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Does Powersharing Pay?

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A new federal study has found that while school-based management may create a more flexible working environment for teachers and principals, its ultimate effect on student achievement is still unclear.

The two-year study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, looked at two American districts--Dade County, Fla., and Prince William County, Va.--and one Canadian district in Edmonton, Alberta.

The researchers found that transferring power to the school site allows staff members to respond effectively to students' instructional needs and redirect finances accordingly. But they also discovered that it is difficult to determine how changes made under site-based management affect student performance. One explanation for this, they say, is that the kind and quality of reforms adopted in schools with decisionmaking authority vary. 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 classroom life.

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

Most of the schools studied had made changes in their instructional programs, including extending the school day, adding accelerated courses, and offering all-day kindergarten. Principals and teachers had adjusted their school budgets accordingly.

The GAO investigators say the site-based approach appeared to be effective in banishing the one-size-fits-all model to school management. But they also found that teachers and administrators in some of the schools were too preoccupied with school governance to focus on improving instruction.

At some sites, teachers and principals disagreed on how to share authority, while at others, staff members did not get deeply involved. The study found that principals who lacked strong leadership skills and a command of instructional issues foundered under the school-based model. At a few schools, shared decisionmaking led to outright power struggles.

On the plus side, however, the researchers discovered 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 schools in the Dade and Prince William districts, for instance, request up to 100 waivers a school year. Among other things, these waivers allow the schools to adjust teacher compensation, use new student assessments, or reconfigure the school day and year.

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