An analysis of the role of moral orientation in the resolution of dilemmas of public school principals

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Teaching and Leadership


Joan N. Burstyn


Educational psychology, School administration

Subject Categories

Educational Administration and Supervision


This study examined the following questions: (1) Whether differences in the moral orientation of public school principals could be discerned through analysis of their reports of specific moral dilemmas that they encountered in the course of executing their professional responsibilities, (2) whether those differences could be noted on the basis of the sex of the principal, and (3) whether there were common situational factors among the dilemmas reported by principals which may explain why the principals responded to the dilemmas as they did.

Twelve public school principals divided equally by sex and school grade level (elementary school, middle school, and high school) were asked to relate two circumstances which they experienced at some time during their professional careers which they described as moral dilemmas. One circumstance focused on issues pertaining to staff members and one focused on issues pertaining to students and/or parents. Lyons (1982) coding scheme was used during analysis of the dilemmas to determine the predominant moral orientation of each principal.

Results showed that a fair moral orientation dominated the manner in which eight of the twelve principals (five male and three female) constructed, resolved, and evaluated both staff and student/parent dilemmas. Both fair and care moral orientations were observed as predominant in the manner in which three female principals considered the dilemmas they described with a fair moral orientation predominating in staff dilemmas and care moral orientation predominating in student/parent dilemmas. A care moral orientation predominated the manner in which one high school male principal considered both staff and student parent dilemmas. These findings conflicted with the findings of Gilligan (1977, 1982) and Lyons (1982) that indicated that in general women and men adopt care and fair moral orientations, perspectively. Possible explanations as to why a fair moral orientation may have emerged as the predominant moral orientation for both men and women principals were explored.

A secondary analysis of the dilemmas using qualitative measures revealed common factors associated with the principalship itself that may contribute to the presence of a dominant moral orientation in specific circumstances.


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