Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 5 - The Perils

School councils and districts which wish to utilize site-based management to modify existing classroom practice and to create significant school improvement would be wise to heed the lessons learned by others who have attempted this journey.1

What follows is a list of perils encountered by these voyagers, a version of which is reproduced as a decision-making sheet in Appendix B for planning purposes. The list of perils contained in this chapter was drawn from articles on the topic by a group of seminar participants (teachers, principals and administrators) in Dallas, Texas in October of 1991. A wise council or district addresses each one of these perils when creating an action plan, thereby reducing the threat to success posed by each potential peril.

Peril # 1 - Lack of a powerful educational idea

In a number of districts and schools, site-based management became a goal in itself with dozens of meetings and long discussions centering on the issues of who would make which decisions when, why and how. Classroom practice remained virtually untouched and the subjects of decision-making related primarily to occupational hygiene and adult concerns.

Peril #2 - Process rather than progress

There is a danger that a lack of clarity about how each school council might proceed can become the major topic for consideration. Even if the group has a powerful educational idea in mind when it starts, it may take more than a year to reach discussion of implementation strategies as members of the school council jockey for position, learn their roles and argue about how to proceed.

Peril #3 - High frustration

Remembering that folk wisdom claims that a "camel is a horse created by a committee," early experiences with site-based management can leave participants feeling unfulfilled and blocked by long and unproductive meetings, especially if the group was thrust into a decision-making role with inadequate training and a collaborative culture did not pre-date the site-based management initiative. Long hours, often unpaid and after school, with little to show in the way of productivity and benefits to children can sour the attitudes of participants rapidly. People with little training or skill in conflict resolution may find themselves in a series of protracted arguments that appear to go nowhere.

Peril #4 - Loneliness

Members of school councils sometimes report feelings of loneliness and risk, especially when the planning group may extend the goal setting for the school into discomfort zones -- goals and activities which require everyone to learn new approaches and behaviors. Less progressive members of the school family may punish the school council members for raising their level of concern and anxiety.

Peril #5 - Denial of problems

Those responsible for diagnosing the needs of the school may be blinded to the real needs by paradigm paralysis or self interest. Even if the school council is capable of conducting an authentic assessment of the school's program and climate, they may encounter denial from other teachers and parents without whose support progress may be difficult to achieve. Those who force a staff to see itself in the mirror may be wise to re-read the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Peril #6 - No guarantees

While site-based management may fulfill the promises mentioned in Chapter 2 and Chapter 6, it is not foolproof. As with computers, the saying "garbage in -- garbage out" applies to site-based management. Change in the quality of classroom learning requires skillful practice from teachers. Such practice results from strong staff development, good programs and intelligent planning. Site-based management is one way that a group might establish such good practice, but it is quite possible that a group will plan for the future with its eyes on the rearview mirror or will ignore the findings of educators from around the nation, reinventing broken wheels and installing horse and buggy whips better suited for a pre-industrial society than an Age of Information.

Peril #7 - Competing priorities

It is often the case that a school's needs exceed the planning capacities or resources available. This reality forces any school council to decide which items on their "wish list" are most deserving of attention. Unfortunately, members may disagree over these priorities with a passion and the group may splinter into more than two groups, leaving the school council gridlocked. It is also possible that devotion of time and energy to the planning process associated with site-based management may pull some people away from other priorities. In the case of the principal, for example, it may mean a reduction in time available to perform an instructional leadership role.

Peril #8 - The Threat of Change

Sometimes the possibility of change may be more anxiety-provoking than the reality of change. For those with high stability needs, the announcement of disruption and/or innovation may set in motion a worst case scenario thought process which engages the individual in imagining all the bad things which might accompany the change. Because this kind of negative thinking may create a backwash of resistance and paralysis, many leaders of innovation attempt to garner support for the new venture by playing up the benefits of the new venture. This is an often fatal error, as the temporary peace bought with such reassurance is often shattered by the next peril . . . the "implementation dip."2

Peril #9 - "Implementation Dip"

According to Michael Fullan, the early stages of an innovation are likely to involve participants in considerable difficulty and frustration. The real benefits of the new approach may not be realized or noticed for months. In fact, early attempts may result in failures of various kinds. Fullan suggests that participants need to know something about the change process and this implementation dip before they proceed so as to minimize problems with the next peril . . . disillusionment.

Peril #10 - Disillusionment

If there has been too much hype and too many exaggerated claims prior to implementation, those who found the wave of enthusiasm exhilarating may deeply resent the back side of the wave. Having trusted the evangelists to lead them forward into a new world, they are likely to feel betrayed and misled when the path turns out to require sacrifice and patience. Just think of how the early immigrants must have felt when they were greeted by cobblestones rather than streets paved in gold. Site-based management arrives in many states with enormous promise and fanfare, but participants soon find that it is no miracle cure in itself.

Peril #11 - Hard work

Pioneers in site-based management often indicate that the approach is very demanding for all involved. Participants attend many meetings and all members of the school community find that pressure for school improvement may lead to the learning of many new programs and skills. It is hard to rely upon past habits and worksheets. Coasting is nearly impossible. Change is inescapable. Work expands to fill the afternoon and evening hours.

Peril #12 - High time demands

Some building councils find themselves meeting weekly and evenings with protracted discussions, demanding research assignments and the need for patient discourse. Administrators sometimes find a conflict between the instructional leadership aspect of their role and the committee facilitator role, devoting significant hours to supporting the work of the various committees. Teachers sometimes find that their preparation time is strained by the new system. Parents may find it difficult to leave work to meet with school councils during the teacher work day. A lack of good committee skills and behavior may painfully elongate discussion and decision time. Participants rarely receive additional compensation to reward them for their contribution of time outside the normal work day.

Peril #13 - Inevitable conflict

Site-based management heightens school people's awareness of issues and requires that participants articulate differences as well as areas of agreement. Under the hierarchical system of governance, many issues remained unaddressed and key constituents may find few opportunities to confront each other. While it is valuable to clear the air and clarify values, not all groups may be prepared to share feelings and beliefs in a constructive manner. Inability to practice active or reflective listening along with a lack of training in consensual process often contributes to the development of serious and painful debates. Forward progress and productivity can be set back by such differences.

Peril #14 - Presumed waste of time

While the school council wrestles with planning issues, bystanders and observers sometimes shrug their shoulders and question the validity of the entire enterprise. Especially when such structures are mandated by outside authorities rather than being freely chosen by the participants, those involved engage in marginal compliance and those on the periphery may concentrate on nay-saying.

Peril #15 - Resistance to change

Substantial numbers of people spend much of their adult lives seeking the comfort of successful routines. They place a high premium on security and stability. In some cases they may also begin slowing down with regard to energy and commitment. They may begin cutting corners and relying upon materials or lesson plans from previous years. As long as site-based management does not disrupt their existence, they may be eager supporters of the concept. They may even try to elect representatives to the school council who will block any school improvement efforts which might be taxing or require substantial change. Similarly, parents and community members may be reluctant to see substantial shifts in school practice which might vary too much from their own childhood experience. "Don't experiment with my child!"

Peril #16 - Rumors

In some districts, word of new plans may leak out of the school council meetings in distorted form. News comes to various constituencies with an emphasis on the most troubling elements. "Did you hear what they're planning now?" Clear, frequent and effective communications with all constituencies are essential if the district wishes to avoid waves of anxiety.

Peril #17 - Cumbersome Process

Group decision-making rarely turns out to be the most stream-lined method to accomplish goals. The importance of contacting all stakeholders in order to make sure their thoughts and feelings have received the attention and consideration due them imposes a special burden upon the school leadership. It is hardly a sprint toward excellence.

Peril #18 - Role confusion

Many districts reported that participants were unclear about how they were expected to act within the site-based management experience. Principals who had acted authoritatively in the past found themselves required to move in a more collaborative manner. Central office personnel accustomed to top-down power found themselves acting as consultants instead of commanders. Teachers with a career-long experience with taking orders found themselves creating action plans. Parents in the habit of articulating from outside the system found themselves inside. And all of them were surprised to see the others shifting behaviors and roles. Most disturbing of all was the lack of preparation and support provided to help individuals shift their personal styles to match the demands of the new system. Some found it "hard to get with the program."

Peril #19 - Improper balance

Priorities might sometimes be set according to adult preoccupations and special interests rather than a broad conception of the students' welfare. Those with axes to grind or strong personal agendas might drive the site-based councils to devote more time and energy to an issue that it deserved while more important issues might go ignored.

Peril #20 - Tyranny of majority

Proponents of democratic procedures sometimes forget the need to protect minorities from overbearing majorities. Just as our nation has a Bill of Rights to protect certain basic rights, schools need to exercise caution when it comes to group decisions which might infringe upon the rights of staff members, parents and students. Employment decisions made by such groups fall into an especially sensitive domain as a school council may, in places like Chicago, elect to replace a principal with little due process or recourse.

Peril #21 - Politics

In some cases principals have felt that school-based decision-making has shifted the job of the principal from instructional leader to politician. In American society, this charge is especially serious, because politicians are viewed as compromisers who blow with the wind and stand for little except re-election. With the introduction of popularly elected school councils, there is danger that decisions will be made for reasons other than student welfare as one faction vies against another for control and influence. In order to survive in such a situation, the administrator learns to duck and bob and weave. What is popular is not always what is in the best interest of children. Leadership of schools may sometimes require pressure to test out the "discomfort zone," to explore new possibilities which are sharply at odds with the given order.

Anyone who has witnessed book censorship in action can testify to the troubling results of excessive political involvement in curricular decisions. What children end up learning about the world may be shaped by political agendas rather than truth.

Peril #22 - Unprepared and untrained participants

Many pioneers of site-based management have stated that training in group process skills and decision-making is an essential element of site-based management success, and most indicate that the training offered in their districts should have come earlier in the process and should have been increased. Unfortunately, many of the recently mandated efforts have provided inadequate funding for the necessary training. It makes little sense to send climbers up on the rock face before they have learned to climb boulders. Traditional group behaviors can easily block innovation and school improvement as new ideas are greeted with hostility or "group think."

Peril #23 - Insufficient resources: money, time, training, ideas, research, etc.

While some argue that site-based management should reduce school spending by eliminating dependence upon central office staff, it proves itself an expensive way to manage schools if adequate resources are provided. Because schools have historically committed little funding to research and development and because there has been little support for adult learning or collaboration within schools, the infrastructure to support school house innovation is lacking in most places. If site-based management is to focus upon the kinds of important educational ideas stressed by Al Shanker and if the ideas are to be based in solid research on what works, then funds must be available to support the search for better schools.

Peril #25 - Conflict with regulations and mandates

When groups begin asking how they might improve schooling for children, they often encounter state or federal regulations which act as barriers or inhibitors of change. The irony of asking people to dream within tiny closets of opportunity seems lost on the planners, however. The best state programs allow local districts to apply for waivers from such restrictions and impediments.

Peril #26 - Exceedingly diverse school programs

At first it seems a very exciting prospect -- this idea that each school might become a hot house of hybrid programs. But what would really happen if 30 elementary schools in a district all created unique and divergent programs? There is a high probability that a public school system without parental choice will not survive that level of diversity as parents will demand that their children get no less than the students in the other schools. Let a few schools strike out ahead of the rest of the pack and watch out. The Board of Education will soon find itself under siege. The typical school presently attempts a consensus program -- one which does no insult or injury. Five or six competing philosophies end up blended together in an educational stew.

Another aspect of this peril is the danger of schools customizing curriculum to the point that curriculum coherence is lost, curriculum alignment is shattered and student progress indicators plummet.

Peril #27 - Budget restrictions

Some of those school councils which were granted budgetary authority found that it was more mirage than miracle. The recession has forced such extreme cutbacks in so many districts that school councils end up with pocket change -- hardly the kind of funds to generate significant restructuring.

Peril #28 - Shared decision-making vs. authority

The sharing of decision-making power presents issues of responsibility. Who will make the uncomfortable decisions? Who will take responsibility for the unpopular decisions? When conflict arises, who will act as mediator? Sometimes administrators must take a stand to end behaviors which are harmful to children. Sometimes administrators must hold staff accountable to performance standards. Representative group process can sometimes act to blunt such responsible action. Leaders may find themselves between the rock and the hard place.

Peril #29 - Paradigm Clash: tradition vs. innovation

While site-based management might heighten involvement by various constituencies in school planning, it is important for the children's sake that there be more light than heat. There have been cases when both parents and staff found it difficult to let go of old paradigms. Movement toward innovation requires an honest look in the mirror. It requires critical reflection and an open mind.

Heroes' journeys have always involved some degree of risk and adventure. Even though the list of perils associated with site-based management is a long one, the voyage may still be well worth undertaking. The true test is whether or not a school council and a school district can address the perils with sufficient skill to realize the promises of site-based management portrayed in the next chapter.

Next Chapter

Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.