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Impact of Site Management on Learning Found Unclear

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School-based management gives principals and teachers flexibility, but its ultimate effect on student achievement is still unclear, a federal study suggests.

The two-year study by the General Accounting Office, which looked at three school districts, found that transferring power to the school site allows staff members to respond to students' instructional needs and redirect finances accordingly.

But researchers note that it is difficult to determine how changes made under site-based management affect student performance.

One explanation may be that the quality of the reforms adopted in schools with decisionmaking authority varies, they say.

Moreover, some of the schools in the study opted to spend more money on instruction, while others emphasized administration--an indication that not all changes had an immediate impact on the classroom.

The report, released last month, examines site-based management programs in the Dade County, Fla., and Prince William County, Va., districts and in one Canadian school system, Edmonton, Alberta.

The school systems have long-term experience with the approach, ranging from four to 18 years. Dade County has transferred most decisions on instruction and budgeting to about half of its schools, while the other districts adopted it for all their schools.

The three districts also granted new powers to individual schools as part of a broader reform effort.

Power Plays?

Most of the schools with site-based management made changes in their instructional programs, including extending the school day, adding accelerated courses, and offering all-day kindergarten.

Principals and teachers also adjusted the school budget, shifting resources between staff, supplies, and equipment.

The G.A.O. says the approach appeared to be effective in banishing the one-size-fits-all model often applied to school management.

But the researchers also found that teachers and administrators in some of the schools were too preoccupied with school governance to focus on improving instruction.

District and school officials reported that "power struggles ensued in some schools while S.B.M. was implemented," the study notes.

Teachers and principals sometimes disagreed over how to share authority and, in other cases, staff members were not deeply involved in decisionmaking.

In addition, the report points out, principals without strong leadership skills and a command of instructional issues floundered under the school-based model.

The researchers add, however, that central-office administrators in the three districts became better "service" providers to the schools and often encouraged them to seek waivers from requirements that slowed innovation.

The Dade and Prince William schools, for instance, requested up to 100 waivers in a school year allowing them to adjust teacher compensation, use new student assessments, or reconfigure the school day and year.

Copies of the report are available for $2 by calling the G.A.O. at (202) 512-6000. Ask for document H.E.H.S.-94-135.

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