Shortcomings in School-Based Management in Boston Noted

By Lynn Olson — September 25, 1991 3 min read

School-based management in Boston has not significantly altered instruction and has not shifted real authority to the schools, according to a report released this month.

Unless the district’s schools focus more on student learning and gain greater control over hiring and spending, those involved in the study caution, the initiative will atrophy.

The analysis by the Citywide Educational Coalition, Boston’s largest education-advocacy group, marks the first in-depth review of school-based management in the district since it was adopted two years ago. The study was based on interviews with more than 100 program participants.

In the last few years, a growing number of districts have attempted to give parents, teachers, administrators, and students a greater voice in how schools are run, based on the theory that those closest to children can best meet their needs.

But studies out of Boston and elsewhere are beginning to suggest that such initiatives so far have failed to produce the kinds of radical changes in power sharing or in learning that were anticipated.

"[S]chool-based management is not going to bring about immediate and measurable benefits in the short period of time that we’ve had it in Boston,” said Edward J. Doherty, president of the Boston Teachers Union and a candidate for mayor in this week’s Democratic primary. “I think that, in the long range, it’s important to continue to go in this direction.”

No ‘Real’ Power

Thirty-two of Boston’s 119 schools have volunteered to participate in school-based management since it was introduced in the 1990-91 school year, a much higher initial turnout than in other cities with voluntary programs.

Each of the participating schools is governed by a council made up of principals, teachers, parents, and, at the high-school level, students.

But while the analysis identifies some positive outcomes from school-based management and shared decision-making, it warns that serious weaknesses threaten the future of the reform.

In particular, the report notes, a substantial majority of program participants could not point to any significant change in the ‘teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom.” In addition, few could identify plans for making such changes.

Most of those interviewed also expressed frustration that they could not make “real” decisions at their schools. As one principal told the researchers: “What power do we have now that is different than before? Almost none. This is a sham.”

A similarly large majority identified the central office as a major hindrance to reform.

‘Encourage Risk-Taking’

The study also found that the process schools used to request waivers from bureaucratic rules and regulations had too many layers and took too long.

In addition, it found, schools were applying for too few waivers over all, and two-thirds of those requested were unnecessary.

“This indicates that more needs to be done to encourage risk-taking,” the report concludes. "[C]entral and zone administrations should take the lead in proactively abolishing all policies, procedures, and regulations that hinder system-wide goals.”

The report makes a number of recommendations for strengthening the program, including some that would require changes in the teachers’ contract. These include: . Firmly establishing “educational improvement” as the central goal; . Giving schools greater control over hiring and firing; . Providing schools with 100 percent of their total budget allocations and allowing them to “buy” back services from the district; and . Streamlining the waiver process and publicizing all waiver requests.

The report also advocates that parents and staff members have equal representation on the school-site councils. It argues that as the “primary caretakers,” parents “most closely represent students--who hold the greatest stake in any school.”

But Mr. Doherty said the change would be “very hard to sell” to his membership when new contract negotiations begin this year.

Lois Harrison-Jones, superintendent of the Boston schools, was unavailable for comment last week.

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as Shortcomings in School-Based Management in Boston Noted