Who’s In Charge Here?

February 01, 1990 8 min read

“Everything I get, I channel to a committee,’' the principal says. “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.’'

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 centraloffice 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 consensus among educators about what constitutes “school-based management.’' And the problem is exacerbated, in some cases, by a feeling among principals that teachers and their unions are pushing too hard and too fast to increase their decisionmaking authority. Many feel that these new roles and relationships are being forced upon them, and some complain that the changes are occurring without their involvement.

“People started by focusing on teachers, and the notion was restructuring and teacher involvement,’' says 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.’ 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.’'

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 this effectively, they warn, principals must be supported--not directed--by their district offices.

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 or have acquired on the job, notes Dale Mann, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “All the bets are off,’' Mann says. “They can no longer be old-style CEO’s. Is their new role clear? Not at all.’'

The National Education Association is examining how principals’ roles change in schools that are engaged in restructuring. The schools involved in the study, which is being conducted by Robert Hasson, assistant superintendent of the Wells-Ogunquit Community School District in Maine, are participants in the NEA’s Mastery in Learning program, the union’s controlled restructuring experiment.

Hasson says his experience with the program, now in its fourth year, has shown that principals who feared they would lose authority to shareddecisionmaking committees actually feel more powerful in the restructured schools. Indeed, principals engaged in site-based decisionmaking say its rewards are considerable, once initial barriers are crossed.

If a parent complains about a textbook, notes Woody Norwood, principal of Wright Elementary School in Tulsa, Okla., “You can’t say, ‘They made me do it.’' Norwood says he did not realize how nice not blaming district officials and policies would be “until I got out of that mode.’'

Although some principals find the notion of shared decisionmaking troubling, others argue that the idea is nothing new and that they have always made it a practice to involve teachers in decisions. “Good management anywhere involves a lot of involvement of the staff,’' says Scott Thomson, former executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “I will argue that good principals have always done that.

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

The anxiety many principals feel may be aggravated by confusion over exactly what “restructuring’’ means.

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

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

Ted Elsberg, president of the American Federation of School Administrators, says that principals may have their hands tied by some restructuring decisions: “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 some 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 in that city have discussed whether they should form a union, according to Roger Johnson, deputy director of the 1,500member Associated Administrators of Los Angeles.

“Administrators were concerned that the concept of shared decisionmaking was negotiated without their input,’' Johnson explains. “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 certain components of local restructuring efforts in the courts. In Chicago, principals have lost tenure protections. 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 program in which experienced teachers evaluate the performance of novices.

Richard Stear, president of the Association of Supervisors and Administrators of Rochester, says his organization feared that mentor teachers who were released from the classroom for the program would assume “quasiadministrative positions.’'

“Administrators are licensed and certified to evaluate,’' Stear says. “If an administrator loses that function, he loses the job.’'

And the principals’ union in New York City is at odds with Joseph Fernandez, the city’s new 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 in July.

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

“The principal is held accountable under the close scrutiny of a collaborative relationship,’' explains Richard Neal, director of school-based management. “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.’'

With the additional responsibility, principals will be held more accountable. “If somebody gets fired, it’s not going to be the advisory council,’' he says. “It’s going to be the principal.’'

One of the greatest obstacles to participatory decisionmaking in schools is the time involved. Particularly in rural areas, Mitchell says, principals “complain about a bluecollar 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 American Federation of Teachers’ Center for Restructuring, says 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 suggests. “When you try to create a center of inquiry, then the different roles and relationships will ensue,’' Goldberg argues. “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.’'

Mitchell, of 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. He says the findings of a recent survey of principals indicate that there is “a tendency in too many schools to adopt too many things at once.’'

Once a school has set clear goals, he explains, 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 schoolbased management say delegating responsibility and watching a team make mistakes is difficult.

Says Scottsdale’s Holzmiller of his school committees: “If they don’t follow through, do they fall on their faces, or do I pick them up and scramble? It’s hard for me, because I don’t like to see things moving slowly.’'

--Ann Bradley, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Who’s In Charge Here?