A comparative case study of the ethical functioning of a public and Catholic high school

Date of Completion

January 1999


Education, Sociology of|Education, Administration




This qualitative study had a basis in the work of Starratt (1994) who identified a multidimensional ethical framework that suggests that schools operating in accordance with the values of care, justice, and critique can create ethical environments. It also had a grounding in the work of Nicholson (1994) who created a framework for theory and research of ethics in organizations. Some scholars have noted that Catholic schools possess greater normative orientations than public schools. This idea contributed to the decision to select a public and Catholic high school for comparison. Finally, the critical role of the principal in shaping a school culture, including one with a moral foundation, was critical to the study. ^ The purpose of this study was to describe and understand how a multidimensional ethical culture manifested itself in a public and Catholic high school and how the principals of those schools employed and transmitted those values. ^ Data collection occurred in two stages. In the first, an advisory group helped operationalize key themes. In the second, the researcher conducted individual and focus group interviews of the principal, teachers, and students of both schools. Documents and artifacts were collected and analyzed, and observations made. Participating schools were selected based on professional recommendations and consideration was given to controlling some variables. ^ One result of the study was the creation of a list of performances that could be used to examine the ethical functioning of schools in various settings. Other findings suggest that there are many commonalities in the ethical functioning of the public and Catholic high schools studied. Also, more evidence was obtained in identifying behaviors consistent with care and justice as opposed to critique. Also, the role of the principal in shaping an ethical school culture is critical, particularly in their passionately conveying the mission of the school and communicating their ethical vision. The most notable difference was in the public school's commitment to personalization and a democratic process as opposed to the Catholic school's focus on community responsibility and the idea of service to others and the Church. ^