Ill-Structured Problem

Ill-Structured Problem

Ill-structured problems (ISPs) have no clear goals or constraints and often involve ethical dilemmas. In fact, ISPs are highly dependent on context as well as the perspective of those who are solving the problem. In approaching an ill-structured problem, educational leaders must attend to alternative points of view and create arguments to justify the proposed solution. The purpose of this case study is to respond to an ill-structured problem with a potential solution.

After reading the case study “Discrimination or Background Knowledge, Part I” found at the end of Chapter 1, respond to the following questions:

  1. What characteristics of the case study demonstrate that this is an ill-structured problem?
  2. What ISLLC standards are applicable to this case study and how would you justify your explanation using the text?
  3. Acknowledging the legal and ethical issues surrounding this case, how would you professionally respond to the following groups to begin to uncover a solution without adding “fuel to the fire”?
  • How might you respond to the minority parents who feel their children have been denied access?
  • How would you respond to the principals who feel students of color do not have proper study skills?

The Journal

  • Must be at least 2 double-spaced pages in length (not including title and references pages) and formatted according to APA style as outlined
  • Must include a separate title page with the following:
    • Title of paper
    • Student’s name
    • Course name and number
    • Instructor’s name
    • Date submitted
  • Must use at least ONE outside source in addition to the course text.
    • The Scholarly, Peer Reviewed, and Other Credible Sources (Links to an external site.) table offers additional guidance on appropriate source types. If you have questions about whether a specific source is appropriate for this assignment, please contact your instructor. Your instructor has the final say about the appropriateness of a specific source for a particular assignment.
  • Must document all sources in APA style as outlined
  • Must include a separate references page that is formatted according to APA style as outlinedChapter Introduction: Law, Ethics, and Educational Leadership


    The study of school law is a well-accepted practice in school leader preparation programs. However, future school leaders need more than knowledge of law. They need a conceptual framework to aid in the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of this knowledge and to apply these skills to various ill-defined situations. Ethical frameworks have also been shown to be essential in the development of competent school leaders. In addition, standards are essential tools in the preparation of these leaders. This chapter introduces school leadership candidates to the importance of ethical frameworks and the Interstate School Leadership Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) standards ( Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO], 2008 ). It introduces future campus and district leaders to the link between the ISLLC standards, the concept of ethical frameworks, and the importance of knowledge of law.

    Focus Questions

    1. What are the ISLLC standards for school leaders?

    2. How may the ISLLC standards be used to guide educational leadership preparation?

    3. What is ethics, and why are ethical frameworks important to school leadership?

    4. How are legal and ethical decision making interwoven?

    Key Terms

    1. Ethics

    2. Ill-structured problems

    3. ISLLC standards

    4. Useful strategic knowledge

    Case Study Tough Times Continue at Riverboat School District

    After 5 years as principal of Riverboat High School, Sharon Grey settled into her new role as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for Riverboat School District (RSD). RSD was set adjacent to the southern boundaries of Capital City, a city of approximately 75,000 individuals. Capital City hosted the state capitol and was home to several businesses and industries, as well as a small land-grant university. The city also provided employment for most of the families of current RSD students. Over the past 5 years, total district enrollment had increased from approximately 4,000 students in grades PK–12 to almost 5,000 students. As a result of the enrollment increases, the district had added a new middle school and two elementary schools. The additional facilities had resulted in a total of one 9–12 high school, two 6–8 middle schools, and five PK–5 elementary schools. District enrollment data indicated that approximately 60% of the students were White, 20% were African American, and 20% were Latino. Latino families and students were by far the fastest growing population in the district.

    Data collected by the Bureau of Economic Development indicated that the northern part of the district would continue to grow for at least the next 5 to 10 years. Most current residents were well educated and employed by state government, by one of several companies in the area, or in one of many personal service occupations. Consequently, the current unemployment rate for Riverboat School District was around 5.2%. Cohort projection data, gathered from the elementary and middle schools, indicated a steady increase in students. In 5 years RSD would grow from the current 5,000 students to approximately 6,000 students. These data, combined with projections from the Bureau of Economic Development, indicated that at the end of the 5-year projection period, more than 60% of RSD enrollment would be African American, Latino, or Asian/Pacific Islander. Free and reduced-price lunches would be needed for approximately 40% of the student population during this period, in contrast to the current figure of 20%.

    In addition to the new facilities and changing demographics, the district had seen an almost complete change in campus leadership. Sharon had noted that for many of the principals and assistant principals, this was their first administrative experience in their particular roles. Therefore, a significant part of Sharon’s responsibilities was to serve as mentor, confidant, and advisor to district principals, assistant principals, and athletic directors. Because of several recent lawsuits, the superintendent had made it clear to her new campus school leaders that they should seek Sharon’s counsel when faced with difficult decisions. It did not take long for this part of Sharon’s job description to be put to use.

    Flyers at Pocono

    During the first week of the new school year, Pocono Elementary School principal Lana Aldridge called Sharon, “Hi, Sharon, sorry to bother you the first week of school, but I have a potential problem I would like to discuss.” Lana went on to explain that Pocono Elementary School traditionally allowed community groups such as the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and sports leagues to distribute informational and advertisement flyers at school. Occasionally, these flyers were brought to school by students. All was well at Pocono until fifth-grader Allison brought a colorful flyer inviting fellow fourth- and fifth-grade students to a “back-to-school” party at her church. The party featured “snacks, Ping-Pong, foosball, and Christian fellowship.” Allison had been given the flyers by the youth minister of the church. Apparently, Allison’s plan was to give a stack of the flyers to a representative of each of the fourth- and fifth-grade classes and for the students to hand out the flyers to their classmates during the school day. Lana followed this explanation by stating, “I think if we allow Allison and her friends to distribute the flyer here at school, it will appear as if Pocono Elementary is endorsing the party. We should not allow the distribution of the flyer, right?”

    Leadership Perspective

    Future school leaders will be required to understand, address, and solve problems they will encounter ( Copland, 2000 ). The types of problems future leaders will face can be viewed in a variety of ways. Most useful to this textbook is the classification of problems into routine, structured problems and non-routine, ill-structured problems (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995). Structured problems present familiar issues that experienced leaders have solved before. In contrast, ill-structured problems are more complex. Such problems are often characterized by a lack of clarity, present a number of potential obstacles, and are “messy” in that the values and potential conflicts embedded in the problem are not readily apparent. Also, a number of options for solutions are available for consideration (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995).

    One of the real-life challenges of problem solving is the social context inherent in many ill-structured problems (Leithwood & Steinbach, 1995). A significant part of the social context of problem solving is that the way problems are presented to school leaders frequently reflects a preconceived solution generated from the frame of reference of the problem presenter ( Copland, 2000 ). The framing of the problem by the presenter may be absolutely correct. However, rejecting or embracing the preconceived solution before the problem has been clearly defined may be a fatal mistake. Excellent campus and district leaders have the ability to recognize the inherent challenges of ill-structured problems and reframe the problem, at least temporarily, in solution-free terms. “Flyers at Pocono” may serve as an example. Lana Aldridge has presented Sharon with a predefined solution: to not allow Allison to distribute the flyers at school. If Sharon Grey embraces this solution, the decision may result in charges that the school district is against religion. If, however, Lana Aldridge allows Allison to distribute the flyer, it is possible that at least some elementary students and parents will believe that the church event is endorsed or at least supported by the school. Either way, controversy may follow. In short, ill-structured problems present school leaders with dilemmas, with no easy or clear-cut solutions.



    The ISLLC Conceptual Framework

    A conceptual framework provides a foundation for thinking about the dilemmas presented by ill-structured problems. This conceptual framework has been provided by six standards for school leadership developed by the ISLLC ( CCSSO, 2008 ). The 2008 ISLLC standards build on the 1996 standards ( ISLLC, 1996 ) and reflect new information, research, and lessons learned since the original ISLLC standards were published. The 2-year process of updating the ISLLC standards to reflect this new research and knowledge was led by the National Policy Board for Educational Administration (NPBEA) Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium Steering Committee. The steering committee worked with several member organizations, practitioner-based organizations, researchers, and higher education officials in the revision process. Once the draft revisions were developed, the NPBEA/ISSLC Steering Committee distributed copies and gathered feedback from member organizations, researchers, and other groups. Based on their research and feedback from various organizations and individuals, the final 2008 ISLLC standards were published by the CCSSO. These six  ISLLC standards , and the comprehensive descriptors that accompany them, are designed to provide “high-level guidance and insight about the traits, functions of work, and responsibilities expected of school and district leaders” ( CCSSO, 2008 , p. 5). Standards have been shown to be essential tools in developing pre-service programs for principals. The 2008 ISLLC standards in particular provide guidance and insight into the heart of educational leadership preparation by beginning to answer the following questions:

    · How do schools of education determine what education leaders need to know to ensure that every child meets academic achievement standards?

    · How can schools of education effectively convey that knowledge in a coherent fashion ( CCSSO, 2008 , p. 5)?

    These six revised standards are:

    · Standard 1: An education leader promotes the success of every student by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by all stakeholders.

    · Standard 2: An education leader promotes the success of every student by advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth.

    · Standard 3: An education leader promotes the success of every student by ensuring management of the organization, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment.

    · Standard 4: An education leader promotes the success of every student by collaborating with faculty and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources.

    · Standard 5: An education leader promotes the success of every student by acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner.

    · Standard 6: An education leader promotes the success of every student by understanding, responding to, and influencing the political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.

     Note.  The ISLLC standards were developed by the CCSSO and member states. Copies may be downloaded from the Council’s website at .]

    For example, the case study “Flyers at Pocono” requires Sharon and Lana to expand their toolbox of knowledge and skills to include an understanding of the legal consequences of decision making, model self-awareness and ethical behavior, and build and sustain positive relationships with community partners. As this case study and the ISLLC standards illustrate, school leadership candidates and practicing leaders need knowledge of the law. But knowledge of law is not enough. Future leaders need ethical frameworks to guide how they use this knowledge. In other words, both knowledge and applicability (when, how, and why) are important. As Leithwood and Steinbach (1992) point out, in the absence of knowledge, one has nothing to think about. In the absence of reasonably well-developed thinking skills, one may or may not apply any acquired knowledge in appropriate circumstances. Leithwood and Steinbach (1992) use the phrase  useful strategic knowledge  to more comprehensively portray the idea of combining knowledge acquisition with general thinking skills. Useful strategic knowledge can be viewed as the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate knowledge in a coherent and useful manner.

    ISLLC Standard 5D

    ISLLC Standard 5B

    ISLLC Standard 4D

    Relating Law and Ethics to Educational Leadership

    The study of law in educational leadership preparation curricula is for the most part well-accepted practice. Make no mistake: Public schools operate under a comprehensive and sometimes confusing set of local, state, and federal laws and policies, and certain legal requirements do exist. There is no excuse for not understanding or choosing to ignore certain laws or policies because of personal biases, because of personal beliefs, or for expediency. Laws, regulations, and policies are in place for a reason, and the general public and boards of education in particular take a dim view of school leaders who make decisions outside established law or written school board policy.

    School leaders are expected to make rational decisions in an irrational environment and defend these decisions based on established legal and ethical principles. Of the countless decisions made each year by thousands of school administrators nationwide, only a few make headlines, and even fewer are confronted with a legal challenge. An impartial judge and jury do not magically appear to adjudicate disputes among teachers, students, and school authorities. In addition, federal and state judges are hesitant to second-guess the decisions of school administrators or boards of education, and legal challenges to administrative decisions are often difficult. For all practical purposes, therefore, school administrators are “the law” and generally serve as chief investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner ( Sperry, 1999 ). These circumstances often create an environment where protecting the fundamental rights of teachers, parents, and students often falls to the very persons with the most power to violate these rights.

    There is no question that legal principles do provide guidance. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the vast majority of decisions school leaders face cannot be addressed with an exact or fixed legal response ( Sperry, 1999 ). Consequently, as Rebore (2001) implies, the addition of ethical principles to knowledge of law provides a deeper understanding of the implications of decision making on the lives of the affected individuals.

    Defining Ethical Leadership

    The view that an understanding of ethics is crucial to the proper stewardship of the nation’s schools has emerged as a widely accepted part of the knowledge base necessary for effective school leadership ( Cranston, Ehrich, & Kimber, 2003 ;  Fullan, 2003 ;  Furman, 2003 ;  Greenfield, 2004 ; Sergiovanni, 1992). The ISLLC standards embrace both an understanding of law and the value of ethics in the preparation of educational leaders. Specifically, ISLLC Standard 5.0 calls for school leaders who “promote the success of every student by acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner” [italics added] ( CCSSO, 2008 ). Ethical leadership is choosing to do the right thing based on sound reasoning, rather than simply reacting with little foresight to every challenge. First and foremost, ethical decision making requires considerations of how people should be treated and always involves the terms right, fair, or just ( Strike, Haller, & Soltis, 1998 ). Perceptions of right, fair, and just, however, are much like perceptions of beauty—always in the eye of the beholder. Thus, ethical leadership requires consideration of why some action should, or should not, be taken (Rebore, 2001). In short, an ethical decision always involves choosing among alternatives, and choosing among alternatives is essentially concerned with two different questions: (1) What is right, or what is wrong? (2) What is good, or what is bad? Inherent in considering these questions is the understanding that some types of actions are right and others wrong. Rebore (2001) emphasizes that any decision carries a personal consequence for the decision maker. He or she personally changes with every decision. In other words, school leaders are defined by the decisions they make, not by their position of authority, the academic degrees they hold, or their personality.

    ISLLC Standard 5.0

    As  Normore (2004)  points out, however, developing morally competent leaders requires more than the inclusion of ethical behavior into a set of standards. Indeed, incorporating ethics into educational leadership preparation curriculum and instruction is required. However, this incorporation may be easier to prescribe than to accomplish ( Begley, 2001 ). Part of the problem is that the meaning of the term ethics is somewhat ambiguous ( Begley, 2006 ;  Cranston et al., 2003 ). In some instances ethics is defined in terms of what is right and wrong. For example,  Colgan (2004)  uses the term ethics (or lack thereof) in the context of fraud, malfeasance, and corruption involving school district officials. The term ethics is also commonly used to describe a code of conduct. For example, the American Educational Research Association publishes a code of ethics for educational researchers ( American Educational Research Association, 2011 ). In other contexts, the terms ethics, values, and morality are used interchangeably ( Begley, 2006 ). For example, Sergiovanni (1992),  Fullan (2003) , and  Greenfield (2004)  use the term moral leadership in the context of leadership fairness and integrity, and Rebore (2001) uses the term ethics in a similar context. However, there is a difference among these connotations. Ethics is the study of conduct and considers how individuals ought to act ( Johnson, 1999 ). As Paul  Begley (2006)  states,


    The study of ethics should be as much about the life-long personal struggle to be ethical, about failures to be ethical, the inconsistencies of ethical postures, the masquerading of self-interest and personal preference as ethical action, and the dilemmas which occur in everyday and professional life when one ethic trumps another. (p. 571)

    Ronald Rebore (2001) defines ethics as follows: “What does it mean to be a human being, how should human beings treat one another, and how should the institutions of society be organized?” (p. 5). This book will follow Rebore’s premise, defining  ethics  by considering the following questions:

    · What does it mean to be a school leader?

    · How should the human beings in schools treat one another?

    · How should the educational institutions that we call “school” be organized?

    Ethical Frameworks

    Future school leaders need more than just a definition of ethics. As  Begley (2006)  contends, future leaders require frameworks and ways of thinking about problems that encompass the full range of leadership requirements. However, these ethical frameworks should be viewed as an initial organizer and as a way of thinking about a problem, not as a recipe or prescription. School leadership situations are much too complex for that. Rather than a model or procedural guides, this textbook includes several ethical frameworks designed to encourage reflection on the consequences decisions have for others as well as for the school leader personally.

    It should be noted that not all problems facing school leaders present ethical dilemmas. Structured problems rarely do so.  Ill-structured problems , on the other hand, are much more complicated and often involve choosing between alternatives that at least some members of the school community are not going to like. At the same time, future school leaders should be aware that the application of ISLLC standards and an ethical framework may be inappropriate in some situations. For example, ISLLC Standard 2A calls for school leaders to nurture and sustain a culture of collaboration. One well-accepted way to meet this standard is participatory decision making and seeking consensus from faculty. As  Begley (2006)  suggests, however, faculty consensus may reflect what is best for the faculty but may not necessarily serve the best interest of students. In these cases, a school leader could point to consensus and the use of an ethical framework to justify what may on the surface look like a rational and defensible decision. In addition,  Begley (2006)  reminds us that some ethical postures may be unethical when:

    ISLLC Standard 2A


    · A cultural ethic is imposed on others;

    · An ethic is used to justify otherwise reprehensible action;

    · An ethical posture veils a less defensible value; and

    · An ethic is used to trump a basic human right (p. 581).

    Law, Ethics, and Decision Making

    The ISLLC standards require that school leaders use legal and ethical considerations in the decisions they make. This combination is embedded throughout the standards but is particularly addressed in ISLLC Standard 5. But how can school leaders accomplish this—for example, how can Sharon Grey in the opening case study, “Flyers at

    Isllc Standard 5


    FIGURE 1-1 Decision-making model.

    Pocono,” apply knowledge of law and ethical frameworks to help Lana Aldridge consider why some action should or should not be taken?



    Combining Ethical and Legal Principles with Decision Making

    Figure 1-1  presents a decision-making model that considers the balance of ethical and legal principles as reflected in ISLLC Standard 5.

    Stage One would include the following steps:

    1. Defining the problem: It can be argued that the most important step is clearly defining the problem. Without a clear understanding of the problem, it is very difficult to develop a reasonable solution. In this illustration, the problem can be expressed as: “Students would like to distribute flyers inviting fellow fourth- and fifth-graders to a church-sponsored event.”

    2. Defining the parameters: At this point, only students at Pocono Elementary and their parents are involved. However, the problem could be more widespread and could significantly affect the culture of the school and community perceptions of the school.

    3. Primary decision maker: This is a leadership concern, and Sharon should be involved. However, she would most certainly wish to involve other groups, including teachers, students, parents, and possibly the superintendent or other central office personnel, in the decision-making process.

    4. Acceptable outcome: The only acceptable outcome as defined by ISLLC Standard 5 is a solution that is legally and ethically defensible.

    ISLLC Standard 5

    Stage Two would include researching the problem, obtaining input from various groups and individuals, and exploring possible solutions. These steps can be further defined as follows:

    1. Research: In this case Sharon needs to determine several facts, including legal guidelines for the distribution of religious materials at a public elementary school, and to develop her understanding of past policy and practice at Pocono and other elementary schools in the district. Sharon also needs to know district policy regarding the distribution of community non-profit flyers and how these policies are applied to students at RSD.

    2. Input: Armed with this information, Sharon may wish to present the problem to various groups, including teachers, counselors, students, and parents, and solicit possible solutions to the problem.

    3. Evaluation of possible solutions: This step symbolizes the legal and ethical dilemmas that consider the terms right, fair, and just. However, what is “right” to some students and their parents (the opportunity to participate in a church-sponsored event) is not “fair” to another group of students and their parents (those who believe that public schools should remain neutral regarding religion). It is possible that the practice of distributing community information has become entrenched in the culture of the school district. If this is the case, courage will be required to make a meaningful change in practice.

    Stage Three includes making, implementing, and evaluating the decision.

    1. Decision: As in most cases like this one, several options will be open to Sharon. Choosing the best course—that is, what is best for all—may be contrary to established traditions at Pocono. However, effective leaders understand their obligations and accept the consequences of their decisions.

    2. Implementation plan: Implementing the decision involves effectively communicating the problem and how it is contrary to social justice, and communicating and implementing policy and practice to address the problem.

    3. Evaluation: The evaluation of any decision relates directly to Step 4 in Stage One and considers whether the decision results in the predetermined acceptable outcome. If so, it is a valid and good decision. If not, Sharon would need to backtrack to Stage Two.



    Linking to Practice


    · Understand that management skills and legal knowledge are necessary for successful school leadership.

    · Understand that effective school leaders move beyond management and legal knowledge by integrating ethical considerations into their approach to solving problems, challenges, and conflict.

    Do Not:

    · Ignore law or policy because of personal biases or expediency.

    · Disregard or underestimate the naturally occurring imbalance of power among administrators, teachers, students, and parents inherent in school leadership.


    The landscape in which school leaders serve is rapidly changing and requires a different kind of school leader than was needed in the past. The recently adopted ISLLC standards provide a conceptual framework for visualizing and understanding this new paradigm of leadership. These standards also provide guidance in the preparation and evaluation of future school leaders. Embedded throughout these standards are several themes or strands. One embedded theme includes legal and ethical standards for leadership, a focus of this text.

    School leaders are expected to make rational decisions in an open system that is constantly buffeted by internal and external demands for school improvement and school safety while maintaining a caring and humane environment. The constant demands and the conflict surrounding these demands challenge even the most experienced school leaders to make reasoned decisions. Legal principles do provide guidance in decision making. However, an understanding of the types of legal principles and the ethical application of these principles is necessary for effective leadership.

    Connecting Standards to Practice

    Discrimination or Background Knowledge, Part I

    During Sharon Grey’s first weeks as assistant superintendent, she was approached by a delegation of minority parents representing two of the three middle schools in the district. The parents politely explained that their children in Pocono and Jefferson Middle Schools were routinely denied access to Pre-Advanced Placement courses in both schools. After the parents left, Sharon reviewed the demographics of Pocono and Jefferson. She than reviewed the previous year’s enrollment in eighth-grade Pre-AP courses for both middle schools. Previous-year Pocono Middle School eighth-grade demographics consisted of 35% African American, 12% Hispanic, 5% Asian, and 48% White students. Eighth-grade Pre-AP course demographics consisted of 72% White, 5% Asian, 6% African American, and 6% Hispanic students. Jefferson Middle School demographics consisted of 20% African American, 40% Hispanic, and 40% White students. Eighth-grade Pre-AP course demographics consisted of 75% White, 10% African American, and 15% Hispanic students. Sharon called each of the middle school principals to inquire about the underrepresentation of students of color in eighth-grade Pre-AP courses. She was informed that Pre-AP teachers contended that many students of color did not have the study skills or background knowledge necessary for success in these courses.


    1. Does this case study represent a structured or ill-structured problem? What characteristics of the case study support your conclusion?

    2. Does this case study present Sharon Grey with an ethical dilemma? Are there potential legal issues hidden in this case study?

    3. What ISLLC standards are applicable to this case study?

    4. Using the decision-making model presented in this chapter, develop a step-by-step approach to address this case study.


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