Site-Based Decision-Making

Chapter 8 - Clarifying the Destination: Goal Setting and Role-Clarification

What are the powerful educational ideas and outcomes which will be the driving force for program improvement within the building? Who is going to do what and who will make which decisions?

Unfortunately, there have been districts where the second question won most of the attention and the time. Both are essential questions, however, and the districts which handle them with dispatch and skill will find that site-based management moves forward much more productively than it will for those who delay, fudge or avoid the questions.

I. Goal Setting

Well meaning people will seriously disagree about the locus for fundamental planning and visioning in a district. Some will argue that basic educational goals should be set by a district planning group and the board of education. Others will reserve that function for each school site.

The first strategy reduces the likelihood that individual schools will become so distinct that innovation will become a political liability, but it carries with it the drawback of centralized control, a reality likely to inhibit the dreaming and creativity of those serving on school councils. The second approach offers more autonomy for individual schools to set priorities based upon real needs, but it also opens Pandora's Box.

Regardless of the locus for planning, the important step is the identification of fewer than six priorities which will become the primary focus for school improvement efforts. A district might well adopt cooperative learning, imaginative problem-solving and reasoning as goals, for example, and those three might require a good decade to accomplish in any significant fashion.

Why less than six? If the priorities require substantial change, it is a rare district which can handle more than two or three in a meaningful way which will actually change life for teachers and students. Major shifts in teacher behaviors require substantial investment in training and program development. A good rule to remember is, "The more the messier."

Politicians love to publish action plans which proclaim salvation, but it is wise to remember that the voyage will probably require more than ten years to complete.

How does a school or district identify the key goals worthy of attention? Unfortunately, the fashion these days is to "go on retreat." A group of parents, staff, administrators and board members usually go away for a weekend, study current trends, mold a vision statement and start discussing strategy. This approach to visioning carries with it the likelihood of paradigm paralysis, as the old belief systems cloud the ability of the team to see the full potential of how learning might shift during the next decade.

One of the most persuasive critics of this kind of planning, Stanley M. Davis, argues that strategic planning as usually practiced relies too heavily upon environmental scanning and projections, that it deals poorly with discontinuous change like that which has occurred on the world scene with Russia's decline.1

The strategic planner scans the horizon to see what trends are emerging and then begins to fashion "What if . . . " statements to address those trends. The vision statement for a school district participating in this kind of planning becomes a response to those trends and changing conditions predicated on the assumption that the trends can be extended with assurance into the foreseeable future. The old paradigms drag behind the group like anchors.

Davis suggests a radically different perspective. Go out to the future and spend some time there metaphorically and mentally. For school planners this might mean identifying the year 2010 and asking what one would like to experience if a child during that time. It might mean asking what one would like for one's own children. What kinds of learning? What kind of environment? What should it feel like? What is going on? Who are the players? Who does what? Should this place be nurturing? Where does curiosity fit in? The arts?

This kind of exploration of a Future Perfect scene will require more than the three hours devoted to visioning by the strategic planners. It might be a year's voyage for a district or building planning team. Developing individual scenarios is but the first step in group process as the committee must eventually move toward consensus.

Having shared visions and established consensus, the group must next consider strategy. Davis is clear about the rigors of this next step:

The only way an organization's leaders can get there (the objectives of the strategy) from here (the current organization) is to lead from a place in time that assumes that you are already there, and that it is determined even though it hasn't happened yet.2

The more carefully structured strategic planning model may only provide the appearance of certainty as the turbulence of modern society is converted into simple lists and graphs which take on the credibility of science but rarely outlast the next year's events. Regrettably, strategic planning for schools is unlikely to provoke the kind of thinking which will create dynamic places for learning.

The lesson is that if strategy is the codification of what has already taken place, then it is the enemy of innovation. Organizations that foster innovation are not to be wedded to strategy as formal planning, but to strategy as intuition.3

Two decades of so-called educational reform wedded to such formal planning have produced few victories, few paradigm shifts and little progress. We cannot afford yet another decade of smokestack thinking and learning. Planners must have the courage to conduct planning in a Future Perfect sense.

And avoid the five inch thick strategic plan which conveys a false sense of security and preparedness. The worst thing that could happen to a district or school is that all parties might actually read and act upon such a report. The danger is that people will stop scanning the horizon to see what is changing. They might operate on autopilot in the expectation that the strategic plan will have anticipated all. They might fail to send someone to the crow's nest to keep an eye open for landfall.

Good plans will be flexible, living documents designed to accommodate adjustments and surprises. They will be brief but passionate, clear in their intensity and intent but also concise. Teachers should be able to cite the values and goals contained in these documents.

But goals must not be platitudes -- extraordinary aspirations which nobody honestly expects to achieve. They must be attainable and measurable. Gone are the days when we can defend our lack of measurement by saying, "The most important things are impossible to measure." We can measure and we must measure.

Any goal worth stating must also be measurable. What student outcomes can we expect to see at the end of the voyage?

II. Role Clarification

Who is going to do what and who will make which decisions? I

The board of education along with the staff would be well advised to clarify this issue early on before it becomes the central concern and preoccupation of site-based management. Some times the adults in a school find themselves on a detour rather than the highway they intended to select, arguing about who has the right to decide.

High on the list of issues is the role of the principal in a collaborative culture.

As John Naisbitt expresses it, "The new leader is a facilitator, not an order giver."4

The job of the principal in systems of site-based management is still leadership. She or he is not meant to take a back seat and act as just one more member of the group. The principal helps to frame the issues and keep the attention of the planning group on priorities. The principal in most places is still responsible for making the difficult decisions involving personnel and program quality which require authority. The main difference is the richness of thinking which is now available prior to final decision-making.

McCauley identifies key competencies for the principal of this decade, several of which are especially relevant to site-based management:

The school's vision no longer comes from central office or just the principal. The school council members are responsible for sharing their insights and suggestions so that the decision-making will be more inclusive and thorough. Because it would be impractical and inefficient to try managing daily operations with a committee structure, most schools focus site-based management on the large, essential instructional issues, suggesting goals and strategies.

The role of council members is to represent the best interests of all of the students and the various members of the school community. They are expected to approach issues with an open mind, seeking to build consensus, understanding that they are charged with school improvement.

Roland Barth has written of effective principals as those who keep the school somewhat uncomfortable.6 Those who embrace site-based management should be careful not to block the potential of a principal who would exercise instructional leadership. Groups often fall prey to a phenomenon called "group think" which causes them to travel far too long down unfortunate paths. The best systems are those which provide a balance between leadership and group insight, an interaction which develops creative sparks which set classrooms on fire with good programs.

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Copyrighted 1991 by Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.