Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 6 - The Premises and Assumptions

If a school or school district develops a thorough and fully funded implementation plan which addresses the perils listed in the previous chapter, site-based management may well prove to be the most promising and appropriate school improvement strategies available. The basic promise of site-based management is an innovative staff effectively committed to enhanced student performance, a kind of educational homecoming.1

Promise # 1 - Significant change

If school councils concentrate on what Shanker would consider powerful educational ideas and they develop research-based implementation plans which provide sufficient training and other necessary resources, the life and learning of children may be greatly improved. Efforts to introduce cooperative learning or higher level reasoning, for example, may develop a cadre of new citizens and workers well prepared for life in a puzzling Age of Information.

Promise #2 - Empowerment

Basic to the strategy is a premise that those closest to the children will prove the best source of energy and ideas, that the teaching staff will invest dramatically in school improvement if they believe that their ideas and insights are honored. The culture of the organization moves from the compliance, pessimism and rule orientation of slow-moving hierarchical organizations to a participative culture which encourages and nurtures the contributions of the front line workers.

Promise #3 - Curriculum control and customization

In contrast to systems where curriculum decisions are centralized and remote, site-based management allows those closest to the students to tailor the learning to match the needs, curiosity and interests of the students. Learning expeditions may be launched with less regimentation and more individuality.

Promise #4 - Ownership through shared decision-making

If plans are developed with consensus-building rather than voting, there is a promise of all stakeholders pulling together on behalf of the students, devoting their efforts to school improvement in a passionate and dramatic fashion. Much of this promise depends upon how successfully the school council involves the key players in the formulation of the new goals and plans. The mere selection of a council does not guarantee that all other players will feel ownership of the ideas they come develop. There must be an extensive process of communication that develops the sense of ownership across all key groups.

Promise #5 - Involvement of all key players

Many school council members will be ill prepared for their representative role. Political scientists distinguish between the role of "trustee" and the role of "delegate." The trustee votes in what she or he believes will be the constituents' best interest. The delegate votes according to what he or she perceives to be the majority will.

Neither role is appropriate for site-based management because they fail to address the consensus-building responsibility of school council representatives. Dramatic school improvement action plans will have little chance of survival if the school council does not engage the rest of the stakeholders in a journey of learning and discovery ultimately leading to shared values and visions. To achieve these common visions requires exhaustive consultations and communications in an organizational culture and structure which generally provides little time or opportunity for communication.

This issue points up the necessity of providing training to school council members with regard to their consensus-building and communicate roles.

Even though this issue is potentially troubling, many of the stakeholders in some districts already feel disenfranchised under the old system and they may respond enthusiastically to any sincere efforts to involve them, no matter how modest. They may appreciate moves in the right direction.

Promise #6 - Parent involvement

In many school districts parents are not involved in their children's learning or in the life of the schools. In some cases they feel unwelcome in the schools because of various unwelcoming behaviors exhibited by school staff. In other cases they may have a history of school failure themselves which leads them to shy away. In still other cases, they may be recent immigrants reluctant to tackle the challenge of communicating with school authorities. At times they may simply be too busy surviving or striving. Whether they be a two job family struggling to feed their children on two minimum wage jobs, a single parent overwhelmed by endless responsibilities or career people with little time left over for family, many parents are unable to claim the label of "partner" in the educational venture.

As proven by Comer's work in New Haven, Connecticut, this condition is clearly related to student performance. When he and his associates were able to mobilize parents to work on learning with their children and actively participate in the school, student achievement dramatically improved.2 The same has been true for programs such as Succcess for All and Accelerate Don't Remediate.3

Site-based management which shifts organizational values to provide parents with a significant role similar to what Comer has achieved promise dramatic improvement in attendance, learning and production. Token gestures such as ritualistic visits and entertaining extravaganzas will have little impact on student performance. Staff must open the school doors, lift their eyes when visitors enter the front office and provide a warm welcome. They must entertain parental concerns with serious attention and embrace their partners as stakeholders. Parents, on the other hand, must learn to voice their concerns and their aspirations in a constructive and collaborative manner in order to reduce anxiety and defensiveness. Schools support student learning best when parents and teachers see themselves as investment partners devoted to the children.

This promise raises the issue of training and organizational development once again. Longstanding traditions and well established practices die slowly and the soil may require much cultivation before planting.

Promise #7 - Improved communications

Hierarchical organizations which rely upon rules and procedures may permit relatively little communication that matters. What does occur may be unidirectional. Site-based management promises to engage a far broader percentage of the educational community in a dialogue around the challenge of designing more effective school programs. As with many of the other promises listed in this chapter, improved communication requires qualitative improvement as well as quantitative improvement. It is not enough to change the frequency of communication. Those engaged in the dialogue must be moving toward mutual understanding. Given our national tendency toward conflict and adversarial communication, the success of site-based management in delivering on this promise will depend upon investment in organizational development so that participants learn to listen actively and reflectively while "Getting to Yes."5

Promise #8 - Unique schools

Regimentation and rules from central office can enforce a Big Mac kind of program standardization. Guidelines and directives hem school people within narrow limits. Visitors to a half dozen schools in the same district may see little to differentiate between them other than school mascots and the type of art work displayed in the halls. And in some school districts, even the students' cut-out snowflakes are identical (unlike the real ones).

Site-based management promises to set schools somewhat free of such restrictions, allowing the visions and dreams of parents and teachers to direct the journey. The goal is to customize the program to match the students' needs. The school should be a living organism reflecting the inspirations and imagination of those within them. Just as private schools have long made a practice of establishing clear identities around strong themes and beliefs, site-based management may release enormous energy to invent, modify, improve and adjust. The institutional green paint long required for hallways by central office may give way to brighter tints and reading programs may shift to include soft cover books selected by the teachers, parents and students of the building.

Visit this site-based management district after several years and you might come away feeling that each building is a green house with hybrids by the dozen.

Promise #9 - Enthusiastic learning

If the energies of the school council are directed toward program innovations which emphasize student engagement and involvement and if students are actively challenged to make their own meaning, site-based management may shift the culture of teacher-dominated classrooms well documented by Sizer and Goodlad. Student learning which springs from curiosity is likely to engender enthusiasm.

Promise #10 - Increased professionalism

Because hierarchical organizations often deprive employees of autonomy and influence over important issues, teachers in such systems can lapse into relatively passive and compliant patterns usually more closely associated with factory operatives. Site-based management offers opportunities for teachers to exercise leadership and invent programs rather than sitting idly by while powerful bureaucrats decide their lives for them. Even labor contracts might well loosen up to support more communications and more diverse teacher behaviors once the members see how various work rules inhibit professionalism and invention.

Promise #11 - Improved conflict resolution

In organizations which have hitherto practiced problem-avoidance, site-based management promises to bring conflicts out into the open where they should be dealt with in a constructive manner. As long as the group has adequate skill and a constructive attitude, school councils can serve the purpose of clearing the air and reducing "noise" in the system. Long festering complaints and issues can damage school effectiveness. Site-based management can clean out the corners of both the basement and the attic.

Promise #12 - Budget flexibility

Under some models of site-based management the school council makes important financial decisions, deciding where the funds will do the most good for the children. Their authority may extend past materials and books to include staffing and facilities issues. The argument on behalf of this system is the wisdom of letting those who know the school best determine its priorities rather than relying upon central office to impose some system-wide decision. At the same time, as mentioned in the previous chapter, this promise may also prove to be a peril as unfortunate financial decisions may rapidly discredit the entire enterprise.

Promise #13 - Local control

The Gallup Poll cited earlier in this book makes it clear that the general public is not pleased with the present school governance system which relies upon a school board and a superintendent to protect community educational interests. The high percentage of respondents supporting the idea of school councils reflects a sense that existing structures and systems are too remote and unresponsive. Site-based management brings the decisions in close where the average person expects to have some real influence.

Promise #14 - Stimulate thinking

As long as site-based management emphasizes powerful educational ideas, proponents expect participants to engage in reflective practices rather than automatic, routine or ritualistic behaviors. All assumptions are up for consideration. There will be no default settings. Analysis, review, assessment and adaptation should be the order of the day.

Promise #15 - New instructional initiatives

After careful review of the school's needs and the development of a strategic plan, site-based management teams are expected to implement changes in classroom experiences which promote enhanced student performance. If the team decides to emphasize the development of student reasoning capacity, for example, the entire school considers the challenge of how to modify existing practices to extend opportunities for students to engage in this kind of learning. An assessment of current materials and practices might reveal, possibly, a very low percentage of time and activities allotted for such learning. Improvement would require replacement of some existing activities with others more appropriate to the school goal.

Some teams might decide to shift practice in the direction of Ted Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools. This decision might lead them to reconsider tracking, assessment, curriculum design and a whole host of related issues.6

Promise #16 - Collaborative thinking

With the proper support and training, site-based management can shift the organizational culture to emphasize sharing and the exchange of ideas rather than competition and isolation. Instead of teachers working in seclusion, cut off from each other and the educational progress of the outside world, site-based management encourages a team approach to school leadership. "Two heads are better than one." Synergism is prized and encouraged. Encountering a wall, members of the team join hands and hoist each other over the obstacle. "One for all and all for one!" Concord, empathy, teamwork and rapport become institutional norms.

Promise #17 - Articulated vision

Fairly early in the process, it is important for the group to clarify what the school will become. What are the dreams, the images, the aspirations and the passions which will serve as rallying themes for forward progress? Two years into the project, a visitor should be able to go up to any parent or staff member and ask, "What are you trying to do in this school?" After asking a dozen or more individuals, the visitor should be impressed by the similarity and harmony of the statements. Even more important, perhaps, the activities of children and staff visible to this visitor should provide evidence that the rhetoric has been converted into reality.

Promise #18 - Proactive not reactive change

With its emphasis upon advanced planning, site-based management offers an attractive alternative to head-in-the-sand management. Trained in some rational decision-making model, members of the school council are careful to invest time in problem anticipation and strategy. They end up steering the vessel even through rough seas rather than allowing storms to toss them about any which way. With an eye on the horizon, the stars and the charts they set a course which keeps the children's interests clearly in mind.

Promise #19 - Paradigm shifts

The discovery and visioning process associated with good site-based management suggests the inevitability of paradigm shifts -- the re-examination and replacement of long cherished beliefs, practices and perspectives. As described in Chapter Four, some schools will come to believe that all children can learn and all children can learn to reason. More importantly, they will come to act upon that set of beliefs, and their high expectations will prove the truth of the paradigm.

The list of promises contained in this chapter is not complete, just as the list of perils in the previous chapter is a work in progress. As schools work with site-based management and the quality of research improves, we are likely to learn much more about both the promises and the perils. We will also invent new versions of site-based management, most of which, we can hope, will act as improvements upon the models presently before us.

The essential point for any school council to grasp is the intertwining nature of the perils and the promises. Success of the venture -- collection on the promises -- will depend to a very large extent upon the quality of the team's efforts to avoid the perils through good planning.

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Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.