Teacher Choice
©2000 Pat Carney-Dalton


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This paper attempts to analyze the disagreement between a school principal and a child's parents over which teacher their child will be assigned to the following year.
Through analysis this paper attempts to evaluate the moral dilemma through the functionalists eyes of equal educational opportunity and the Principles of Benefit of Maximization and Equal Respect. This author determines through this analysis that although the basis for argument was interesting and valid it was not the extensive treatment that this case deserved.
Finally the author offers an alternative way of thinking in order to complete the analysis.

It happens year after year. School principals feel under fire from parents because the parents disagree with whom the principal has assigned their child for the following year. Principals, for the most part, have resigned themselves to several weeks of discomfort as they try to justify their choices for their decisions. Of course, principals find their own ways to avoid directly dealing with this dilemma. Some principals make a blanket statement that they do not honor parent requests, but parents know that if they send in their request letter before the assignments are made public, their child ends up in the room requested. Some principals play hardball and tell parents, "If you request a teacher, your child will definitely not be assigned to that class." A personal favorite is to have the secretary post the list on the Friday before Labor Day as the principal is running out of the door for the holiday weekend.

Strike, Haller & Soltis (1998) discuss a case of Teacher Choice in their book The Ethics of School Administration. They believe that the disagreement over parent request for teachers is not just an administrative problem but also a moral dilemma regarding a clash between rights and fairness. In the case, Teacher Choice, an elementary school principal and a child's parents are discussing the child's assigned teacher for the following year. Principal Russell has heard the same argument for years from parents after she has assigned children to Mr. Booth's class. Parents request that their child be changed to Ms. Tarkington's class because they feel that the child will do better in that class. Silently, Principal Russell agrees, because she believes all of the children would do better in Ms. Tarkington's class as opposed to Mr. Booth's class, whom she hesitatingly thinks of as "undistinguished." She believes that Tarkington is a far superior teacher to Booth, but that is not something that she can admit to the parents. Principal Russell continues to politely listen to the parents and ends the discussion with the promise that she will think about the parents' request.

The authors (Strike et al. 1998) contend that Principal Russell is involved in a moral dilemma because it concerns the right thing to do. The authors also believe moral issues concern duties and obligations to one another, and what constitutes "just or fair" treatment of one another. In Teacher Choice, Principal Russell believes that children of less aggressive parents, or children who are less academically able, will end up with the poorer teacher. She knows that this is not fair, but that knowledge does not solve her moral problem nor does it tell her what rights parents should have in their child's education. Strike believes that Russell needs to bring the concept of moral principle about rights and fairness to her decision. For example, it is not fair for the weaker students to have the weakest teacher. If Principal Russell's idea of fairness were based on the idea of equality of educational opportunity should her decisions take into consideration family background, race or socioeconomic class? How many ways could this work? If she believes that the weakest students truly should have the superior teacher then how would she justify her decision to the most involved parents in the community? If Principal Russell balances her classes with advantaged students and disadvantaged students then she would have to decide which advantaged students and which disadvantaged students received the inferior teacher and which students receive the superior teacher. On what criteria for each child does she base her decisions? Doesn't each child have the right to the best teacher? According to Strike, there are several ways to look at this dilemma.

If we look at the problem through the Principle of Benefit Maximization then "the best and most just decision is the one that results in the most good or the greatest benefit for the most people" (Strike et al. p. 16). If Principal Russell were to use this thinking then she would place all of her weakest students in the "superior" teacher's class, regardless of any parent requests, with the belief that the more able students would be able to survive a year with the teacher whom she refers to as "inferior".

On the other hand, the Principle of Equal Respect would accord all of the children equal worth as moral agents. The Principle of Equal Respect would require Principle Russell to consider the Golden Rule. In doing so she would have to ask herself the question, "Would I assign my own child to the inferior teacher?"

These two principles appear to be in conflict with each other. How can Principal Russell decide what is good for the greatest number of students while at the same time accord each child equal worth as a moral agent? Strike states, " The sole relevant factor in choosing between courses of action is to decide which action has the best result" (p. 19).

Feinberg and Soltis (1998) in School and Societ might agree with Russell's desire to place all of the needier students in the superior teacher's class while looking through the eyes of a Functional Theorist. A Functionalist believes that all societies require that their members perform different tasks. Along with this belief comes the idea of equal opportunity which means "that individuals be chosen for certain tasks and roles on the basis of achievement, rather than by his or her birth or background" (p.20). A functional theorist contends that "the principle of equal educational opportunity directs that individuals should have an equal chance to develop their talent" (p. 29). Advocates of this ideal might use the argument of historical impediment, which states that because minorities have suffered long periods of discrimination, that the present generation of minority children is due extra assistance. They argue that true equality of opportunity requires that the school compensate for past discrimination and lack of opportunity (p.3 1). Thus, if Principal Russell were to extend this notion to socioeconomic lines then she would be able to argue that she should segregate the class on socioeconomic lines and systematically assign the least able students to the superior teacher.

I don't believe that Russell's decision of dividing the children up meets the criteria for an ethical decision described by either Strike or Feinberg. I also believe that if Russell continues on this path she will have the same problem year after year. After analyzing this case I don't believe the right questions are being asked to rectify the inequities in the long run. This is not the first year that Russell has had to address the problem. Would it not be better for her to start thinking about this dilemma in advance and try to solve it in other ways? Shouldn't all of the children in her school be exposed to fine teachers?

In the Ethics of School Administration, the authors state that administrators are decision-makers and leaders. They facilitate the work of the faculty. They hire and evaluate teachers, and they have to deal with staff, students and parents in a just, fair, equitable and humane manner (p. 14). Rozycki (1999) in his article, Mission vs. Function: Limits to Schooling Aspiration, states that the difference between a function and a mission are sometimes cotiffising, even to educators. Missions are what people aspire to; functions are what they regularly perform. Could Principal Russell's dilemma be lessened next year if she were to fulfill her function of supervising and evaluating Mr. Booth, with the goal of either strengthening his teaching or documenting unsatisfactory performance.

I believe that there is another way to help solve Principal Russell's dilemma in the following years, by both looking at a child's right to equal educational opportunity, and allowing the parents a voice in their child's teacher for the following year. Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997) in Analyzing Controvers put forth several guidelines that could be helpful in looking at this dilemma in a new light. The parents and Principal Russell actually agree to the facts of the case which is that Ms. Tarkington is an excellent teacher and that their child would do well in her class, The dispute centers whether the parents have the right to request that their child be given the superior teacher. If Principal Russell continues her present system then the dispute can never be solved in a just and equitable fashion. But if Russell were to allow the parents a voice in their child placement, at the beginning of the process, I feel equal educational opportunity would be achieved. The following is one possible solution: Sometime during April, the principal could send home a letter inviting input from parents. The letter could read something like this:

Dear Parents,

As the end of the school year approaches, we are beginning the formal process of creating class list for the 2000-2001 school year. This is a lengthy and complex process. In this school the teachers and I spend many hours preparing class lists that are balanced and contain a mixture of abilities and behaviors in order to form a heterogeneous learning environment.

We believe that parental input is important. Please describe your child's learning strengths and needs and the type of classroom environment in which you feel your child best achieves. If you wish to name specific names, please list two teachers whom you believe will equally meet your child's needs.

When we enter into the class list process, parent information will be considered as an important factor. 1, however, am committed to weigh all factors in creating classes. This may require the assignment of students to classrooms other than the ones requested by parents.

When we create classes we consider the following objectives:

Assign students to teachers who can best meet individual student's needs by matching teaching and learning styles.

Structure classes to be heterogeneous.

Assign an equal number of students to each section of a given grade level.

If possible, distribute an even number of boys and girls to each classroom.

Group students who work well together.
  Separate students who do not work well together. We at Oak Tree Elementary pride ourselves on knowing your children. We also pride ourselves on the high caliber of our teachers. We trust our process and our knowledge of your child, combined with your input, will serve him or her well. 

Sincerely, Janet Russell, Principal

Note- A written request or lack of such a request will have no effect on thecare given each child's placement. Please return the attached form to the school by Friday, May 12, 2000

Clabaugh and Rozycki (1997) state that an important step in analysis is to see if the parties would actually take opposite sides if the controversy were reduced to a yes or no question. If the stated question is "Should a child have a teacher who can best meet his or her learning needs?" both the principal and the parent would say yes. Then it is important to find the solution that will meet the children's needs. An approach similar to the above invitation, asking parents to participate, will give the parents a voice in their child's education while at the same time giving the principal and teachers valuable information about the child from the parent's viewpoint.

If it is important for a principal to be just, fair, equitable and humane in order to be an ethical decision-maker then having parents' input and taking all sides into consideration is a step in the right direction. Inviting the parents to participate passes the Principle of Benefit Maximization "test" because it results in the most good for the greatest amount of people. Instead of just a few parents advocating for their child, all parents have the opportunity, where as in the past the majority of the parents were left out of the loop without a voice. At the same time, inviting parents to participate passes the Principle of Equal Respect "test" for by its very nature it is stating that what the parents have to offer is considered and respected.

Some may question the notion of teachers of "equal caliber". This is an important question that refers back to the function of the school principal. Principals are expected to be instructional leaders. One of the standards of excellence set forth by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (1996) is that the principal work effectively with teachers to improve instruction. After working with a teacher for a period of time, and if the teacher does not improve and remains at an unsatisfactory level, then the appropriate steps must be taken to remove the teacher from his or her position. On the other hand, if a teacher is considered average, with encouragement and support from the principal the teacher may be able to elevate his performance to above average. What is important to note is that in my experience parents value many different teaching styles and personalities in teachers. This eliminates the need for teachers to be clones of each other in order to fill parent requests.

It is important to start taking parent concerns seriously and inviting them into decision making process, which effects the schooling of their children. According to Perkinson (1995) teachers are going to have to become empowered in order to be considered true professionals. Teachers become empowered when they know that many parents value what they are doing for their children. On the other hand, if a teacher realizes that he or she gets few or no requests it might encourage him to analyze what he can do to improve. If you have an elementary school where teachers are truly of equal caliber they will each get significant requests.

Why is it important for schools to start allowing the parent more choice? Perkinson ( 1995) states that as of 1995 there were 3 00,000 children schooled at home. Private school enrollment has steadily increased. In 1986, an average of 26 percent of public school teachers in Albuquerque, Nashville, Los Angeles, and San Francisco sent their own children to private schools (p. 193). Why this withdrawal from public education? Perkinson believes that more people have concluded that public schools no longer provide a quality education.

In a 1981 study on public and private schools, James Coleman released findings that showed that administrators and teachers in private schools had more autonomy and that the schools' emphasis was on the intellectual purpose of schooling (Perkinson, 1995). In this day of vouchers and school choice, can public schools deny parent the right to a voice in their child's education?

In looking over the analysis of Strike, Haller and Soltis in the case of Teacher Choice, I believe they did not complete the analysis. Principal Russell decided to distribute the children equally among the two classes because she believed that it was the fair thing to do. In doing so she equally divides the children from the middle class homes and those from lower socioeconomic homes. While assigning in this manner she honors some requests while denying others. She never stated her criteria for honoring some of the parent requests. She also does not encourage input, so it does not appear that she receives requests from the parents of the needier students. In analyzing the cases and by using the principles of Benefit of Maximization and Equal Respect it would appear that if her decision were really meeting the concept of equal educational opportunity that she would have to put all of the needier students in the superior teachers classroom. Her decisions appear to be an uncomfortable compromise that I don't feel helps to rectify the problem she is having in her school. She is meeting half the students' needs while the other half of the students' needs, at that particular grade, are being met in a minimal way.

Russell should commit to finding ways in which she can improve instruction in her school for all of her students by working with both the teachers and parents in her school community.


Clabaugh, C. K., & Rozycki, E. G. (1997). Analyzing controversy: An introductory guide. Guilford, Connecticut: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.

Feinberg, W., & Soltis, I F. (1998). School and society. New York: Teachers College Press.

National Association of Elementary School Principals. (1996). Standards for quality elementaU & middle schools: Kindergarten through eighthgrad . Alexandria, VA: National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Perkinson, H. 1 (1995). The imperfect panacea: American faith in education. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Rozycki, E. G. (1999). Mission vs. function: limits to schooling aspiration.

Strike, K.A., Haller, E.J., Soltis, J.F. (1998). The ethics of school administration. New York: Teachers College Press.