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Site-Based Foolishness

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Public educational reform can be defined as that process by which administrators develop and implement new ideas this year for the purpose of helping the public forget those that failed to take hold last year. So rest in peace, "site-based management," right alongside the "planning, programming budget system (P.P.B.S.)" and "team teaching."

I very much wish we could hang in there. The central idea is sound. But there are reasons to be pessimistic. Like the politically late Mikhail Gorbachev, too many are trying hard to imagine a process with which they have had little or no experience. And by the way, hello "strategic planning" or whatever comes next.

There are lots of schools in this country that are really school-based. But they are not public. They are called independent, parochial, or private schools. If you asked to see the "building principal" of one of these schools, you might be corrected. "Do you mean the head of maintenance?" If you asked to talk to the "building staff," you might be granted an interview with the custodians. And if you asked the independent-school leader if his or her school were "site based" with a "site based" budget, I am sure there would be at least a pause in the conversation.

Let me suggest some simple-minded terms and concepts that might give those of us who believe in this latest school reform a little hope. A little hope, that is, if we heard them used.

A school is an active community of teachers and learners. If the building in which it is housed burns down, the school continues as long as that community functions. A "site" or a "building" is not a school. A site is the yard or field on which a physical structure may be placed.

The reform has to do with the learning responsibilities and accountability of a school, the human organization, which may include a school principal, school faculty and staff, students, and even parents. To mix up the physical entity, "building" and "site," with the human organization, the school, goes right to the heart of the matter. That is what has been wrong with most public schools and what the reform seeks to address.

In fact, in many public schools there is a building staff rather than a school faculty sharing in school leadership and accountability for academic results; there's a building principal who takes responsibility for administrative and building matters rather than the educational and instructional leadership; and there's a site or building budget that is effectively prepared for the most part centrally. And that budget is organized and expressed not in categories that mean something to the school faculty (such as, "kindergarten," "English," "art," and "mathematics") but in terms that satisfy state auditors (such as "instruction," "administration").

The re-creation of public schools will in the words of Edwards Deming, a major architect of international industrial reform, require "constancy of purpose" over a long period of time. And reform will have to be in human, programmatic, and organizational terms. Each time a school is referred to as a "building," a faculty as "building staff," a school-improvement plan and budget as a "site plan and budget," and a school leader as a "building principal," one more nail is pounded into the coffin of this essential public-school reform.

I suggest that many who use this language may, like the former Soviet president, be irrelevant because they really have not experienced and cannot really understand what they are talking about. I suggest further that those of us who are teachers and principals, or who have been, should be insulted by this kind of dehumanizing characterization of our roles and responsibilities. We should also be very dubious about the results of the effort.

I realize that these are only words, but our words should not point us one way when we intend to move in the opposite direction. If the reform is to take hold and benefit learners, we have to speak up. How about starting with you?


Oliver S. Brown is a former teacher, principal, and superintendent. His experience includes independent and public schools as well as management consulting with the firm of Price Waterhouse & Company. He is currently an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a consultant for schools and other nonprofit organizations in the areas of finance and management.

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