Student advocates, school districts can avoid deadlock if agree on core values first

09/24/04

Each year, controversies can arise in a school district pitting the administration against individual parents and students over such issues as the handling of learning disabilities, textbooks thought morally subversive or the wearing of religious symbols.

With these scenarios, advocates for students and parents can achieve their best results in dealings with school districts if they first agree on non-negotiable core values, then compromise on issues marked by a difference in values, according to a Penn State study.

Negotiating in a spirit of give and take, and with a commitment to dialogue, is at the heart of the democratic process, notes Dr. Paul T. Begley, professor of education. That process starts with determining social values shared by both parties, such as the right of every student to have a quality education and the right of every classroom teacher to manage his or her class without fear of constant disruption. Another social value gaining in respectability is that not one size fits all for every student.

"Admittedly, the achievement of democratic consensus on educational issues has become more difficult in many communities," says Begley, a former teacher and principal in Ontario, Canada. "The increasingly diverse nature of student populations has made obsolete the notion that school administrators can operate with an unchanging, almost dogmatic set of values."

This may trouble those who believe that a single set of ethics can serve as a silver bullet for the varied challenges faced by school districts. Nevertheless, diversity of values does not necessarily mean a recipe for pandemonium, in or out of the classroom, say the researchers.

Begley and Lindy Zaretsky, former doctoral student at Penn State and currently an elementary principal with the York Region District School Board, presented their findings in the paper, "Understanding and Responding Ethically to the Dilemmas of School Based Leadership," presented at this year's American Educational Research Association conference. This paper will be published this year in a special issue of the Journal of Educational Administration, edited by Olof Johansson of Umea University in Sweden.

"When school districts impose curriculums or dress codes that appear democratic to the majority of students, their application may not been seen as democratic by the minority of students. For a truly democratic climate to be in place, there has to open dialogue between school districts and spokespersons for students and parents," Begley says."

Before they clash in public settings, school district representatives and advocates for students and parents have to be honest about their motives, no matter how ethical those motives may seem to be. Motives run the spectrum from the best to the worst, Begley says. As a result, the use of ethics can sometimes not be very ethical. The question advocates have to ask is, "What are the intentions behind my advocacy?"

"People negotiate best when they recognize that there will not be automatic agreement on what is ethical, since ethics are often interpreted in culturally exclusive ways," Begley notes. The process of negotiation demands a respectful give and take if it is to benefit both school district and student."

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