School-Restructuring Efforts Forcing Principals To Redefine Their Roles

By Ann Bradley — November 01, 1989 11 min read

Phoenix--Robert J. Holzmiller, principal of Hopi Elementary School in Scottsdale, Ariz., is not ashamed to admit that his school’s foray into site-based decisionmaking this fall has left him feeling scared.

The district has provided few guidelines on how teams in its five pilot schools are to go about the process of changing school governance, he said.

In the absence of such advice, Mr. Holzmiller has decided to try to involve parents, teachers, other staff members, and students in decisions he previously might have made by himself.

“Everything I get, I channel to a committee,” Mr. Holzmiller said. “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.”

Mr. Holzmiller is not alone in his feelings of uncertainty. The growing movement to restructure schools through participatory decisionmaking is challenging the traditional definitions of the principalship--and of central-office leadership.

As teachers, parents, and even students take on added responsibility, principals across the nation are seeking to redefine their roles and their relationships with others in their schools and districts.

But that task is complicated, principals and others agree, by a lack of agreement among educators about what constitutes “school-based management.” And the problem is exacerbated, in some cases, by a feeling among principals that teachers are pushing too hard and too fast to increase their decisionmaking authority.

“People started by focusing on teachers, and the notion was restructuring and teacher involvement,” said Stephen Mitchell, vice president of Organizational Analysis and Practice, an educational consulting firm in Ithaca, N.Y.

“But you’re starting to see them say, ‘Wait a minute. If we’re going to do that, we have to pay more attention to the principals,”’ he said, “and the principals are saying, ‘You’re asking us to do this, but you’re not paying attention to what the demands are on us.”’

Mr. Mitchell and others believe that principals must become “facilitators” who share ideas and information with their school teams and guide them toward consensus, rather than traditional managers or the sole decisionmakers in their schools.

But to do so effectively, they warn, principals must be supported--not directed--by their district offices.

“The principal is often [told], ‘Fix it by this afternoon,”’ said Peter Bucholtz, principal of Miami Palmetto Senior High School in Dade County, Fla. The school has adopted site-based management.

“Now, I can’t always fix it by myself,” he added, “and sometimes the person [in the central office] wanting it to be fixed doesn’t understand that.”

The skills needed to be effective in working with a team made up of a diverse group of teachers, community members, parents, and students are quite different from the skills most principals were taught, noted Dale Mann, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“All the bets are off,” Mr. Mann said. “They can no longer be old-style [chief executive officers]. Is their new role clear? Not at all.”

At a recent conference in Phoenix, approximately 200 educators from across the country engaged in a wide-ranging exploration of how central offices can support site-based decisionmaking.

The meeting was sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Network for Educational Renewal.

The discussion centered around the concept of recasting the central office into a role in which it serves the school buildings, rather than prescribing a set of rules and regulations for teachers and principals to follow.

The concept of central offices as “enablers” is receiving increased attention in many restructuring projects, educators at the conference and elsewhere confirmed.

“The central office, as we know it, is going to be the third wave of reform,” predicted Robert Hasson, assistant superintendent of the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District in Maine.

Mr. Hasson is planning a project for the n.e.a.'s Mastery in Learning program that will examine how principals’ roles change in schools that are engaged in restructuring. The project has received a grant from the Danforth Foundation.

Mr. Hasson said his experience with the nea program, now in its fourth year, has shown that principals who feared they would lose authority to site-based decisionmaking committees actually feel more powerful in the restructured schools.

Indeed, principals engaged in shared decisionmaking say its rewards are considerable, once initial barriers are crossed.

For instance, if a parent complains about a textbook, “You can’t say, ‘They made me do it,”’ noted Woody Norwood, principal of Wright Elementary School in Tulsa, Okla. He said he did not realize how nice not blaming others would be “until I got out of that mode.”

Elaine Dodd, who teaches at a magnet elementary school in Tulsa, said she enjoys an “enormous sense of freedom” because her principal “isn’t intimidated or threatened by very bright teachers.”

“I’ve worked for many principals, and I have found that I am not nearly as good a teacher when I feel confinement or restraint about what I can be involved in,” she said.

Despite a degree of agreement on the new roles for central-office personnel and principals in reconfigured schools, a strong theme at the Phoenix conference was confusion over exactly what “restructuring” means.

What was considered shared decisionmaking in one district--advisory panels of teachers, parents, and students, for example--was far different from the formalized process in another district in which the teachers’ contract spells out who will sit on the team and how it will make decisions.

Several principals noted that they have always made it a practice to involve teachers in decisions. Theirs is a perception shared by Scott Thomson, outgoing executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

“This is where restructuring gets so fuzzy,” Mr. Thomson noted. “Good management anywhere involves a lot of involvement of the staff. I will argue that good principals have al8ways done that.”

“Where we part company with the two teachers’ unions,” Mr. Thomson added, “is that they are interpreting empowerment and restructuring as a committee of teachers in effect managing the school.”

The perception that the teachers’ unions are driving the restructuring movement has put some principals and central-office administrators on the defensive. In some areas, teachers’ unions have called for the elimination of central-office jobs to redirect limited resources to the schools.

Gene Geisert of St. John’s University in New York characterizes the teacher-empowerment movement in an article in the August issue of The Executive Educator as a “union juggernaut” that will “severely limit management’s ability to function.”

Ted Elsberg, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, agrees that principals may have their hands tied: “What you have is a situation in which the person delegated with responsibility, and who will take the blame if it doesn’t go well, is left hanging out to dry.”

In large urban districts where systemwide restructuring is occurring, principals’ associations complain that their members’ concerns are being subordinated to the demands of teachers during collective bargaining.

In the wake of a teachers’ contract instituting site-based management in Los Angeles, principals will take a vote early next year on whether to explore forming a union, according to Roger Johnson, deputy director of the 1,500-member Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

“Administrators were concerned that the concept of shared decisionmaking was negotiated without their input,” Mr. Johnson explained. “They don’t feel their opinions are sufficiently solicited.”

The Los Angeles contract established “school leadership councils,” half of whose members are teachers. The principal has one vote on the council, and no power to veto its decisions.

Principals’ organizations in Chicago and Rochester, N.Y., have unsuccessfully sought to block restructuring efforts in the courts.

In Chicago, a council at each school will decide every four years whether to renew a principal’s contract, which will spell out performance goals. And in Rochester, teachers have taken on a function traditionally reserved for principals through a mentoring program for teachers who have received unfavorable evaluations.

Richard Stear, president of the Association of Administrators and Supervisors of Rochester, said hisel20lunion feared that mentor teachers who were released from the classroom for the program would assume “quasi-administrative positions.”

“Administrators are licensed and certified to evaluate,” Mr. Stear said. “If an administrator loses that function, you lose the job.”

And the principals’ union in New York City already is at odds with Joseph A. Fernandez, the city’s newly appointed schools chancellor, over his intention to challenge their tenure in school buildings as a prelude to school-improvement efforts.

In contrast to the experiences of principals in large urban areas, principals in Prince William County, Va., have been given significantly more authority under the suburban district’s new site-based management program, which will take effect next July.

Last month, the school board approved a sweeping plan that will allocate a lump sum to each school based upon calculations of how much it costs to educate each student, explained Richard Neal, director of school-based management.

Teams of faculty members, parents, and students at each school will determine how best to spend the money, with the superintendent’s approval.

“The principal is held accountable under the close scrutiny of a collaborative relationship,” Mr. Neal said. “It’s a very serious change. When we transfer the money in a lump sum, that’s not talk. That’s as much power as you can transfer.”

The shift in the way the school system’s budget will be spent will remove power from the central office and give it “a consulting and advisory role,” Mr. Neal said.

With the additional responsibility, each principal will be held more accountable, he noted.

“If somebody gets fired, it’s not going to be the advisory council,’' he added. “It’s going to be the principal.”

In New Jersey, state officials quickly identified the high level of anxiety among principals as an issue that deserved special attention after a pilot site-based management program was created in 1987, said Jeffrey Graber, coordinator of the Cooperative Relationships Project.

The education department received a grant last year from the National Governors’ Association to examine the role of the principal in site-based decisionmaking.

Principals from 51 school districts that applied to participate in the program were surveyed to determine their attitudes toward the concept. The project now involves nine districts containing 494schools.

Initially, principals perceived empowering teachers to make decisions as a “zero sum” proposition that would threaten their own authority, Mr. Graber said.

Mr. Mitchell, whose firm serves as the primary consultant for the program, said the prevailing attitude was reflected by one principal who said, “I don’t have any authority, and I’m not going to share it.”

In addition, the principals were frustrated by a sense of isolation within their districts and by the heavy state regulation of schools, the survey found.

One of the greatest obstacles to participatory decisionmaking in schools is the time involved, Mr. Mitchell and several participants at the Phoenix conference noted. Particularly in rural areas, Mr. Mitchell said, principals “complain about a blue-collar mentality” among teachers who are not willing to work beyond school hours.

Even principals and teachers who are in agreement about shared decisionmaking must struggle to find ways to release teachers from the classroom for committee work.

Bruce Goldberg, co-director of the a.f.t’s Center on Restructuring, told the Phoenix audience that there are no simple answers to that question. Changing the school schedule to create blocks of time in which teachers could meet would be a step toward real restructuring, he suggested.

“When you try to create a center of inquiry, then the different roles and relationships will ensue,” Mr. Goldberg said. “If you begin with who has the power in the school now and how can we shift it, there won’t be very much done.”

The educational consulting firm Organizational Analysis and Practice recommends that principals, teachers, and others who will share decisionmaking responsibilities develop a model that identifies their objectives and how to measure them. The survey of principals indicated “a tendency in too many schools to adopt too many things at once,” Mr. Mitchell said.

Once a school has set clear goals, he said, the principal should become a coordinator and a source of information about where to find the proper resources, research, and materials to accomplish them.

But even principals who are enthusiastic about the potential of school-based management say delegating responsibility and watching a team make mistakes is difficult.

“My whole problem now is I’m starting to get concerned that if they don’t follow through, do they fall on their faces or do I pick them up and scramble?” Mr. Holzmiller said of his school committees.

“It’s hard for me, because I don’t like to see things moving slowly.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1989 edition of Education Week as School-Restructuring Efforts Forcing Principals To Redefine Their Roles