Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 3 - The Politics

As noted in the first chapter, the American people have grown increasingly fond of choice and vouchers. They have grown less content with the performance of public schools in general and with the governance of school boards and administrators in particular. A decade of intense criticism, poor results on international competitions and passionate lobbying by those who would move us to a free market system has shifted the public mood to embrace the notion that we must try something different. Seventy-nine per cent of the Gallup Poll respondents were willing to shift decision-making to school councils.1

At the same time the public supports radical change in governance, it seems ready to dismantle much of the existing centralized structure. When asked what they would eliminate if educational spending must be cut, the most popular choice was a reduction in the number of administrators (73 per cent) while a freeze on salaries was supported by 47 per cent, elimination of all extracurricular activities by 32 per cent and a reduction in the number of teachers by only 15 per cent.2

How does site-based management fit into these popular cross currents? This is the decade of customization. According to Tucker, those organizations which do the best job of listening to their customers and delivering products or services which satisfy those customers are the ones which will thrive in the new economy.

Tucker calls this driving force the "Choice Imperative."3 We have a population which has come to expect products and services directly suited to their whims, fancies and preferences. As more and more organizations deliver that kind of customization, people will come to expect it from all organizations.

Schools which fail to respond to this driving force will be vulnerable to a wave of New American schools such as those proposed by Whittle and other entrepreneurs. Twenty three percent (23%) of the Gallup respondents said they would select a different public school from the one their children presently attend if given a choice. Yet only 51 per cent indicated that they knew enough about other schools to make good choices for their children. As consumers of school services, the general public seems highly susceptible to sophisticated marketing appeals from aspiring entrepreneurial types.4

Ironically, while the political movement toward site-based management as a state-wide reform strategy may have its roots in choice and customization, some of the same people who support site-based management vote for highly centralizing state and national tests which act to enforce standardization of programs and curriculum.

Even though site-based management is grounded in organizational theories stresing the benefits of autonomy at the level closest to children, state legislators in places such as Texas have approved lists of "excellence indicators" tied to state tests which must be the prime focus of the school councils' planning efforts. Before the new teams have a chance to form their own visions or set their own priorities, the state has stepped in with its own wish list, undermining the integrity of the effort.

Added to this troubling phenomenon is a tightened accountability system for Texas administrators tying their future employment to student progress on the excellence indicators. Such threatening moves directly contradict what we know about creating a climate which supports risk-taking and innovation. At a time when we need genuine experimentation to explore more effective approaches to schooling, powerful political figures introduce an array of "high stakes tests" which will become the prime agenda of schools.

Administrators and school councils which ignore the political realities of site-based management are at consierable peril. The Saturn School of Tomorrow in St. Paul, Minnesota, is a fine example of what can happen when a group of educators and parents follow the site-based management dream without adequate attention to the political dimension.4 Long praised as an outstanding example of the benefits of site-based management by national leaders such as President Bush and Secretary Alexander, the school was embarrassed to report dropping math scores for the third year, a disappointment that found its way into the national press and caused the district superintendent to call for a review.5

Where did Saturn go wrong? It seems that experimentation in math programs may improve student learning of concepts and reasoning appropriate for an Information Age in ways which will not show up on smokestack math tests. Success on those old standardized math tests, as most school people well understand, depends upon alignment of curriculum with tests. That means that all fifth graders must learn certain procedures by certain dates. Those who wander from this detailed prescription are risking lower math scores. Parents and communities have distinctly short fuses when it comes to dropping test scores. "Don't experiment with my child!" they are quick to exclaim.

The lesson to be learned from the Saturn School is the importance of tempering experimental zeal with practical political savvy. School leaders and school decision-making councils must produce sufficient evidence of forward movement and student progress so that the various communities will applaud rather than attack their efforts.

To accomplish this goal, one must not ignore the smokestack tests and their various imperatives. Performance must remain strong on those tests as long as they are still given. At the same time, if the school is emphasizing new goals not measured by those tests, there must be new assessment models which will show progress, models which will justify the investment of energy and money. The more these new models resemble the old tests, at least superficially, the more likely they are to gain public acceptance.

While the national movement toward "authentic assessment" which urges the use of portfolios, performances and other models may be attractive to many educators, the wise practitioner asks how much parental acceptance will emerge from such methods. This is not to say that a district should ignore these methods. The point is that community acceptance of innovative methods within a school is most likely to emerge when results appear in forms which are familiar and apparently trustworthy.

School councils and school leaders should be cautious about "raising eyebrows." Sometimes the hype and exaggerated promises of a pioneering group can seal the fate of the project before it begins. Quiet, careful adjustment of school programs with a low profile may pay greater dividends than the high profile strategy which often alarms and mobilizes key constituents. Play the politics wrong and your energy may go into firefighting rather than instrutional improvement.

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Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.