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One of the central goals of current education reform in this country has been to equalize learning opportunities and outcomes for all groups of children, including and especially those groups previously marginalized. With federal education reform mandates of the early twenty-first century, the work of schools is rigidly evaluated on evidence of achievement - not simply evidence of good processes and intentions. This high-stakes demand for universal achievement has brought several ethical aspects of school leadership, including distribution of resources and equality of educational opportunity, sharply into focus. The subject of ethics in school administration has only recently been attended to by researchers (Beck & Murphy, 1994). Prior to 1990, most of the research regarding the school principalship was of a positivist, technical nature. In this study, I engaged in phenomenological inquiry because I was interested in learning about the lived experiences of the selected participants as they were engaged in a single phenomenon - decision-making when faced with an ethical dilemma in their principalship. Clark Moustakas' (1994) model of transcendental phenomenology will provided the basis of the research design. The purpose of this study was to explore and describe individual principals' experiences of ethical decision-making in a complex era. I presumed that most school principals would have a vivid memory of an experience when they were forced to make a "tough decision" - one that challenged them to take a position in spite of competing and deeply felt moral values. Ethical dilemma, in this case, was the term used to describe an event which calls for a decision to be made when moral values or ethical principles were in conflict. I was interested to know how they encountered this dilemma, what they thought and how they felt about it, what values they brought to bear, what advice they sought and from whom, how they resolved the dilemma, and what effect the experience had on their own leadership. Turmoil stemmed from what these principals experienced as a conflict of duties. Consistent with the conclusions of prior studies, I found that the most vexing ethical dilemmas reported by these principals involved imposing sanctions for staff (primarily) and students (secondarily). In three cases the issue was dismissal for underperformance. In two cases the issue was communicating dissatisfaction with teacher performance, either verbally or through the formal evaluation process. In two cases the issue was student discipline, specifically the determination of appropriate consequences for misbehavior. Two cases were unique in that they didn't fall into these categories, but were illustrative of how inner conflict arises when one is duty-bound to present a stance that runs counter to one's authentic self. These reported ethical dilemmas could be located within one or more of the following paradoxes: Justice versus mercy, conflict within the ethic of the profession (as described by Shapiro & Stefkovich, 2001), and personal code versus professional code. Several other themes emerged from the data. First, nearly all these principals reported being strongly influenced by the impact their decisions would have on their school community, especially the staff. Second, many of these principals were able to speak positively about their experiences, believing that their struggles resulted in refined leadership skills. Third, the experiences of these principals underscored the need for support from the superintendent and other central office personnel when difficult decisions had to be made. Finally, all of these principals' stories ended with a positive ending, with the principals' claim that they were comfortable with their decision-making and their belief that they did the right thing. Any negative feelings, such as fear or doubt, were not reported, leaving me to believe that these principals were not comfortable discussing them, even in a confidential setting with a researcher unconnected to their school systems. This points to the need for a support network where school principals can feel comfortable raising thorny ethical issues, and where private doubts and fears can addressed with candor. I hope that this study of these school principals' ethical decision-making will contribute to the current knowledge base of the role of the school principal, with implications for principal preparation programs, professional development of current and aspiring school principals and teachers, and policy making that can support sustainable leadership conditions.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.



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