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

How Schools Make
School-Based Management Work

School-based management (SBM) decentralizes control from the central district office to individual schools as a way to give school constituents -- principals, teachers, parents, community members, and in some schools, students -- more control over what happens in schools. Proponents of SBM argue that increasing the involvement of school-level stakeholders in managing schools will increase the capacity of schools to improve by increasing stakeholders' ownership and accountability for school performance. It is further argued that through SBM, a broader range of perspectives will be taken into account in the decision-making process, thereby producing decisions better tailored to the needs of the local school community. These potential outcomes are strong inducements. As a result, more and more school districts are turning to school-based management as a centerpiece for their improvement efforts. However, as educators, parents and the public are discovering, some districts and some schools are experiencing greater success than others in implementing SBM. While some schools are using SBM to redesign the school organization to accomplish an educational vision, other school communities are stuck on power issues like whether the principal should have veto power and who should serve on the site council, and on housekeeping issues like who should have access to the copy machine.

For more than three years, researchers with the School-Based Management Project at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have been studying schools and school districts in the U.S., Canada and Australia to find out what makes school-based management work.11 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 in local schools. All the districts we studied had been operating under SBM for at least four years, although some had been working at it much longer. We also surveyed teachers about classroom practices and carried out classroom observations. The purpose of our 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 curriculum and instruction.

In brief, we found that school-based management requires a redesign of the whole school organization that goes far beyond a change in school governance (Mohrman, S.A., P. Wohlstetter, and Associates 1994). 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. Further, we found that power was not effectively used at a school unless the school's strategy for using its new power included strategies for decentralizing three other essential resources: professional development and training for teachers and other stakeholders in teaching, managing and problem-solving; information about student performance, parent and community satisfaction, and school resources to help school-level people make informed decisions; and a reward system to acknowledge the increased effort SBM requires of participants as well as to recognize improvements in school performance.12 Our studies 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 curriculum and instruction efforts (Wohlstetter, P., R. Smyer, and S.A. Mohrman 1994). In this article we discuss strategies that we found promote high performance in SBM schools and give examples from the field of what we found in schools where SBM worked and in schools that were struggling with SBM.

Strategy #1: Disperse power throughout the school organization so that many stakeholders participate in decision-making.

When SBM is adopted, site councils usually are created at the school site to make decisions about programs and resources. In some schools, the structure and composition of the council is decided by the district or even by the state, while in other schools, the school itself can determine the composition of the council (Wohlstetter, P. and S.A. Mohrman 1994). Whether established at the district, state or the school-level, most councils are composed of administrators, teachers, parents and classified employees, who are elected by their respective constituencies. In some schools, the council has final approval on decisions under its jurisdiction; in others, the principal retains final decision-making authority. Many SBM schools also have created a formal system of subcommittees which report directly to the site council. Some schools have as many as twelve subcommittees. Other schools use as few as three subcommittees covering areas such as budget, curriculum and instruction, and facilities. Subcommittees dealing with the core technology of schooling such as curriculum and instruction may have teacher members only. Other subcommittees, like public relations and technology, have a wide range of participants including parents and community representatives, in addition to teachers.

What distinguished the schools where SBM worked from the struggling schools was the extent to which power was dispersed throughout the school beyond the principal and council to subcommittees and other decision-making groups, like teaching teams and ad hoc interview committees. These groups were created by principals or the council and tended to be structured formally, with assigned members and regular meeting times. With the wide dispersal of power, nearly all faculty members at the successful schools participated in SBM.

These schools used their new power to bring about change in teaching and learning practices. For instance, one school reallocated two teaching positions to create two part-time resource teachers: one who worked to coordinate professional development for teachers and the other who worked to monitor student absenteeism. Other schools focused on restructuring the school day. One council voted to lengthen the school day, so that teachers could have a common planning period one morning a week. Another school shortened the day several times during the year to schedule face-to-face parent conferences to distribute student report cards. Finally, resource allocation decisions also were targeted at improving teaching and learning. One council at an elementary school agreed to use all their instructional dollars for the year to purchase math manipulatives for the entire school. Likewise, schools that had the budget authority to carry-over savings from one year to the next used their savings for instructional needs. With power dispersed and decision-making focused on teaching and learning, the isolation and turf squirmishes so common in schools was notably less in the successful SBM schools we studied.

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. 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. Further, there were strong feelings of isolation among teachers in the absence of meetings that allowed teachers and other stakeholders to interact around specific projects, such as the development of a school-wide portfolio assessment system.

Strategy #2: Make professional development an ongoing, school-wide activity.

Professional development in schools where SBM worked was a very high priority. Activities were oriented toward building a school-wide capacity for change, creating a professional community and developing a shared knowledge base. In some successful SBM schools, teachers with release time were responsible for soliciting input from other teachers, and either arranging for the training or actually delivering it themselves. Several schools routinely sent small groups of teachers off-site for training who then returned to train the rest of the staff. Through our interviews and surveys in actively restructuring schools, we found widespread knowledge of the topics targeted for training and broad, if not universal, participation (see Robertson, P., P. Wohlstetter, and S.A. Mohrman 1994).

Schools where SBM worked were also more likely to have multi-year commitments to professional development which included all teachers. These schools often offered follow-up sessions. Several of them had subject matter consultants who visited and carried out demonstration lessons, observations, and worked with teachers on individual and group problem-solving.

These schools also had expanded the categories of training and of individuals receiving training. The subject matter of training was broadened to assist with the new decision-making responsibilities at the school site. Training was provided in interpersonal skills required for effective work groups, such as group decision-making, consensus-building and conflict resolution, and in leadership responsibilities like running meetings, budgeting and interviewing. Attention also was given to developing knowledge in the core technology of schooling -- teaching, learning, curriculum and assessment.

The categories of individuals receiving training were expanded to include nearly all members of the school organization and the various stakeholders. As a result schools where SBM worked had council members, teachers, administrators, office staff, support personnel and in some cases at the secondary level, students receiving various kinds of training. Sources of training at actively restructuring schools included training from the district office, universities, and even from non-traditional education circles like businesses that provided training in management and group decision-making.

By contrast, in struggling schools there tended to be an individual focus to professional development rather than a school-wide focus. We also found more instances of "go, sit and get" training rather than on-going professional development models. Some teachers opted out of professional development altogether. In other struggling schools, the only target group for training was the small group who sat on the site council. Their training tended to be offered at the start of SBM but without on-going support. One council had been trained initially on how to make decisions by consensus, but with little on-going support during the year, "meaty" topics were eventually shelved in favor of "easy to reach consensus" topics. Struggling schools also typically lacked a staff development plan. Funds for training in such schools were dispensed on a case-by-case basis, usually by the principal, without any school-wide involvement in who should be trained or what the topics for training should be.

Strategy #3: Disseminate information broadly so that SBM participants can make informed decisions about the school organization and all stakeholders are kept informed about school performance.

The traditional flow of information in schools is from the central office to the school site. What distinguished the schools where SBM worked were the additional channels used to disseminate information. In these schools information not only flowed to the school from the central office, but also within the school, out to the community and back up to the district office. Particularly noteworthy were the multiple vertical and horizontal teacher work teams used to collect and dispense information within the school, and the constant efforts to inform parents and community outside the school.

All of the schools where SBM worked created some sort of network of work groups where many issues originated or were delegated. In addition to grade level teams and subject area teams, teachers were also on council subcommittees, or school-wide committees addressing a particular school priority or goal (Odden, A. and E. Odden 1994). It was common in these schools to have teachers working on two or more committees. For example, an elementary teacher might be on a vertical work team addressing a subject area or a school goal -- such as expanding the use of technology in the classroom -- with representatives from all grade levels, and a horizontal grade level team. A secondary teacher might be on a vertical work team focusing on a school goal and a horizontal subject area team with members from relevant departments. Because many committees cut across level and subject areas, there was wide awareness of the needs of the school as a whole. Several schools scheduled brief grade level or department meetings (above and beyond the regular meetings of those groups) immediately after faculty meetings, so that horizontal input could be given quickly. Two secondary schools used short meetings every morning before school to share information among members of the school organization. The effect of these work teams was dramatic. There were high levels of school-wide awareness of issues and much greater ownership in decisions than at the struggling SBM schools. Further, implementation of curriculum and instruction reform at these schools was consistently described as a collective effort, with constant problem-solving and fine-tuning as a result of teachers continuously talking about reform. By contrast, in struggling SBM schools we found teachers often uninformed about school-wide issues, basing their opinions on rumors, and using pronouns like "they" to describe decision makers.

Most of the successful SBM schools were also systematic and creative in how they tried to communicate with parents and community. Many administered annual parent and community satisfaction surveys, and the results typically were used to help set priorities for the following year. 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. Some schools offered classes for parents on topics like computers and student-parent math activities. Another school used grant dollars to hire a part-time ombudsman to serve as a liaison between the school and parent communities.

The schools where SBM worked also collected many kinds of data on school performance and tried to act on the information to improve that performance. In addition to attendance data which was collected by many schools, one secondary school regularly printed out grade distributions for every class as a means of monitoring student and teacher performance. Student performance data was maintained in a variety of forms such as portfolios and anecdotal records. Narrative report cards were being piloted in one school. Another school was developing its own student profiles in reading and mathematics with grade level expectations. Other schools were piloting student profiles in all subject areas.

Access to up-to-date information related to the management and operation of the school was spotty. This emerged as a key variable for central office attention. Schools engaged in SBM need timely information aggregated to facilitate use by a wide range of stakeholders. One of the districts we studied recently installed an on-line interactive computer system in schools that included budget and personnel information; data on student achievement; electronic invoicing and purchasing; and a master schedule. Most schools, however, were not yet satisfied with their ability to monitor accurately and in a timely manner the status of resources and students.

Strategy #4: Frequently reward individual and group performance on progress toward school goals.

Rewarding teachers for the additional effort and new roles that SBM requires and rewarding groups or schools for improvement was not frequently done, although schools where SBM worked used this approach slightly more than the struggling schools. Some of the successful SBM schools regularly recognized individuals for work well done; in other schools the norm was group recognition. Rewards which provided money 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 district) money for council membership. Non-monetary recognition included the prestige associated with responsibilities like mentoring, notes of appreciation from the principal, recognition meals, and plaques. In schools where we found distrust, monetary rewards were suspect and public recognition was greeted with cynicism.

Differentiated staffing was widely used and accepted as a way of recognizing expertise in one of the districts we studied. Some of the positions offered additional pay and a slightly reduced teaching load; for other positions, only teaching loads were reduced; and a third type offered only intrinsic rewards, mainly the prestige and visibility of being a leader. All of these positions had to be applied for and were allocated to schools on the basis of student enrollment, typically accounting for about 50% of the teaching positions in a given school.

It has been argued that intrinsic rewards are sufficient to motivate and reinforce teachers. We found in actively restructuring schools many teachers were excited and motivated by the climate of professional collaboration and learning in their schools. We also found that some teachers, who had been working with SBM for longer than four years, were tired and wondering if they could keep up their level of involvement. Too many districts have assumed that SBM occurs with average levels of commitment and energy. Our research found that actively restructuring SBM schools placed high demands on all individuals involved. The argument that intrinsic rewards are sufficient to motivate and reinforce teachers for engaging in SBM over the long haul may be too optimistic.

Strategy #5: Select principals who can lead and delegate.

All 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 leaders; as strong supporters of their staffs; and as the people who brought innovations to the school, and who moved reform agendas forward.

While principals in successful SBM schools typically spearheaded the effort to develop a school mission, other tasks often were delegated. Principals tended to delegate to subcommittees responsibilities such as material selection, budget development and professional development schedules. The use of subcommittees effectively increased teacher ownership and accountability to the school-wide program, which was reflected in the frequent use of the pronoun "we" by teachers in schools where SBM worked. Aside from formal collaboration, principals also fostered informal communities by scheduling common lunch periods for students and staff and common break times for teachers.

Principals in high performance SBM schools also were instrumental in outreach efforts. Some principals served on boards of local business groups or regularly attended their meetings. Others worked diligently to foster press relations with local papers. Principals also were active in cultivating outside resources, such as professional development from universities, advice on technology from area businesses, and financial support from private foundations and educational networks.

Instruction and curriculum reform were what distinguished the schools where SBM worked, yet the principals of these schools functioned more broadly than instructional leaders. The principals worked to promote a school organization and climate where the teachers were leaders in instruction and curriculum. The principals' role then was to support that leadership by providing resources to nurture their efforts.

Principals in struggling schools were often perceived as either too autocratic or too laissez-faire. Some appeared to their staffs as not involved enough; others appeared to dominate all decisions (Wohlstetter and Briggs, in press). In many struggling schools, the key struggle was over power between teachers and the principal. In some cases, the principal's unilateral agenda for change was rejected by the faculty.

Strategy #6: Adopt a well-defined vision for curriculum and instruction to direct reform efforts.

Most of the schools where SBM worked operated according to a set of curricular guidelines developed at the district, state or national (e.g., National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) level. Yet teachers perceived themselves as having considerable leeway regarding the specifics of the curriculum they provided to their students and the instructional approaches and materials they used. Some schools had a separate curriculum framework for each content area that teachers had written themselves; some schools used sections from existing frameworks to come up with their own approach.

What distinguished the schools where SBM worked from the struggling schools was the shared understanding and widespread commitment to instruction and curriculum approaches adopted by the school. Such schools had a well-defined vision delineating the school's mission, values and goals regarding student outcomes. This vision served as a focal point and guided conversation in all the various decision-making forums. The development of the school vision came about in some schools through a formal consensus-building process, like at a retreat before the new school year began, and in other schools, through more informal and more frequent interactions of various stakeholders around curriculum and instruction issues. Struggling SBM schools, in contrast, often had power and control issues that interfered with any process for vision setting. Even when struggling schools had a vision statement they could point to, it was not an "active" document and was rarely mentioned in interviews or surveys.


Interest in SBM as a reform to improve school performance is high. Research from the School Based Management Project found important differences between schools where SBM worked to bring about instruction and curriculum reform and schools that were struggling with SBM.

Schools where SBM worked used their SBM power in tandem with a commitment to on-going professional development; effective information collection and dissemination; and a system of rewards for individual and group performance. In addition, these schools had strong principal leaders who led by creating ownership in a common vision and by delegating specific projects and tasks. These successful SBM schools had multiple formal and informal channels that encouraged interaction among all staff; high levels of skill development among various stakeholders; initiatives to include parents and the community in the school organization; and a concerted focus on student needs and accomplishments.

Struggling schools, on the other hand, lacked a common vision and were frequently characterized by factions. These problems reflected a lack of at least one and usually more of the strategies that make SBM work. For districts embarking on or refining their SBM plans, the strategies that we have found promote success can serve as a blueprint for action. At the same time, individual schools can investigate the degree to which they currently are using the six strategies we have identified here, and then work to sustain and strengthen practice.


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Robertson, P., P. Wohlstetter, and S.A. Mohrman. (1994).
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11 This work is part of the Studies of Education reform program supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), Office of Research. This research has also received generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Finance Center of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE). The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Southern California, the Carnegie Corporation or CPRE, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

12 Findings from this research are similar to those found for businesses that employed the "high involvement" model of decentralization (Lawler 1986; 1992).


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