievement look better than it is, the practice of inflating grades by donating to charity has the potential to be misinterpreted and go horribly wrong.

I would appeal to department heads to point out the problem to teachers and work collaboratively with them on creating a less fraught and more academically sound means of achieving their high-minded goal.

Far better for teachers to construct curriculum-relevant assignments that help build student awareness of the problems the charity drives are addressing. For example, teachers could assign students to an article on the recession-related increase in families relying on food banks and write an essay about it. Math or economics students could prepare presentations -- for class, schoolwide assembly or community or parent meetings -- on the trajectory of poverty or joblessness in the community. Social studies students could interview local nonprofit officials and submit reports on the family impact of job loss.

Granted, this would require teachers’ time and thought. But the payoffs could more than make up for the effort.

Resulting student assignments would legitimately feed into grades, turning complaining parents into allies. Student interest in their subjects would likely get a boost from the real-world relevance. Pleased that their concerns prompted positive action, parents could also learn more about their own community by way of students’ presentations. And the teachers’ original intent ─ to spur more giving to worthy charities ─ would likely be fulfilled.

Should the media tune in, what might have been a story that no school wants would instead be one showcasing New City High as a place teaching strong academics while also promoting community values.

Paula Mirk: Avoid alienating either side by helping parents and teachers understand the “rightness” of each position here. Teachers offering points want the drive to be successful and perhaps have some positive experience with rewards systems that eventually lead to intrinsic student motivation. Concerned parents want students to learn selflessness and want their children’s choices to be genuine – doing “the right thing for the right reason.” Both are valid interests. 

Treat this as an opportunity to help faculty and parents think together about the end goal: Is it student learning or a successful campaign?  Is the short-term success of the charity drive equally as important as the long-term lessons about service and, if so, can this be adequately conveyed to parents and students so that everyone can support the points system? If not, is there another way to approach motivating students to participate, and would teachers be willing to work with parents to design and explore alternatives to the bonus points approach? 

Use this leadership opportunity to lead discussions that explore the educational philosophy of your district.  Ask teachers to present their evidence about when “carrots and sticks” are appropriate tools for learning outcomes. Provide safe space and time for opposing viewpoints.

Use your district code of ethics to center discussion around the core ethical values to uphold.  Collaborate with faculty and parents to align classroom approaches with the long term internalization of responsibility, respect, compassion and other charity-related values your district intends for students. Both sides may find that charity drives require much more teaching and deliberate design than previously thought, and that student participation can be a much more meaningful and inspiring process as a result!

Roy Dexheimer: AASA’s "Statement of Ethics" clearly states that educational leaders have an obligation to “provide equal educational opportunities to each and every child.” Offering academic credit for charitable fund raising, however admirable that goal, is not an equal opportunity. Youngsters who, through circumstances, cannot participate are not receiving equal treatment.

The charity drives, without academic grade incentives, seem like a good value to promote, but not at the expense of unfair advantages to some students.

The Secretive Coach (January 2012)

Scenario-- Your district’s athletic director is recommending you fire the popular coach of the girls’ tennis team at one of your high schools, two months into the season. The AD contends the coach did not include on her resume the fact she lost her coaching position previously at a college in another community. The coach says she left it off because “I did not feel it represented my performance.” What should you, the superintendent, recommend?


Shelley Berman: This situation needs to be thoroughly investigated before a decision is made.  A resume should be comprehensive and complete, even if some information on it does not represent one’s best work.

Falsification of a resume can and should result in dismissal; however, omission is different from falsification.  A resume need not include an individual’s entire work history, particularly given the trend toward a one-to-two page synopsis.  However, information relevant to the position for which one is applying needs to be highlighted. In this case, it would have been appropriate to list the previous coaching experience, even if unsuccessful, on the resume. 

The AD would not have made the recommendation to terminate unless something had brought the prior experience to the AD’s attention or there were circumstances in the coach’s job performance that raised questions about earlier performance.  I would ask what motivated the AD to seek an action that is both immediate and without recourse.  I would want to know what concerns, if any, the AD had with the coach’s current performance, how the information was brought to the AD’s attention, which references were checked in the hiring process, whether there was a temporal gap in the resume that should have been explored more fully, and why this information didn’t come to light at that time.  It would be important to assess the thoroughness of the district’s hiring process and ensure the reasons for the recommendation were significant enough to warrant disrupting the experience of the students on the team.

Due process considerations would induce me to give the coach the opportunity to explain the omission on her resume and the nature of the experience that caused her to lose the prior position. If the gravity of that situation would have caused the district to not consider her for this position or could potentially compromise either the district or the students on the team, the omission would be cause for immediate dismissal. 

If the circumstances were less grave, the coach could be allowed to complete the season with supervision and not be given a contract for the following year.  Alternatively, she could be reprimanded, with future appointments based on her performance.  If the coach were to remain in her position, it would be important for the AD to work alongside her to address any concerns of team members, parents or the community in a straightforward manner. 

It is vital for the coach to understand that prior problematic experiences are best handled candidly.  Approaching such issues with honesty and reflection demonstrates an ethical integrity that people respect, often prompting them to give an individual another chance.

Roy Dexheimer:
Clearly the coach had an obligation to reveal her employment record. However, assuming that no crime was committed (e.g., sexual harassment, stealing funds), it might be good to recognize we are in the business of reasonable and appropriate second chances for students and, from time to time, staff members.

I would be tempted to put a signed memorandum of agreement in her file, recognizing the omission. But I'd put a time limit on that memorandum and, if successful teaching and learning continues for the students, I'd remove it from the personnel files after a suitable period of time.

Redemption is good for the soul, especially if you can revive the career of a good tennis coach!

Joan McRobbie:
The first salient point here is that the tennis coach was under no obligation, legally or ethically, to reveal a previous dismissal. The scenario offers no information about why she was dismissed. The reason could be anything from allegations of molestation to a bully boss who didn’t like her.

She apparently did not have a felony conviction because that would have shown up on the background check. Short of that, it is her right to be able to start over in a new job without casting a shadow on herself related to whatever happened at the previous job.

Assuming this athletic director hired her, I would ask the AD about how she or he discovered this information. If it came through the grapevine, the AD could likely have learned about it through the same grapevine before hiring the coach. He then could have weighed the information as he made the hiring decision.

At this point, I would advise the AD that any decision regarding the continuing employment of the coach must be based on her current job performance and behavior. There is no mention that the AD has so far found fault with either.

If the AD is mainly upset because she/he believes any job candidate should reveal and discuss a previous firing, I would remind the AD that the coach had no obligation to do so and discuss with him reasons why, regardless of any allegations he has become aware of, the coach should be given the benefit of the doubt.

If the new information raises a real concern, especially relating to student safety or well being, the AD should still give the coach the benefit of the doubt, while also taking deliberate steps to ensure student safeguards. As the context for these steps, the AD should launch or revitalize regular sessions that bring all coaches together for discussions around their role as ethical leaders and critical role models. Such sessions not only enable review of ethical policies and guidelines, but can offer mutual support -- and build a values-driven coaching culture -- by offering a place to overtly share tough dilemmas coaches routinely face and jointly work through “right” courses of action.

Paula Mirk: Validate the athletic director’s concern about honesty in the hiring process. It’s a critical element to judging who is equipped to teach our children. But thoroughly investigate the AD’s concerns, including the possible politics involved. What is the tennis coach doing that has prompted this demand? Surely the AD participated in hiring the coach in the first place, so something has changed in the time since the hire took place.

Collaborate with the AD to address whatever merits concern -- it is likely to reach beyond omission in the hiring process, but may well be connected to why the coach left her previous job. Mindful of those circumstances, design an improvement plan centering on ethics, not tennis, for this individual. (Another “tennis improvement plan” may also be in order, based on the AD’s input.)

Stress the importance of modeling the core ethical values we want our students to uphold. Task the coach with designing opportunities to demonstrate ideas like “honesty” and “responsibility” on and off the court and across the entire season. Suggest the AD approve the plan, and check in with the AD frequently for evidence that the plan is unfolding effectively.

Place a reprimand in the file for the original hiring omission. If the AD’s concerns are valid and persist, do not renew the contract. If the coach meets all improvement plan requirements, extend the probationary period of her contract and make it clear that you and the AD will continue to monitor progress next season. Expect the coach to demonstrate sincerity in this process, and keep up communication with the AD about progress.

Click on the link to see Previous Ethics Cases.

The Ethical Educator column presents a real dilemma in school leadership. The current panelists are Shelley Berman, superintendent, Eugene, Ore.; Roy Dexheimer, retired BOCES superintendent, Ithaca, N.Y.; Mark Hyatt, former president, Character Education Partnership, Washington, D.C.; and Sarah Mackenzie, associate professor at University of Maine, Orono, Maine, and author of Now What? Confronting and Resolving Ethical Issues. Abbreviated answers are published in School Administrator magazine. Past Ethical Educator panelists were: Karl Kertz, AASA past president, Thiensville, Wis.; Joan McRobbie, senior associate, National School Reform at Community Training and Assistance Center, San Francisco, Calif.; and Paula Mirk, former director of education, Institute for Global Ethics, Rockport, Maine.