Study Highlights the Ups, Downs of Shared Decisionmaking
A study of shared decisionmaking in New York City highlights the potential and pitfalls of the widely adopted approach to school reform.
Conducted by researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University, the study examines the first two years of a project initiated in 12 public schools by the New York City Teacher Centers Consortium of the United Federation of Teachers.
The researchers conclude that the project "must be judged a significant success," although they did not examine changes in student performance.
Ann Lieberman, one of the study's authors and co-director of Teachers College's National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, said that "Had it been a five- or six-year project, then I think you could have looked for [changes in] student learning of some kind."
According to the study, "Early Lessons in Restructuring Schools," every school involved in the voluntary project had created a "solid collaborative structure" by the spring of 1990 and was reaching out to involve a growing number of teachers and administrators.
In addition, most schools had initiated school- or classroom-level changes that had the potential to create better learning environments.
These measures included the introduction of collegial lesson planning and team teaching; the institution of a greater voice for teachers in textbook selection;the development of in-school suspension policies; and the introduction of a whole-language approach to teaching literature.
'Worthy of Attention'
Such efforts, the report released this fall argues, "are the initial, incontrovertible evidence that school restructuring through shared decisionmaking is a direction worthy of further investment and attention."
But the report also raises a number of problems that shared-decisionmaking efforts must overcome if they are to succeed: . Staff members must learn communication, collaboration, and conflict-resolution techniques to resolve disagreements that are bound to surface.
This is particularly true, the authors write, in "large conventional urban schools," such as those studied, where the researchers found "little tradition of teacher leadership or collegiality." . Shared-decisionmaking teams must work constantly to improve their relationship with the rest of the school staff in order to avoid charges of exclusiveness or elitism.
"Schools tried many strategies to move the rest of the staff to join the team, but results were rarely better than mixed," the researchers found. "Many teachers remained ignorant of or indifferent to the teams' efforts, and some were frankly uninterested in shaking things up."
Despite such problems, the authors note, most teams experienced a "steady growth in influence." . The process teams use to go about their work is as important as the educational changes they attempt. Schools that chose to ignore such "process" issues often ran into problems. For example, one team designed a mini-school based on cooperative learning, but failed to engage the staff as a whole in its plans. "As a result," the researchers found, "the faculty disowned the project as the disruptive and unwanted offspring of a self-designated 'elite.'" When an unexpected change of principals occurred, the project was largely abandoned. . Manageable initial projects with wide involvement and visible, concrete results sustain the restructuring process.
In one school, a decision to focus on small, but concrete, changes to improve lunchroom discipline led to the beginning of a schoolwide collaborative effort. "By contrast," the report points out, "in schools where there was a lack of any visible change despite many meetings, the process appeared to beg down.". The availability of outside facilitators can help teams learn how to relate to one another and can connect them with training opportunities.
Facilitators involved in the shared decisionmaking project, which began in 1988, are now being used to train others for an effort to institute school-based management and shared decisionmaking in some 200 New York City schools this year.
The study also found that district and state-level policies and practices can have a "profound and often decisive" effect on the success or failure of school-based initiatives.
Many schools reported that requirements of the state beard of regents, district curriculum guidelines, and other directives worked against them when they sought to institute more student-centered practices.
"Restructuring schools without changing the environment in which they work cannot result in long-lasting reforms," the study warns. It recommends that schools be given more authority for controlling their own affairs, including staffing and program offerings.
Copies of the report are available for $12 each from the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching, Box 110, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027.
Vol. 11, Issue 09, Page 8