Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 1 - Sources: Whose Idea?

Why is site-based management suddenly (back in 1990) sweeping across the nation? There seem to be at least two plausible but somewhat contradictory explanations.

The first explanation is that there is some evidence that site-based management -- if implemented slowly, carefully and with adequate training -- may, under favorable conditions, produce improvements in student learning and school climate. While this evidence is limited and sketchy, it is sufficient to stir curiosity and hope. As districts wrestle with an associated concept -- restructuring -- site-based management has appeared as one strategy a district might select in order to revise the way that decisions are made and schooling is planned for students.

A review of research findings related to site-based management turns up too little evidence about student outcomes to justify a national movement. The reality is that there is very little research and even less hard data. Most articles about the strategy are testimonials or narratives usually written by proponents.1 One would be extremely hard pressed to build a case for this strategy as a national or state initiative to invent the next generation of American schools. To the contrary, the early pioneers of site-based management warn that it is a 10-15 year voyage which demands great commitment and patience as well as expanded funding to support staff development and innovation.2 It is no quick fix.

Why then all the mandates? Why have so many state legislatures chosen to place this strategy at the center of their reform package? Why have some mandated adoption within one or two years even though the research argues against such an approach?

The bandwagon phenomenon is one possible explanation for this rush to embrace a relatively untested school improvement strategy. Especially when it comes to state legislators, we have seen a decade of quick fixes and initiatives which have been full of sound and fury often signifying little of benefit to children or schools. Outsiders -- particularly politicians -- with little understanding of how schools change and improve are quick to seize upon any idea which has surface validity or popularity. Operating within time frames which match their terms of office, these political leaders prefer the bold initiatives which promise magical movement.

Site-based management is a politician's dream. With a single stroke the legislature hands significant power over to teachers and parents. As a grand gesture to those groups it is very effective. Judging from the most recent Gallup Poll on education conducted for Kappan, a clear majority (76 per cent) of the public now supports giving more say to principals and teachers about the management of schools. An even larger group (79 per cent) supports switching policy-making from school boards and superintendents to councils of teachers, parents and principals.3

The Gallup Poll provides strong evidence for the bandwagon argument. Even though most people know very little about what happens when decision-making is handed over to groups of parents, teachers and principals, the idea sounds good and most people are tired of the way things have been run in the past. "Why not?" they seem to be asking. "What do we have to lose?"

Site-based management as a way to de-centralize large bureaucratic structures is also associated with the choice movement which is gaining momentum as the President and Secretary of Education push for a free-market approach to education.4 The idea is that schools should operate as small businesses, each seeking its market share or niche by operating innovatively and distinctly.

Just as a city might be served by hundreds and thousands of little restaurants, opening and closing with the fashions of the times, so might schools open and close according to their ability to attract and satisfy a clientelle. Those with the best hamburgers, radio ads and customer service will come out on top. This same kind of competition, it is argued, will wake up the sleepy and unproductive schools, causing an educational revival of impressive dimensions.

A careful reading of the realities of site-based management should make any legislature or parent hesitate before voting to mandate this strategy across an entire state. Attractive as site-based management may appear on the surface, it carries with it many serious problems and dangers which are often overlooked or ignored as the policy-makers rush to judgement.

Fortunately, there are ways to implement site-based mananagement so as to strengthen student learning and develop a positive, collaborative culture within a school and a school district. This book is designed to place school leaders, teachers and parents on their guard so they can protect the real "bottom line" of education -- the children. Children are not hamburgers, and schools are not restaurants, but schools can become more appetizing and more effective as a result of group decision-making.

Next Chapter

Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.