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

The Study

The basic research question guiding this study was whether and under what conditions SBM could provide the capacity where school-level educators would introduce changes to curriculum and instruction designed to improve performance. The research also was concerned with testing whether the high involvement model describes the conditions that enable schools to introduce improvements. Our research applied the high involvement model and examined: 1) Mechanisms that existed for decentralizing knowledge, power, information and rewards in schools and how they worked; 2) How SBM reforms combined with reforms in the areas of curriculum and instruction to improve school performance; and 3) Factors that were important to the successful implementation of SBM. We also were interested in a comparative perspective that would inform why SBM in some schools produced change in curriculum and instructional practices -- what we called actively restructuring -- while other schools in the same district were struggling and little change had occurred. This article presents an analysis of whether these two sets of schools differed along the dimensions that constitute the high involvement model. The expectation is that schools that are actively restructuring will be characterized by a greater distribution of power, information, knowledge and skills and rewards to school-level participants.

The Districts

Past research has shown that SBM is everywhere and nowhere (Wohlstetter & Odden, 1992). Everywhere because school systems all over the country are involved in SBM (Clune & White, 1988; Malen, Ogawa & Kranz, 1990) and nowhere because the extent of decision-making responsibility devolved to the school is limited (Clune & White, 1988; Malen & Ogawa, 1988; Wohlstetter & Buffett, 1992). In selecting districts for this research, the aim was to focus on exemplary SBM districts, so that the phenomenon we wanted to examine was in fact in place. Using a nomination procedure that involved consulting with university and policy researchers, federal, state and local policy makers, and practitioners including district and school-level educators,8 districts were identified and screened to ensure that: SBM had been underway for three or four years; significant authority had been devolved to schools; and there was a strong push (either from the state or the district) for curriculum and instruction reform.

The research reported here is based on data collected in four school districts in North America -- Edmonton, Canada; Jefferson County, Kentucky; Prince William County, Virginia; and San Diego, California.9 The districts typically adopted SBM about four years ago; at the extreme was Edmonton where the first pilot began in the late 1970s. Schools in the sample districts generally had substantial authority in terms of the budget. They were able to some extent to decide the mix of personnel (although state law and union contracts constrained this in some districts), to carry-over some funds from one year to the next and to purchase some services from outside the district. All four districts were implementing SBM in combination with curriculum and instructional reform, but there was variation in terms of who was providing the instructional guidance system. In San Diego and Jefferson County, the state provided direction in the areas of curriculum and instructional reform. In Prince William County, the district played the key role, although curriculum reform was lagging the implementation of SBM. In Edmonton, the district through its curriculum department played the predominant role, however, the province (state) provided general goals and a broad curriculum framework that drove local effort.

Aside from the screening criteria, districts were selected to represent a range of school-based management policies. Three of the districts we studied mandated that schools adopt SBM; the one exception was Jefferson County where SBM was voluntary and the vote to adopt SBM was a school-level decision. Some plans -- in Jefferson County and San Diego -- required site councils with heavy teacher involvement; in Edmonton and Prince William, SBM plans empowered principals, although in Prince William the principals were explicitly directed to involve teachers and the community in decisions and planning. In terms of the catalyst for reform, superintendents typically initiated the move to SBM among our four districts. However, in Jefferson County the teachers' union also played a major role: the reform was brought to the negotiating table and enacted through contract language.

In each of the four districts, we studied six schools -- two elementary, two middle/junior and two high schools. At each level of schooling, we studied one actively restructuring school that had been successful in making concrete changes in the areas of curriculum and instruction, and one struggling school that was active with SBM but far less successful in making changes. This approach was taken to make it possible to examine what conditions were present when SBM led to changes in teaching and learning. The identification of struggling and actively restructuring schools was by either the district superintendent or the associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. In most cases, nominations were solicited from area superintendents and/or curriculum specialists in the district office and the following definitions were used:

  1. "Struggling schools" had active SBM governance activities in place, but had not made concrete, observable changes in their approaches to instruction.

  2. "Actively restructuring schools" had active SBM governance activities in place, and had made concrete, observable changes to their instructional approaches.

In order to accommodate the study design, we focused our research in large school districts. The enrollment in San Diego was approximately 125,000 students. In Jefferson County, there were about 95,000 students. Prince William County enrolled 45,000 students and the student population in Edmonton, Canada was about 79,000 during the 1992-93 school year.

Study Methods

To gain an understanding of SBM and the conditions leading to school improvement, each district was visited by a team of three researchers for one week. During that period, interviews were conducted at the district office with the superintendent, four assistant superintendents (for school-based management/restructuring, curriculum/instruction, personnel and finance), selected school board members and the union president -- a total of about nine individuals in each district office. These interviews collected information about the state and district context, including district-level aspects of SBM and curriculum change. Site visits to schools typically included interviews with the following people: the principal, vice-principal, members of the site council (including administrators, teachers and parents), union chair, resource specialists or selected department chairs, and several other teachers with differing perspectives on SBM and curriculum/instructional change. The interviews focused on the chronology and implementation of SBM, its form and context, and its impacts on teaching and learning, on the organization of the school including mechanisms for distributing power, information, knowledge and skills, and rewards, and on perceptions of the school district, and the involvement of various participants and stakeholders. At the district-level, a total of 38 interviews were conducted across the four districts. At the school-level, we averaged about seven interviews per site for a total of 161 interviews in 23 schools.

In addition to interviews, faculties at school campuses were asked to complete a short survey. The survey was designed as a broader check on the attitudes of the staff regarding SBM than was possible from the subset of staff who were interviewed. The survey asked respondents to rate how satisfied they were with SBM, the amount of influence campus constituencies had on SBM, how much support existed for SBM and to what extent SBM had influenced campus outcomes. Open-ended questions asked participants to identify factors that facilitated and were a barrier to the application of SBM to the improvement of teaching and learning on campus.

The discussion, which follows, reports on information gleaned from 23 schools in four districts. Slightly more than half of the schools we studied were classified as actively restructuring, based on their success in making changes aimed at improving instructional effectiveness; the other half were classified as struggling -- schools that were active with SBM but where classroom practice had not changed much.10 Some of the changes in curriculum and instruction that had been instituted in actively restructuring schools included: team teaching; non-graded, mixed ability groups; cooperative learning; writing across the curriculum; interdisciplinary instruction, and hands-on instruction (performance events).

The methodology employed is a comparative case analysis. Researchers wrote rich case descriptions of SBM, school improvement areas and organizational features including mechanisms for sharing knowledge, information, power and rewards in each school. The cases were then examined to find patterns where actively restructuring schools differed from struggling schools in these areas. The remainder of this article describes those patterns.

8 In September 1992, a national conference was held in Washington, D.C. to present findings from the first year of this research project and to solicit input from a range of audiences -- federal, state and local policy makers and practitioners -- on its future direction, including the nomination of school districts that held potential for future study.

9 Similar research methods were used to study SBM schools in Victoria, Australia. The research results are reported in A. Odden and E. Odden, Applying the High Involvement Framework to Local Management of Schools in Victoria, Australia (April, 1994).

10 Our original intent was to have a sample of 24 schools -- six each from four districts -- evenly divided between "struggling" and "actively restructuring". But, one "struggling" elementary school dropped out of the study at the last minute and so one district in the sample had only five schools represented.

[Part 2: The High Involvement Framework] [Table of Contents] [Part 4: Results and Discussion]