A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Assessment of School-Based Management - October 1996

Section One:
Executive Summary


Getting School-Based Management Right:
What Works And What Doesn't

After years of scant evidence that school-based management (SBM) leads to improved school performance, educators and policy makers are more and more questioning the wisdom of using decentralized management to reform education. People say that the best decisions are those made closest to the students but few realize the extent of system-wide change SBM entails. School-based management often is implemented by setting up a council at the school site and giving the council at least some responsibility in the areas of budget, personnel and curriculum. It is assumed that schools understand their new roles and responsibilities and will take appropriate action to improve school performance.

For more than three years, researchers with the Center on Educational Governance at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have been studying schools and school districts in the United States, Canada and Australia to find out what makes SBM work.1 The purpose of the research was to identify the conditions in schools that promote high performance through school-based management. We defined high performance SBM as occurring in schools that were actively restructuring in the areas of curriculum and instruction; these were schools where SBM worked well. We compared this group of successful schools to schools that were struggling; that is, schools that were active with SBM but less successful in making changes that affected teaching and learning.

In total, we visited 40 schools in 13 school districts and interviewed more than 400 people, from school board members, superintendents and associate superintendents in district offices to principals, teachers, parents and students. All the schools we studied -- which included elementary, middle and high schools -- had been operating under SBM for at least four years, although some had been working at it much longer.2

In brief, we found that school-based management required a redesign of the whole school organization that goes far beyond a change in school governance. For SBM to work, people at the school site must have "real" authority over budget, personnel and curriculum. Equally important, that authority must be used to introduce changes in school functioning that actually impact teaching and learning if SBM is to help improve school performance. The school's strategy for using its new power must include strategies for decentralizing three other essential resources: professional development and training for teachers and other stakeholders in managing and problem-solving, as well as in curriculum and instruction; information about student performance, parent and community satisfaction, and school resources to help school-level people make informed decisions; and rewards to acknowledge the increased effort SBM requires of participants as well as to recognize improvements in school performance. Our research also pointed out the importance of principal leadership and of having some sort of instructional guidance mechanism -- a curriculum framework, for example -- at the school site to direct reform efforts.3

In this article, the knowledge we have gained about the do's and don'ts of school-based management are presented in the form of four basic reasons why school-based management fails and six strategies that lead to success.

Why School-Based Management Fails

  1. SBM is adopted as an end in itself. As a form of governance, SBM in and of itself will not generate improvement in school performance. Instead, it is simply a means through which school-level decision makers can implement various reforms that can improve teaching and learning. In the struggling schools we visited, there was little connection between SBM and curriculum and instructional reform, and councils often got bogged down in issues of power -- who can attend meetings, who can vote -- not on improving curriculum and instructional practices.

  2. Principals work from their own agenda, not helping to develop a common one. Many principals in struggling schools were perceived as too autocratic by their staffs, who reported that the principals appeared to dominate all decisions.4 Such principals typically identified, on their own, a vision for the school and then presented it -- fait accompli -- to teachers. This often led to a power struggle between teachers and the principal over who controlled the school. In some cases, the principal's unilateral plan for change was rejected by the faculty. Teachers felt little sense of ownership and accountability to the plan. Teachers frequently referred to "the principal's vision" in schools where the leadership was autocratic.

  3. Decision-making power is centered in a single council. Struggling SBM schools tended to concentrate power in a single school council that often was composed of a small group of committed teachers who were painfully aware they did not have broad representation. These councils tended to get bogged down in establishing power relationships. One struggling school spent almost a year developing a policy manual that specified who had power and under what conditions. There also were strong feelings of alienation among faculty members, and often factions developed between "they" -- the empowered -- and "us." Subcommittees and other decision-making groups (if they existed at all) did not have wide participation and so the committed few often felt exhausted and burned-out.

  4. Business as usual. Too many schools have assumed that SBM occurs with average levels of commitment and energy.5 Our research found that SBM is a time-consuming and complicated process that places high demands on all individuals involved. Schools struggled with SBM when they simply layered SBM on top of what they were already doing. Meetings ended up being held after school and frequently they were poorly attended. Such schools did not redesign their schedules to encourage teacher interaction during the regular school day. Further, there were strong feelings of isolation among teachers due to the absence of meetings that allowed teachers and other stakeholders to interact around specific projects or tasks.

Strategies for Success

  1. Establish multiple, teacher-led decision-making teams. In schools where SBM worked, multiple, teacher-led decision-making teams were created that cut across the school both horizontally and vertically to involve a broad range of school-level constituents in the decision-making process. Many of these groups were designed to facilitate interaction across the traditional boundaries of departments and grade levels. Common structures included subcommittees of the school council that were open to membership by interested teachers or parents, and teacher teams that were actively included in the consensus-building process for school decisions. The decision-making groups, set up to address such topics as curriculum, assessment and professional development, also helped focus participants' energy on specific tasks rather than on abstractions such as "culture" or "empowerment." The net effect was that in schools where SBM worked there was lots of communication and reflective dialogue around specific projects. The most effective school councils were those that served largely to coordinate and integrate the activities of the various decision-making groups operating throughout the school. These councils provided the direction for the changes taking place and allocated resources to support them, focusing on the needs of the school as a whole rather than on the needs of individual academic departments or teaching teams. Because whole faculties were involved in the decision-making process (not only the select few on the council), the multiple teams and subcommittees also reduced the work load on individual teachers and broadened the commitment to reform.

  2. Focus on continuous improvement with school-wide training in functional and process skills, as well as in areas related to curriculum and instruction. Professional development in schools where SBM worked was a very high priority. Staff participated in training opportunities on a regular, ongoing basis, rather than sporadically and infrequently (e.g., when SBM was adopted). Professional development at these schools was utilized more strategically, deliberately tied to the school's reform objectives. At many schools, the council or a separate decision-making group assessed professional development needs and planned and coordinated development activities to meet those needs. Professional development activities were oriented toward building a school-wide capacity for change, creating a professional community and developing a shared knowledge base. The schools where SBM worked had greater proportions of the staff take part in professional development. In particular, training in the area of decision-making skills was not limited to members of the school council. Sources of training at successful SBM schools included the district office, universities, and even non-traditional education circles like businesses, which provided training in management and group decision-making. These schools also expanded the range of content areas for training beyond the typical areas of curriculum and instruction to include participation in decision-making, leadership responsibilities (e.g., running meetings, budgeting, interviewing) and the process of school improvement.

  3. Create a well-developed system for sharing school-related information among a broad range of constituents. The schools where SBM worked used many communication mechanisms to share information. In these schools information not only flowed to the school from the central office, but also within the school and out to the community. Multiple vertical and horizontal decision-making groups collected and dispensed information within the school, and informed parents and the community outside the school. In addition, more kinds of information were regularly disseminated in successful SBM schools, including information about innovations going on in other schools and about school performance. Most of the successful SBM schools were systematic and creative in how they tried to communicate with parents and the community, relying as much on face-to-face means as on formal documents. These schools also had a strong customer service orientation. Many conducted annual parent and community satisfaction surveys and used the results to help set priorities for the following year. The principals in schools where SBM worked often attended many different types of meetings at which external constituents, such as local businesses, were present to discuss school activities. Another common practice in successful SBM schools was to disseminate daily attendance and tardiness data to parents on a regular basis. Parent-teacher conferences and newsletters were also used as information channels. Several schools used grant dollars to install voice mail for classroom teachers, while another school hired a part-time ombudsman to serve as a liaison between the school and parent communities.

  4. Develop ways to more effectively reward staff behavior oriented toward achieving school objectives. Where school-based management worked, the school community rewarded effort and recognized improved performance. Many principals at successful SBM schools regularly recognized individuals for work well done; in other schools, principals preferred to recognize group efforts. The principals used various reward strategies, including "pats on the back" and notes of appreciation. At one high school, the principal began every faculty meeting with a list of "thank you's." We also heard about teachers informally recognizing one another's efforts, and parents giving thank you luncheons for teachers. It has been argued that intrinsic rewards, such as these, are sufficient to motivate and reinforce teachers. A few schools used monetary rewards. Such rewards included differentiated staffing positions with extra compensation for administrative responsibilities, money for professional development, and grants to reimburse teachers for extra time, including (in one school) money for council membership. Where school-based management worked, many teachers were excited and motivated by the climate of professional collaboration and learning in their schools. However, some teachers who had been working with SBM for longer than four years were tired and wondering if they could maintain their level of involvement. The argument that intrinsic rewards are sufficient to motivate and reinforce teachers for engaging in SBM over the long haul may be too optimistic. The use of extrinsic rewards, in combination with other incentives, might help reduce the fatigue factor and sustain the reform effort.

  5. Select principals who can facilitate and manage change. The schools where SBM worked had principals who played a key role in dispersing power, in promoting a school-wide commitment to learning and growth in skills and knowledge, in expecting all teachers to participate in the work of the school, in collecting information about student learning, and in distributing rewards. The principals were often described as facilitators and managers of change, as strong supporters of their staffs, and as the people who brought innovations to the school and moved reform agendas forward. Such principals tended to delegate to subcommittees responsibilities such as material selection, budget development and professional development schedules. What emerged was shared leadership among a broad range of individuals throughout the school. In many cases, for example, teachers took the lead in introducing ideas about new instructional practices. The most successful principals were the ones who worked to coordinate the efforts of these many teacher leaders so that they involved whole faculties and all efforts were oriented toward the school vision. Aside from formal collaboration, principals in schools where SBM worked also fostered informal communities by scheduling common lunch periods for students and staff and common break times for teachers.

  6. Use district, state and/or national guidelines to focus reform efforts and to target changes in curriculum and instruction. School-based management had more leverage when adopted in the context of a set of curricular guidelines. Developed variously at the district, state and/or national level (e.g., National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards), the guidelines provided direction for curriculum and instruction reform at the school. Many of the people we interviewed said the guidelines -- in the form of performance standards, curriculum frameworks and/or assessment systems -- specified the "what" of the curriculum but that the "how" was left up to them. The guidelines also set parameters within which schools created their own vision or improvement plan that outlined the instructional direction for the school. These documents articulated what the school was all about and served as a focus for the reform activities initiated by the school, and the SBM council, in particular.

Implications for Policy and Practice: What Can States and School Districts Do To Make SBM Work?

We have described the conditions that make schools effective or ineffective in using school-based management to improve teaching and learning. School-based management is a large-scale change that requires a long-term process. When policy makers adopt SBM they need to plan for change at all levels of the educational system. The lessons about what makes SBM work suggest a set of action steps or initiatives that district and state administrators can take to help schools implement SBM in ways that enhance school performance.

SBM requires new roles and responsibilities for schools but, equally important, district and state administrators will need to move away from telling schools what to do to offering services and providing incentives for school-level change.

In conclusion, these findings suggest that the creation of school-site councils -- typically the first step in implementing SBM -- will not automatically result in improved performance. SBM must be augmented by a range of strategies at the school, district and state levels that facilitate interactions among various stakeholders and that provide a direction for those interactions. SBM can act as the facilitator of school improvement, but when it is implemented narrowly as a political reform that merely shifts power from the central office to schools, SBM is inadequate to improve school performance.


1 The international work was supported by grants from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Finance Center of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. The author also would like to thank members of the research team from the University of Southern California -- Kerri Briggs, Susan Albers Mohrman, Peter Robertson, Roxanne Smyer and Amy Van Kirk -- and from the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- Allan Odden, Eleanor Odden, John Smithson and Paula White.

2 Susan Albers Mohrman, Priscilla Wohlstetter and Peter Robertson, Reforming Schools Through School-Based Management: Lessons From Research (Albany: State University of New York Press, forthcoming).

3 Priscilla Wohlstetter and Susan Albers Mohrman, "School-Based Management: Promise and Process" (New Brunswick, NJ: Consortium for Policy Research in Education, 1994); Eleanor R. Odden and Priscilla Wohlstetter, "Making School-Based Management Work," Educational Leadership, February 1995, pp. 32-36.

4 Priscilla Wohlstetter and Kerri Briggs, "The Principal's Role in School-Based Management," Principal, November 1994, pp. 14-17.

5 See Susan Albers Mohrman, Priscilla Wohlstetter and Associates, School-Based Management: Organizing for High Performance (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994).
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[Acknowledgments] [Table of Contents] [Section Two: Summary Review of the Literature]