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Mark P. Murphy
Educational Leadership
The Pennsylvania State University

Thursday, September 4, 2008

But the Policy Says ....

This narrative of a critical incident relates to events I experienced during my fifth year as an elementary school principal in a small town in Ontario, Canada during the early 80’s. The incident was significant enough to me at the time, but it is only in recent years that I realize how much it has shaped and influenced my thinking and professional work since then. Moreover, I realize now how these events were the trigger for what became my scholarly preoccupation with studying the influence of personal values on educational leadership practices. The irony is that my experiences that year were not particularly unique. I suspect many school principals of the era could recount similar tales.

The context of my narrative is as follows. I was a “teaching principal” in a JK-8 school located in a small town in rural central Ontario. The enrollment of my school was approximately 120 students and this was large enough to allow me to split my time equally between teaching and being the principal. There were five of us on staff and my office doubled as the staff room. As a result the teachers and I worked closely with each other, whether we wanted to or not. I suspect that an army tank crew would experience similar dynamics! I taught a split grade 7/8 class half-time in the morning and carried out school administrative duties in the afternoon. Officially I had a 50% teaching and 50% administration assignment. My close interactions with the teachers and relatively heavy teaching load had the effect of keeping me quite teacher-oriented as well as student-oriented. I also tended to be more collaborative in style than was the norm for my peers in those days. I’m not sure if this was because of my personal orientations or simply the outcome of the context of my professional work environment.

My school was located at the extreme edge of a geographically large school district, so my supervisor, an “area superintendent” for the large school district, did not visit my little rural school often, preferring to rely on telephone conversations. In any case, after four years at the school as a principal, things were running pretty smoothly. I had developed a reputation as a young but effective school administrator. In retrospect I can see that I was perceived as an “instructional leader.” While I didn’t realize it at the time, I was very focused on curricular programs and school district initiatives as a way to build consensus among staff. No wonder the superintendents considered me a good little soldier! Specific curricular innovations tended to be adopted as our school improvement projects and my notion of protecting the best interests of students was through well run curricular programs, conscientious teaching, and good resources.

This was the early 80’s so Special Education legislation was a big priority at the district office. We educators were experiencing a shocking increase in paperwork and documentation related to identifying and accommodating the needs of students with special needs. Parents were now required by law to be members of committees and students identified as having special needs had to have individual learning plans. This was the beginning of the big accountability push that is still with us today. I recall keeping track for two weeks of how my admin time was being used as part of a master’s degree project and was shocked to discover that a full 50% of my admin time was now directed to special education related activities. But I didn’t mind because I intuitively sensed that I could used these newly identified students with special needs as a lever to procure additional resources and support for my school, my teachers and my students. Being a principal of a small school in those days meant you needed a strong entrepreneurial streak and the instincts of a used car salesman. If there was a grant or free resource available from the district, I was all over it. I even used to beg sample copies of reading texts and math textbooks from my colleagues in other schools. One advantage of small grade groupings is that one could quickly accumulate enough books for a “class set” that way.

At some point in the Fall semester of that year the superintendents and school district announced and “implemented” (a new word for us in those days) their new policy for special education procedures in the district. I studied it carefully, mostly with the intent of mining it as a source of additional resources for the school, but also because I was in the habit of using new policies and curricular innovations as a professional focus for the staff. One component of the new policy indicated that funding was available for hiring classroom assistants in support of children identified with learning disabilities. This really grabbed my attention because we really needed some help with of special needs kids.

In compliance with the requirements of this new policy, we as a staff formed an “IPRC” (need identification) committee and carefully documented the needs of students, most of whom we were already accommodating informally. By late in the Fall term, and as a result of some formalized testing, it became apparent that a little boy in particular, a grade five student, had a significant learning disability and, according to the terms of the policy, was a prime candidate for having a teaching assistant assigned to support him in the classroom. There were forms to fill out and protocols to be followed in order to get this kind of support. We complied to the policy protocols with the greatest care. I consulted regularly with the superintendent and district coordinator of special education, and by about mid-November all was submitted. I even had the names and resumes for several potentially good hires to fill the new teaching aide position we were expecting and I informed the staff that I was confident we have our new staff member in place by start of term in January. I should also mention that quite a few schools in our district, especially those located in the city where the district office is located, had managed to have teaching aides assigned to them throughout the first semester.

January came and there was no new aide. I contacted my superintendent and asked if we had failed to provide something he needed and when we could expect to have our new classroom aide. He was slow replying and, when he did, informed us that he needed to visit the school and see this child himself before he could make a judgment about allocating more resources. It took a few weeks to get him to the school. When he did come, I made sure the boy’s Mom, who was a member of the IPRC committee of course, was there. Our part time special education teacher had all the paperwork and test scores and minutes of meetings ready for the superintendent to examine. The superintendent visited the school and classroom and then left without making any commitment, although I certainly asked.

As more weeks went by, I became pretty frustrated. The policy was clear. We had done the paperwork. And to my mind it was a no-brainer, the boy needed the help and the policy said we were entitled to the additional support. Why was the superintendent delaying a decision that was so obvious? Indeed, many other schools in the district had received additional support in the classroom for very similar cases. I became more insistent with my phone calls. Finally the superintendent informed me that there was no more money for teachers aides, that the budget had been completely expended for the year. I refused to accept that answer. The policy was clear and there was no mention of budgetary limits. Why should my school be denied support so readily provided to other schools? Indeed, all the rhetoric up to now had been about our sacred and legally bound duty as educators to meet the needs of every identified special needs child. I was incensed and more than a little suspicious that our little rural school was once again getting stiffed for resources to which we were entitled. The difference this time is that we were backed by the law and a policy that seemed pretty ironclad. I insisted that the needs of this little boy be met through the appointment of classroom aide. I made it clear that the school community would accept nothing less, hinting broadly of dissatisfied parents calling to protest.

The superintendent visited my school again soon after that conversation. We met in my office. He informed me there would be no new classroom assistant, once again stating that there was no money left for new hires. He then informed me that, beginning the following Monday, my assignment would be altered. I would teach the grade 7 / 8 class 60% of the day. I could carry out my principal’s duties during the time in the afternoon. This was something less than two hours per day. The French teacher who had been my half-time administrative relief in the afternoon, was to work as an aide in the grade five class during the afternoon in support of the little boy needing the extra help. He further added that because I was so deeply committed to the needs of this little boy that I would surely be agreeable to this arrangement.

I felt deeply betrayed, but really had no choice. I started teaching the grade 7 / 8 students history and geography in the afternoon, in addition to the language arts and math I taught in the morning. My relief teacher worked with the little boy as a support teacher for about 1.5 hours each day. I actually found that I enjoyed teaching history and I’m sure my grade 7 / 8 students were beneficiaries of this arrangement, but I was still very offended that I was being punished personally for the district’s failure to provide resources they had guaranteed and were by law required to provide. In what I now understand to be a na├»ve view of what “policy” means. I believed that if the policy that I dutifully honored and complied with in all respects called for providing support to my students, then that support would be provided. Otherwise, why have the policy?

By the end of that year I had completed my fifth years as a principal. I have always been one for five year cycles and my disenchantment with what I perceived as the superintendent’s unethical actions became the tipping point for a decision –it was time for a change. I began to make plans for leaving education to do something else. I considered law school –something I had seriously looked at as an undergrad in university. I also applied to medical schools at 33 years of age. Most medical schools would not consider me because of my age, but there was a medical school in St. Lucia that would take me. In the end it was one of my M.Ed. professors at OISE / University of Toronto who suggested I do a doctorate in education. I laughed at the suggestion when he first made it. Me? A doctorate? I don’t think so. But that is what I ended up doing. But, to this day nothing gets me fired up more than encountering situations where ethical postures like “best interests of students” get propped up as a veil to obscure primitive organizational agendas or for reasons of fiscal expediency.


Step 1: Interpretation of the Problem (ethic of critique)

I can see now that I had failed to properly understand the perspectives of key stakeholders in this situation. I naively thought the superintendent and the school district were focused by the same in-school, student-oriented agendas I had. I did not realize the extent to which broader organizational and political agendas might exist. I thought we were in accord on objectives and means, and that the policy accurately and literally conveyed the ends and means of meeting the needs of special education students. As a relatively new principal I was aware that some of the larger urban schools often seemed to get more than their due share of resources from the district, but I did not fully appreciate that many of the principals of those schools were every bit as good as me in chasing down those resources.

The conflict or tensions that developed over this situation spilled over a number of arenas of practice. My personal and professional belief systems both gave me the drive and energy to assertively pursue what I interpreted as the best interests of the school. I had also become accustomed to the good will and benevolence of senior district administrators, accorded to a relatively new principal who seemed to be going out of his way to champion their initiatives and policies. I was used to winning. Also, compared to the situation today, the parents were not strong players in this process. There were no strong advocacy groups. The teachers and I were the main advocates for the parents and student.

My personal and professional efforts to bring this matter to a head apparently created tensions for the superintendent and for the school district. I now understand how the new demands for accountability emanating from intensified social expectations for schools created a lot of pressure on the district. This was a relatively turbulent time for educators and school administrators. The demands associated with identifying and documenting the needs of students with special needs was rebalancing the allocation of professional time in schools, and straining the finances of the school district in ways that had not been encountered before, but certainly have become common since that time. The district special education policy was created in response to this pressure and promised to meet the needs of all students as the law demanded. I as a school principal made the mistake of interpreting that policy literally –resources were promised if particular conditions were met. I did not realize that this policy was as much a political response to pressure from the community as it was document to guide the professional actions of educators in the system.

Step 2: Towards a Humane Response (ethic of care)

Although I was typical of principals of that era in the sense that my instructional leadership was focused by programs, curriculum documents, and district initiatives, I was also very conscious that it was my professional duty to protect the best interests of my students. This seemed to come naturally to me as a principal with teaching responsibilities. In many respects that was my professional meta-value – the best interests of students. Plus, at a personal level, I have always had a competitive streak as well as an entrepreneurial bent. In my role as principal of this small rural school, I easily saw myself as its champion.

With the benefit of hindsight, I believe the superintendent was also well intentioned in terms of the needs of students, at least for the first part of the year. When the budgeted money was all expended and it became obvious that the distribution of resources across the district was uneven and that a whole lot more funds were needed, he was increasingly backed into a corner. And I was raising the stakes by insistently pointing out that he was required by law to provide the support I was requesting to the school according to the terms of a policy of which he was primary author.

I should add that there was no history of interpersonal conflict between us. To the contrary, he had always been supportive of me, and I of him until that time. I would say that we trusted each other. The circumstance that ultimately made this issue so pressing was the fact that there was a little boy whose educational needs hung in the balance. It started off as a professional matter, deteriorated to a fiscal matter that became stalemated, and ultimately was resolved by direct administrative action. The student’s needs were ultimately met, but that came out of my hide and, in my perception, to the detriment of the school culture, staff morale and overall effectiveness of the school’s operations.

Step 3: Ethical Action (ethic of justice)

In hindsight, the school district obviously became ensnared by the terms of a special education policy that it had developed for itself. Nobody anticipated the high number of students that would ultimately be identified as having special needs –something like 20% of the district enrollment. On the other hand, the superintendent allowed resources to be distributed unevenly across the district. Some schools, like mine, got nothing. Other schools, typically the larger urban ones, received large amounts of support. Not only were resources and benefits not maximized, the special needs of small rural schools were ignored.

While the student from my school ultimately had his needs met, at least partially, my rights to a reasonable amount of administrative relief time were compromised. In effect I was hoisted on my own petard. After spending most of the year championing this student’s needs, I was invited to provide the solution for meeting them myself. Everybody was in agreement on the “ends” of this policy –meeting the needs of students with special needs. But when the “means” got scarce and I kept pushing the matter, as a subordinate in the organization I became vulnerable to having responsibility for the whole problem downloaded on me. I felt personally betrayed in that my “good intentions” and conscientiousness were being punished, but organizationally I now realize that I had left my superintendent with no other recourse; if indeed there was no more funding available.


Norm Miller said...

This is an impressive post establishing quite an ethical dilemma. Likewise, your analysis is impressive. The superintendent was very sly in how he was able to give you what you wanted and send you a message at the same time. Your analysis under ethic of justice where you explain that the policy was followed as the ‘end’ was met, but the ‘means’ and your ‘good intentions’ became punishment for you -- I believe says much to your character as an educator. I greatly admire your ethic of care and your perseverance in this situation. You put the kid first…Bravo!

Ty said...

I always wonder what I would have done if I put into the same situation. If I had been the district superintendent, would I have done the same thing? I hope not. I wonder why the resources for special education were distributed so unevenly? Because larger ponds have more fish? Given the constraint on resources, what would have been the better option? Institute the policy gradually at each school? Start off with 1 or 2 per school and increase the number of aides from there according to the size of the school.

JTW said...

We can all learn from this post. With the present demands of NCLB I believe it would be extremely difficult to have a teacher/principal scenario. However, I am sure that they still exist. I would have taken the same steps that you did to ensure that the students needs were addressed. Certainly, as administrators, we are all well aware of the fiscal responsibility that our job demands. However, you were operating under the guidelines given to you. I believe the superintendent was working with a dilemma and chose to use avoidance. Once he was "backed into a corner" because you would not accept no for an answer he was forced to address the situation.I also believe that had he come to you and explained his dilemma, the two of you could have collectively decided on a solution using your meta value of best interest of the student as well as that of the district, thus using an ethic of profession. If this collective thought process would have been utilized would have you possibly come up with the same conclusion as he?

Anonymous said...

This was truly a dilemma. Your meta-value of best interest of students was certainly put to the test. You adeptly rose to the challenge and proved to be flexible in your actions. Unfortunately, since there was no more money allocated, the best interest of the child impededed on your responsibility as administrator. Thanks for putting your ethic of care above your personal self interest.

Anonymous said...

Who monitors the allocation of federal funds for resources for children with disabilities? In my community,there are many children in need of these resources, yet very few benefit from some sort of assistance (During the several years I taught,I never saw an aide with the students with these needs at my school).
Now, there two factors that come to mind which hinder these efforts; one of these being what you described in your post. Funds are being distributed unevenly among schools (according to variables such as location, population, SSE, etc) and the other is the even darker actions of corruption, fraud and embezzlement of these funds which unfortunately impacts these children and their families. It takes a strong and embedded code of ethics to stand up to these injustices, even if it means losing your job over it. However, sometimes educators, school staff, principals and superintendents choose to look the other way to protect their own interests and infringe on the moral principle of equality and impartiality.

Cathy Peachey said...

The situation you describe is truly an ethical challenge for all districts; to find the resources to provide the best education possible for each child. While each child has different needs the resources must be allocated in a manner that meets the ethic of justice. As the business administrator in a small rural school district I see first hand the issues that equity and adequacy of resources create. As in your scenario, I too feel that we are not being treated fairly in relationship to the large urban school district. We are expected to meet the same challenges with our students as these lareger districts with less resources. Where is the ethic of justice?

Sam said...

Thanks for this great experience and your strategic response by avoiding further engagement with the superintendent and accepting the 60% teaching appointment instead of 50% for the purpose of meeting the needs of your special student. This implies that your meta-value of profession is "the best interest of students" as you indicated. As an ethical leader and reflecting on the past, you were quite right to be upset. Why the superintendent didn't tell you inititally that funds were run out? It was only indicated after you had completed all necessary paper requirements. It was indeed a betrayer or an infusion of politics into education.


Keun Jin said...

Finance is one of the most serious problems in administration. Administrators and leaders usually refer to money problem when they confront importnat problems to solve. However, the distribution of money is not equal to all memebers. Large sections of the organization can receive more fund than other sections even if they do not really need the money. Financial problems related to the organization relationship hinder to care students' need in many times. I understand the betrayal after a lot of paperwork makes school members very upset. This kind of betrayal comes from the fact that the school is just small and it is ignored by the central organization.

Dave Jagger said...

There is a typical appeal to "the law" that runs throughout this post, as well as many dilemmas within school systems. While schools come in so many different sizes, with so many administrative setups, there seem invariably to be similar approaches to dealing with the competition between complying with the law and available resources. Paul's appeal to the law and his superintendent's resulting "creative" approach to providing just enough services to stay within the legal framework rings very true today. The irony now is that the French teacher would not be able to provide "aide" services to the child, and Paul would not be able to teach the history class unless he was "highly qualified" to do so! Paul, your appeal might have met with more success after NCLB. But, you always knew you were ahead of your time!

Bridget said...

Ethic of critique: The superintendent is caught in the middle of who gets what, including services. If one school gets an aide the next school does not. Each teacher and their students deserve and need that which policy and law also promote, delineate, and support. Well there was no financial support in this case.

Ethic of care: Was there any opportunity to discuss with the superintendent other ways to support the student without sacrificing administrative time and the time of the relief teacher?
• volunteers in the classroom to allow the teacher more one-on-one with the student with special needs
• additional training for the teachers working with the student
• involving outside agencies to support the student, the family, and the teacher
• the child attends one of the schools with an aid

Ethic of Justice: Upon reflection what suggestion/s did you have for the superintendent? How would you have reacted to role reversal?

Chiachen Chang said...

This narrative reflects how the personal formation could effect and be affected by one’s beliefs, values, and behaviors. It also mirrors the dilemmas educators routinely experienced, submitting to the unjust decisions (policies) or upholding the right things (the best interests for the students). Courage, communication, wisdom, persistence, and caring values that you embraced help you to confront the unjust policies and to make the maximum administrative decision were very admirable. Thank you for sharing this impressive narrative.

mack said...

When The popular comment layout is common, so it is easily recognized scanning to post a comment. If the comment section is in a different format, then I am going to spend more time trying to decipher what everything means.

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