This is the first of a three part discussion of ethics in education and school reform. The next two blogs will discuss ethics and collaborative decision-making and ethics and data and information.

Leading a school district is a complex challenge complete with frustration and ambiguity. Problems are not always clear and the causes may be out of the reach of the school. Solutions to the issues are beyond simplistic notions. Complications are omnipresent. All decisions are placed under the microscope of public scrutiny. We search for structure to behavior to be the most effective in this environment.

For the last 30 years or more, public education has been defined as a problem that needs ‘fixing’. The bugles of reform blow in the wind, as reformers want to restructure schools to make them more accountable.

The question is: what is structure? When we think of restructuring, we usually think of leadership – – roles, planning, organizing, coordinating, monitoring, and evaluating. That’s part of the problem.

Restructuring efforts are generally concerned with how decisions get made and implemented, not whether they are right or appropriate. Whether it is Top-down, bottom-up, or both ends toward the middle, power and authority are the focus.

We think of structure as command-and-control, line-and-staff relationships. Some reformers seem to think that carrots and sticks – rewards and punishment – are the way to direct and control behavior. Structure, however, is more than how we organize and decide.

In all of this, we miss an important structure because we don’t think of it as a structure. We don’t consider ethics when we think of what structures our professional lives.

Ethics are powerful. Think about it. What “structures” your personal decisions? Most likely, the values, beliefs, norms, standards, and ethics you learned from your parents, at church, or in school. Ethics are far more powerful than the monitoring and controlling mechanisms organizations put in place to make sure people behave properly. And they do not require additional staff.

Principles and values. We use them for judging appropriate action of practice. They are the cornerstones of any profession because they guide decisions and conduct. In reality, they are an invisible force – a structure – that directs attitudes and actions. They are more potent than traditional hierarchical power and controls because of commitment – the glue of noble ideals and causes.

People commit to values and ethics, and that commitment far surpasses organizational controls or administrative directives. We internalize ethics and make them a part of our behavior because of our desire to perform to the highest professional standards and conduct.

In confusing and perplexing times, people seek answers in order to make sense of the world around them. The same is true for our professional lives. Difficult issues, conflicting demands, and controversy engulf us and it all sometimes seems overwhelming. A code of ethics can guide us when confronted by these ambiguous, bewildering issues that ache for resolution, particularly when the alternatives are difficult, unclear or explosive.

In tough times, we gravitate to the ideals and principles that provide guidance for us to do what is “right”.  They create positive conflict, raise issues, and require dialogue and contemplation that can produce clarity of purpose and truthful thought and action. Ethics are those anchor points around which we can frame responses, alternatives, and decisions in our professional lives to do what is good, just, and fair.