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

School-Based Management:
Changing Roles for Principals

As more and more school districts across the United States implement school-based management, principals increasingly are finding themselves in schools that have the power to make decisions about how money should be spent at the school site, what the staff mix should be and what should be taught in classrooms and how. Indeed, at last count, more than one-third of the districts responding to a recent survey reported they currently operated under some form of school-based management and another 15 percent had plans to implement SBM in the near future. Another survey conducted by the Council of Great City Schools reported that 85 percent of member districts -- including many of the largest districts in the nation -- had implemented some form of school-based management.

School-based management decentralizes control from the central district office to individual schools as a way to give school constituents -- principals, teachers, parents, and community members -- more control over what happens in schools. Often SBM is adopted for the purpose of school improvement. By empowering groups who are closest to the students, school decisions, it is thought, will be better tailored to the particular needs of students, and school performance will improve.

Thus, SBM entails changing roles. District offices no longer are in the business of telling schools what to do; instead they are moving to help schools accomplish what schools, themselves, decide to do. Roles within schools for principals and teachers, likewise, change under SBM, as decision-making becomes a participative activity shared among various school constituents. Most forms of SBM vest decision-making authority in a council, composed of various stakeholders -- usually teachers, parents and community members -- who are elected by their respective constituencies. Whereas principals are accustomed to being the primary decision-maker at the school site, this is likely to change under SBM, with teachers, parents and community members empowered to make decisions formerly in the principal's exclusive domain. Principals may find themselves as members of councils that have a majority of teachers or a majority of members who are not professional educators -- parents and community representatives. Further, the composition of the council and who chairs the council -- the principal may or may not be the chair -- are likely to be decisions that are out of the principal's span of control, structured by either the district or state. Finally, the principal under SBM often has little veto power over council decisions.

This article focuses on the changing role of principals in SBM districts. The findings reported here are based on an in-depth study of 25 elementary and middle schools in 11 school districts in the United States, Canada and Australia.1 The districts we studied had been operating under the SBM umbrella for about four years, although some had been working at it much longer. We also looked at schools that exhibited a range of success in implementing SBM and that had achieved varied levels of success in improving school performance. Some of our schools were characterized as "actively restructuring", meaning that reform efforts had produced changes in curriculum and instructional practices; other schools were identified as "struggling", meaning they were going through the motions of SBM but little instructional change had occurred. The role of the principal in these two categories of schools differed considerably. The differences offer guidance to help principals develop management strategies to tap the potential of SBM and improve school performance.

Strategies for Improving the Effectiveness of SBM

In studying actively restructuring and struggling schools, we found that the SBM plans most successful in improving performance were those that not only empowered people at the school site to make decisions, but also trained people at the school site for their new roles, provided information to guide decision-making, and rewarded people for performance. Thus, the most successful principals were effective in moving four resources -- power, knowledge and skills training, information and rewards -- to teachers and community members. Drawing from these successful principals, strategies for decentralizing resources in each of these four areas are discussed below.

1. Power

Effective principals worked to diffuse power throughout the school organization to solidify and increase commitment to the reform. Thus, in addition to site councils, the schools had vertical and horizontal work groups that involved nearly all teachers in the school and often times community members and parents. Work groups typically were created by principals or the council and tended to be structured formally, with assigned members and regular meeting times. Sometimes the groups had binding authority; other times their powers were to advise the principal or the school-site council.

Many schools structured the work groups as subcommittees of the site council. The subcommittees, focused on areas such as assessment, curriculum and instruction, and staff development, offered forums for teachers and other stakeholders to get together and talk about school-specific issues. Subcommittees worked to develop council ideas into recommendations, or proposed new ideas to the council. Thus, through subcommittees, principals effectively spread the workload of managing the school beyond the few who served on the council.

Another, more radical model that occurred in districts that allowed schools to design their own governance systems was to use work groups in place of a council. One elementary school organized all teachers and parent representatives into five work groups -- operations, assessment and measurement, staff development, facilities, and organizational development. The principal served on the organizational development work group, which had oversight responsibility for the budget, and attended other group's meetings by invitation. This same school had teaching teams at each grade level which were given substantial decision-making power over curriculum and instruction.

In addition to these permanent structures, principals sometimes created ad hoc committees when a specific need arose. For example, many principals created ad hoc interview committees as part of the hiring process, or created ad hoc committees to handle a crisis or to explore grant opportunities or a new thrust for the school.

2. Knowledge and Skills Training

Principals in actively restructuring SBM schools promoted school-wide staff development to improve the capacity of the whole school. If the school could not afford to train all staff, then a small group were trained with the expectation the teachers would share their new knowledge and skills with the whole faculty. Effective principals also encouraged on-site, continuous staff development and not the one-shot, "go and get" variety, which is more fragmented in nature.

Under SBM, three kinds of knowledge and skills are important and effective principals paid attention to all three. First, if stakeholders are to be able to contribute knowledgeably to decisions about school improvements, then they need training to expand their knowledge about the instructional and programmatic changes of schools, including current knowledge about teaching, learning and curriculum. Secondly, people at the school site need teamwork skills for participating in work groups and training in group decision-making and how to reach consensus. If people other than the principal are running meetings, then leadership training is needed school-wide, so that people have the skills to run meetings effectively. Finally, where teachers and community representatives are expected to assist in developing a budget or hiring staff, they need organizational knowledge which includes budgeting and personnel skills.

The effective principals were creative in obtaining professional development for the school. Looking beyond the district, principals tapped private industry for leadership training and universities to optimize resources. Bringing these resources together was part of a larger staff development strategy in which the principal and various stakeholders defined the school's knowledge and training needs and how services would be delivered.

3. Information

The principal's role in information sharing was to distribute information liberally and frequently. Strategies focused on information sharing within the school, as well as keeping stakeholders outside the school informed. Another focus included bringing information -- ideas and research -- into the school from outside sources. Effective principals in SBM schools used a variety of strategies to share information among participants, particularly at the school site.

  • Principals worked with staff to develop a clear vision for the school and then worked to ensure the vision was communicated school-wide to all constituents. Some of the more successful SBM schools used professional development days to bring faculty together to define the mission and goals for the school. Effective principals continuously reminded school staff of the vision and provided information about school progress.

  • Principals disseminated information about school/SBM activities and student performance through newsletters to the whole school community. Some principals included local businesses on their mailing lists. Effective principals also routinely distributed student tests scores to staff, so they could be used to plan curriculum and instructional improvements. Many principals provided comparisons with other schools in the district with similar student populations.

  • Principals shared learnings across schools within the same district. Effective principals found that a valuable source of information came from other principals in their district. In some districts, this was a formal process. Districts were divided into regions and principals from the schools in each region met monthly in small groups to discuss happenings across the schools and within the district. From those meetings, principals returned to schools with advice, ideas from discussions and a sense of how the school was doing relative to other district schools.

  • Principals communicated to staff about research and innovative practices outside the district, such as instructional successes in different settings with similar types of students. Sometimes principals used time during staff meetings to discuss such issues; other times the presentation was less formal and more individualized -- a note or article in a teacher's mailbox, for instance.
  • 4. Rewards

    As staff members took on more responsibility and spent more time managing the school under SBM, the effective principals rewarded people for their efforts. Rewards included reduced courseloads for grant writing and funding to attend professional development activities. Effective principals frequently wrote thank you notes and publicly recognized staff at faculty meetings. Some principals rewarded the whole school community rather than individuals, believing such an approach -- that avoided distinguishing between winners and losers -- contributed to a sense of community. Another reward for the school was achieved through increased visibility in the community. Effective principals initiated school recognition by taking a more active role in local public relations activities and making teachers more visible in the community. Often times the schools were rewarded by in-kind donations and financial contributions.

    A lack of formal reward structures, which has been a long-standing issue in education, could be a impediment to the success of SBM. However, where principals rewarded efforts, a support system was established for teachers. Building on the intrinsic motivation of teachers was a useful mechanism for principals to encourage people to use their capabilities to achieve school goals. Principals achieved this by creating a school atmosphere that supported teacher involvement in decision-making and curriculum and instructional innovations.

    New Roles for Principals

    Effective principals in the actively restructuring SBM schools we studied were spending considerable amounts of time helping to empower, train, inform and reward their staff. As a consequence, we began to see evidence of emerging new roles for principals.

    Principals in SBM schools will need to balance a variety of roles. The principal role is evolving from direct instructional leadership to a broader role of orchestrating decision making, often through teams of teachers, and interacting with a wider range of individuals, including community members and other stakeholders.


    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, Office of Research, under Contract RR 91-172002. The program supports studies and disseminates practical information about implementing and sustaining successful innovations in American education. This research has also received generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and 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.

    1. See the following two Finance Briefs authored by Priscilla Wohlstetter and Susan Albers Mohrman for more information: School-Based Management: Promise and Process (1994) and School-Based Management: Strategies for Success (1993). Both of these are available from the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.


    [School-Based Management: Promise and Process] [Table of Contents] [How Schools Make School-Based Management Work]