Personal Values, Professional Codes of Ethics, and Ethical Dilemmas in Special Education Leadership




Bigbee, Adam J.

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Within many professions, decision-makers encounter complex situations or ethical dilemmas for which a clear resolution is not often obvious. Business and medical communities have a rich history of research focused on ethics and ethical dilemmas. While business research tends to focus on the need for establishing guidelines to promote ethical practice, medical research explores the extent to which ethical practice is consistent with the Hippocratic oath, “above all, do no harm.” Demands for ethical leadership in education reflect, in part, a focus on the best interest of the child standard (Stefkovich & Begley, 2007). Within the field of special education in particular, this directive becomes a massive challenge given the complexity and significant demands placed on special education leaders. This study focused primarily on how special education case managers address ethical dilemmas within the field. Using the multiple paradigm model developed by Shapiro and Stefkovich (2005), this study investigated the interaction of personal values and professional codes of ethics for case managers when faced with ethical dilemmas. Other lines of inquiry included how personal values are formed, what causes ethical dilemmas, how case managers define ethical dilemmas, and how personal values and professional codes of ethics operate for the individual acting alone, as well as within a group dynamic. A web-based survey was distributed to 10,000 randomly sampled licensed special educators throughout the United States in order to investigate five research questions. Data were analyzed and reported based on 730 completed surveys. Despite a discussion about ethical leadership spanning three decades, scant research has been conducted in the area of ethics and decision making within the field of special education (Bon & Bigbee, 2011; Paul, French, & Cranston-Gingras, 2001; Howe & Miramontes, 1992). The present study sought to explore several areas that have received limited attention. Overall, case managers report that they were not well prepared to deal with ethical dilemmas in the field. They also indicate that more time should be spent discussing ethics within the school, and that national codes of ethics, such as the code established by the Council for Exception Children, play a relatively insignificant role in guiding their decisions when faced with ethical dilemmas. Regarding personal values and professional codes of ethics, findings indicate that professional codes of ethics dominate the decision-making process, both individually and within a group dynamic. Case managers report that the main sources of personal values are education, family, and religion. They also report that the primary sources of ethical dilemmas were conflicts with parents, administrators, teachers, and compliance mandates. Lastly, participants also provide a definition of ethical dilemma, which establishes five key themes that provide a clear composite of the term’s fundamental components. Findings from this study are vital in assisting pre-service special education program coordinators as well as district and school leaders in order to prepare future special education leaders to address and negotiate ethical dilemmas. This study developed a language around this discussion of ethics and ethical dilemmas. It also expanded on the powerful multiple paradigm model developed by Shapiro and Stefkovich (2005), which contends that personal and professional codes of ethics do not always exist in opposition to one another, but can co-exist to support the best interests of the child.



Ethics, Values, Leadership, Codes of Ethics, Special Education, Case Managers