Site-Based Management Found To Require More Sweeping Changes Than Anticipated

By Debra Viadero — June 19, 1991 3 min read

An analysis of five school systems’ experiences with site-based management suggests that the reform, which calls for making major decisions at the school level, may necessitate “deeper, more sweeping, and more comprehensive” changes than some of its early adherents had expected.

“School-based management is not just a reform at the school level; it’s a reform of the whole system,” said Paul T. Hill, who wrote the report with Josephine Bonan.

The 105-page study, “Decentralization and Accountability in Public Education,” released last week, is the first report by the rand Corporation’s Institute for Education and Training. The research institute was formed to look at educational issues that transcend traditional school boundaries.

“If central offices and superintendents continue bombarding schools with new regulations and new innovations designed at the district level, school-based management can’t mean anything,” added Mr. Hill, a senior social scientist at the institute.

Although only a few dozen school systems have formally embraced site-based management, according to the report, thousands of districts nationwide are experimenting with it in one form or another.

The study, conducted over the last two school years, focuses on the experiences of five major urban and suburban school systems: Columbus, Ohio; Dade County, Fla.; Ed4monton, Alberta, in Canada; Jefferson County, Ky.; and Prince William County, Va. The researchers also tracked newspaper and scholarly accounts of site-based-management experiences in other communities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Montgomery County, Md.

In all of the communities examined, the researchers found, the decentralization process has progressed “slowly and with difficulty.”

“This is not to say that site-based managment has failed,” the report notes. “Rather, school boards and central offices have failed to recognize that their structures, operations and cultures must change along with those of the schools if site-based management is to improve students’ education.”

That may mean, Mr. Hill said, that central offices will have to find a “new mission which is an assistance mission and not a control mission.” It may also mean reducing the size of central-office staffs.

Moreover, the authors say, the strategy will not succeed if it is viewed as one among many reforms taking place in a district--a situation the researchers call “projectitis.”

“If, as happened in some of the school districts we visited,” they write, “the school board and superintendent encourage site-based management at the same time that they mandate changes in curricu8lum, instructional schedules, textbooks, and teacher responsibilities, they send a mixed message.”

Likewise, the analysis suggests, small-scale tests of the concept also convey the wrong idea.

“It is hard to convince teachers and principals that small pilot tests of decentralization will last long enough to reward the effort required to implement it,” the report says.

Given freedom from bureaucratic constraints, it says, site-managed schools, over time, develop their own characteristics, much as successful magnet and private schools do.

“The challenge for school boards and superintendents will be how to assist schools and guarantee quality in a system whose basic premise is variety, not uniformity,” according to the study.

The authors contend that the ultimate way to ensure accountabilty in such a system is to allow parents to choose their children’s schools.

“It’s inevitable that some teachers and students will find one type of school more to their liking than another,” Mr. Hill said. “Rather than nail people’s feet to the floor, it makes more sense to allow them to sort themselves.”

Copies of the report are available, at $7.50 each, from the rand Corporation, Library and Distribution Services Department, 1700 Main St., Santa Monica, Calif. 90407-2138. The report number is R-4066-MFC.

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as Site-Based Management Found To Require More Sweeping Changes Than Anticipated