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 world has changed around our organizations. American organizations that were performing well during the majority of the twentieth century are finding themselves operating in a radically new environment facing changed expectations and requirements. Organizations are now being forced to redesign themselves to ensure their prosperity in the new global order. School organizations are no exception and this is serious business. At stake is the ability of our schools to contribute to a thriving economy that provides jobs, opportunity and the basis for a satisfactory standard of living for the citizenry. The societal stake in the improvement of education includes preparing citizens to participate in a community, in the democracy, and in the economy of an increasingly complex society.

School-based management is a popular political approach to redesign that gives local school participants -- educators, parents, students and the community-at-large -- the power to improve their school. By moving governance and management decisions to local stakeholders, those with the most at stake are empowered to do something about how the school is performing. School-based management has great appeal, as witnessed by the large numbers of school districts that are trying some form of it. Its results, however, have been less impressive. School-based management takes a long time to implement, does not always focus on educational issues, and often results in friction, rather than collaboration, between stakeholders during the improvement process. Is the theory flawed? Is the current wave of decentralization just another swing of the pendulum?

The Assessment of School-Based Management study, reported in this volume, explored the possibility that organizational and student performance results from school-based management were limited because the reform had been inadequately conceptualized. Based on decentralized management in other types of organizations, we hypothesized that perhaps too much had been expected from simply the transfer of power. For local stakeholders to use power to improve the education that occurs in schools, the design of the organization must change in many ways to support the informed and skilled application of this power, and to provide incentives for people to make fundamental changes in how they enact their roles. An underlying assumption of this research was that a true test of school-based management required the reform to be implemented as part of a systemic change. School-based management must include the development of an organizational design that supports and values high levels of involvement throughout the organization, with a simultaneous focus on fundamental change to the educational program that supports new approaches to teaching and learning. Thus, our research plan focused on assessing the effectiveness of SBM, in combination with ambitious curriculum and instructional reforms, as a tool for improving school performance.

Through this study, we took a new look at school-based management through the lens of an organizational model that has been found in the private sector to lead members of organizations to become involved in improving organizational performance. The high-involvement model stems from the work of Edward E. Lawler and his colleagues, and stresses creating the capability for meaningful involvement in the organization and a stake in its performance (Lawler, 1986; 1992). The high-involvement framework posits that four resources must be spread throughout the organization: power to make or influence decisions; information upon which good decisions can be made; knowledge and skills to perform effectively including good decision-making and problem-solving skills; and rewards for performance. Such organizations also are designed to get people focusing on the ongoing improvement of performance. Lawler's high-involvement framework is used as a template against which to compare SBM, for the purposes of enriching the conceptualization of SBM and its role in high performance. We chose this model as the analytical foundation for the study because we were interested in expanding the dialogue about school-based management to include concepts of organizational design for high involvement.

Early efforts in the private sector to create participative structures and to empower employees encountered serious barriers and achieved little. Some organizations retreated from the high-involvement approach. Others persevered, and have gradually put in place the design features required to enable meaningful employee involvement. The changes have been deep and pervasive. Thus, in this study we investigated the change process and how districts and schools went about the initial stages of adopting and implementing SBM. Drawing on the experience of the private sector, we expected that SBM, like high-involvement management, would require the redesign of the district and school organizations to create the conditions under which school-level participants introduced changes that would lead to higher performance.

In the first phase of the Assessment of School-Based Management study, we wanted to determine whether the schools that were more successful in introducing change had attended to more aspects of high-involvement. This phase found considerable support for the importance of the four elements of high-involvement, as well as for the importance of the role of leadership and instructional guidance mechanisms (state, district, or school generated philosophies, and curriculum frameworks) in providing shared direction within the school.

The second phase of the Assessment of School-Based Management study examined in greater depth the organizational factors that were present in schools that had utilized SBM successfully to introduce changes in curriculum and instruction. Curriculum experts from the University of Wisconsin were part of the team for the second phase. They took a fine-grained look at classroom changes that were being put into place, and validated that changes in teaching and learning were indeed occurring. In addition, this phase examined the dynamics that enabled the establishment of a learning community in the school to support the generation, implementation, assessment, and institutionalization of new practices.

The second phase of the study again confirmed the importance of the organizational features emphasized in the high-involvement framework. We were able to confirm that changes in curriculum and instruction were indeed occurring in our sample schools; and we also were able to provide a rich picture of how the organizational mechanisms worked and the learning dynamics that were present.

The problems facing schools are systemic. They will not be resolved by returning to the old conditions. School populations will not become more homogeneous. At least in the short term, the nuclear family will not thrive. Social problems will continue to walk into the school. The process of finding approaches to deal with these and many other issues will require and benefit from the involvement of all stakeholders and participants. We argue that schools do not face a decision of whether to involve local stakeholders, but rather of how to involve them. Results from this study show that school-based management can be part of a constellation of factors that produce local school efforts to improve teaching and learning. The study stops short of demonstrating impact on school outcomes, although there were qualitative reports and data in a number of schools to show that outcomes were indeed improving. The Assessment of School-Based Management study also demonstrates that within the same district, some schools were able to effectively engage local-level participants and open up the system to substantial change, while other schools struggled and SBM activities failed to achieve a focus or make an impact. The findings offer considerable evidence about the reasons for differential success.

Overview of This Volume

The results from the Assessment of School-Based Management study are intended for policy makers, practitioners and scholars who deal with educational administration and policy. Our intent was that the study would serve as a source of ideas for educators who are struggling to create meaningful involvement in educational improvement. We also thought it would be useful for policy makers and scholars who are muddling through the place of school-based management in the constellation of efforts that constitute systemic school reform, and for those who are looking for an enriched understanding of school-based management that goes beyond its political conceptualization and beyond the statement of faith that moving control to local participants will result in decisions to improve education. Deeper understanding of these issues, we believe, will ultimately produce more sustained and effective school-based management approaches that create high involvement in improving school performance.

This first volume of our final technical research report focuses on the findings and conclusions from the Assessment of School-Based Management study and contains four sections. Section One includes the Executive Summary for the Assessment of School-Based Management study. It presents an overview of our research in the United States, Canada and Australia based on over 500 interviews in 44 schools and 13 school districts. The Summary is organized around four basic reasons why SBM fails and six strategies that lead to success. Written for educators in the field and policy makers, the Summary (which appeared in the September 1995 issue of Kappan) concludes with some implications for district and state-level policy and practice.

In Section Two, we present a summary review of the SBM literature that emerged from the papers we commissioned experts to write during the first year of the study. In an effort to communicate our findings to a broad and diverse audience, we published the results from our literature review in two forms. First as a policy brief that was targeted at policy makers and practitioners, and second as a book -- School-Based Management: Organizing for High Performance (Jossey-Bass, 1994) -- designed more for the academic community. The policy brief, which was disseminated to over 5000, serves as our summary review of the SBM literature and is included in this volume under Section Two.

In the third section, we present an overview of our study aims and study questions. This information is presented in the form of two "information briefs" -- one for each phase of data collection. The information briefs were sent to potential study districts and schools to communicate the purpose of our SBM research to potential participants.

The fourth section contains a series of articles that draw on our cross-site analyses from the two phases of the Assessment of School-Based Management study. The articles, which were developed to address the interests of a variety of audiences, are arranged in chronological order, beginning with the earliest based on data from our first phase of data collection. As you will read, a major thrust of our work was on cross-site analyses. In our view, single case studies would be of limited generalizability and, therefore, of only limited use to policy makers and practitioners (for practical advice) and to the research community (for contributing to theory). We considered our individual case studies to be raw data, and they were developed for internal use only.

The final article in Section Four entitled "Generating Curriculum and Instructional Innovations Through School-Based Management" (Robertson, Wohlstetter and Mohrman, 1995) assesses the outcomes of SBM. We were interested in how SBM could support educational innovations in the classroom. In the absence of comparable, multi-year student achievement data, we used data on classroom innovations as a proxy for high performance, arguing that increases in student performance were most likely to occur in classrooms that used authentic pedagogy and authentic curriculum. Since completing our study, researchers at the Center on Organization and Restructuring Schools have built directly on our study of SBM and taken the findings one step further by linking decentralization and classroom innovation (as we defined it) to improved student achievement (Marks and Louis, 1995).

Los Angeles, California
July 1995
Priscilla Wohlstetter
Susan Albers Mohrman


[Title page] [Table of Contents] [Acknowledgments]