Pennsylvania District Will Test 'Shared Governance'

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Next September, teachers and administrators in Easton, Pa., will become partners in an experiment that observers say redefines the role of teachers without eroding that of principals.

The "shared governance'' plan, approved in a set of labor agreements and school-board policies adopted May 9, calls for joint decisionmaking on matters ranging from curriculum to teacher transfers.

The plan, which was strongly backed by teachers and principals in the district and by major state education groups, is being hailed as a model for cooperation among sectors of the education system that have traditionally been seen as adversarial.

The plan "draws everyone in serious collegial fashion'' into school governance, said Secretary of Education Thomas K. Gilhool, who joined the heads of state associations representing teachers, administrators, and school boards in endorsing it.

The Easton plan is one of several experiments in cooperative school management spurred, in part, by reports calling for a greater role for teachers in setting school policies.

In the wake of the Carnegie Task Force on Teaching As a Profession's 1986 report, "A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century,'' other school systems--notably Rochester, N.Y.--have launched efforts to involve teachers more heavily in school decisions.

Such proposals, though widely acclaimed by teachers, have elicited criticism from some administrators who fear spreading authority too broadly will weaken school leadership and ultimately jeopardize reform. But framers of the Easton plan say they sought to minimize such concerns by involving principals more directly in planning the shared-governance scheme and by winning their endorsement early.

"One of our major goals was to make sure we had all the major players on board,'' said William J. Moloney, who was a deputy superintendent for the Rochester school system before becoming Easton's superintendent in 1984. "There is a strong sense that anyone who isn't a player is automatically a critic.''

From Strife to Collegiality

The concept of shared governance was introduced in a five-year teachers' contract signed in Easton in 1985, which followed an era of bitter labor disputes that resulted in strikes in 1976 and 1980.

Although observers say labor-management relations have improved substantially in the past few years, details of the shared governance concept were not laid out in the 1985 agreement. "We've been spending three years figuring out what it means,'' Mr. Moloney said.

Elements of the plan were fleshed out in school-board policies and in the three-year contract extension adopted last month. The new contract, which extends the current agreement from 1990 to 1993, also includes average annual pay increases of 7.2 percent for teachers, who now earn an average salary of $28,400.

Features of the plan, effective Sept. 1, include:

  • Allowing the presidents of the Easton Area Education Association and the Easton Area Principals Association to participate in meetings of the school board and of the superintendent's cabinet.
  • Forming school planning councils, consisting of a principal and two elected teachers, to share decisions on curriculum, promotion criteria, discipline, and other policies.
  • Creating a "joint professional senate,'' with a principal and one teacher delegate from each school, to discuss districtwide concerns.
  • Establishing a joint personnel committee to give teachers a greater say in decisions on transfers, assignments, and teaching schedules.

If the joint planning process does not result in "improved educational outcomes,'' however, teachers would lose those gains, and school principals would forfeit salary increases approved as part of their contract.

"We purposely put ourselves in a box'' to assure greater accountability, Mr. Moloney said.

He added, however, that the plan does not entail linking outcomes to student test scores, and that a plan for assessing schools' progress still must be worked out.

Other elements of the governance plan that will not be established until 1990 include a new professional evaluation system; a panel of "master'' teachers to work with peers whose performance is below standard; school-based planning, budgeting, and management; and community teams to address the needs of at-risk youth.

'Full' Partners in Reform

John M. Yarnovic, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the plan provides an avenue for school faculty to be "directly involved'' with the administration and school board in identifying and solving school problems.

Lawrence Conahan, president of the Easton Area Education Association, said "extraordinary numbers'' of teachers are applying for positions on school planning councils "now that they see thay have impact in a more formalized way.''

Although it strengthens the "management team concept,'' the plan also "establishes principals as a full partner in reform,'' said Robert A. Kearn, president of the Easton Area Principals Association.

Although some administrators in the state still have reservations about the concept, the plan "is representative of a commitment on the part of everybody in the school community to expand authority,'' said Stinson W. Stroup, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators.

Dorsey E. Enck, director of educational management services for the Pennsylvania State School Boards Association, said the plan has "opened the lines of communications'' for traditionally adversarial groups, "without destroying accountability.'' But the district faces a difficult challenge in demonstrating that accountability, he said.

Mr. Moloney also acknowledged that the project's success hinges on demonstrable results. "We've set the table,'' he said. "Now we better serve the meal.''

Vol. 07, Issue 37

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