Skip to content
ascd logo

December 1, 1995
Vol. 53
No. 4

In Alberta / On Tapping the Power of School-Based Management: A Conversation with Michael Strembitsky

    The central office and individual schools must craft a new relationship based on flexibility and accountability, says the architect of one of the most prominent school-based management (SBM) approaches.

      The Edmonton, Alberta, public schools are one of the best examples of school-based management (SBM) in North America. Michael Strembitsky served as superintendent for 22 years before joining the National Center on Education and the Economy in 1994. He instituted SBM back in 1977. Here, Strembitsky details Edmonton's experiences and their implications for others moving to a SBM approach.
      You made your mark in Edmonton as a leader of a districtwide school-based management program. What was the impetus for SBM in Edmonton?
      Essentially, we wanted schools to be a place where people could come to school, work, experience success, and enjoy life. But at the time, those of us at the school level were extremely frustrated by the various restrictions that were imposed on us. It seemed that people in the district office were making decisions for us without really being aware of the impact of those decisions.
      Eventually, you found yourself working in the central office. Did your perspective change?
      When I began working there, I developed a real appreciation for their efforts. The central staff were well-intentioned, but the trouble was that the existing organization was incompatible with the direction we wanted to go.
      How so?
      The district was organized, for the most part, by functions: personnel, curriculum, staff development, finance, and so on. A colleague describes these as the “silos” within the central administration. Everyone in the district office was very concerned about making sure that their functional area was well-run; that's what they were hired to do. What they didn't have in the functional areas was responsibility for student learning. The kind of system they had operates effectively when the focus is on the various functions, but when you begin to focus on student learning, as opposed to how many volleyballs or teachers or computers you've allocated to a school, then that system hasn't got the answers anymore.
      So the organization of the central office and the needs of the schools weren't in tune. We were seeking a way to give people at the school level the freedom and the flexibility that they needed to do their jobs, yet within a framework that included a district perspective and district accountability.
      What did you do?
      After a number of things we tried didn't work, we set up a small project in which we took seven district schools and literally moved them outside the existing system. Then we asked people at these schools what kinds of things might make their school operate better. That laying out of the terrain was very important. There were some things for which the district would be responsible at the central level. Policy making, for example. But we believed that schools should decide such things as class organization, the number of teachers, and how much money they spend for learning resources and equipment.
      So, in general, what kind of autonomy did these seven schools have?
      The seven schools were given a bottom-line budget with money for all staff, supplies, equipment, and services. Within their budgets, they decided how many teachers, custodians, and support staff would be deployed, as well as how much money would be spent on supplies, equipment, and services. While other schools had discretion over only about 2 percent of their resources, these seven schools went to 80 percent in one bold stroke.
      And you continued to operate other schools in the traditional way?
      Yes, we thought it was important to operate the two as discrete entities. We told people at all the schools that these seven were trying something different, and that all other schools would continue in the time-honored way we'd been operating. We really didn't know if the arrangement with the seven schools was going to work out—remember, this was 20 years ago!
      What happened in the seven schools?
      Some of the things that happened were expected. People at the school sites showed a willingness to work together. They felt a new sense of ownership. What surprised us was the extent of the commitment, the rapid transformation in people's behavior. It was dramatic and sudden.
      Some of the things that the schools did initially seemed more symbolic, in that they dealt with the frustrations and inhibitors that they experienced in the past, rather than focusing on the educational issues of the day.
      For example?
      One of the first schools, in a clear act of treason, ordered an electric typewriter of the quality reserved for the central office! At the time, every elementary school got a 12-inch manual carriage typewriter, junior highs got a 15-inch manual, and senior highs got a 15-inch electric. But only downtown could have an IBM Selectric. After all, we had standards! Well, this school ordered an IBM Selectric, and the idea in 1976 that an elementary school could have a typewriter with a bouncing ball just blew our minds. This seems like a trivial battle, but we found that these irritants got in the way of people addressing the real issues, and it was important to work through those symbolic battles to get to the deeper ones.
      That same school, in the first summer of this project, offered a four-week reading program to some 60 youngsters, with no additional funding. Under the old structure, when the central office dictated the terms, schools never had the money to run that kind of program. But, given more control over how they used their resources, here was this school extending the school year. So giving schools more autonomy led us to challenge the existing structures under which we operated.
      Eventually, you took SBM districtwide, right?
      We went from seven schools to districtwide implementation within a year. When you do that, you're going to get some turbulence, and the first two years were certainly turbulent. After the third year, the system belonged to the schools. I doubt that you could have taken it away. And it's not that everything was perfect. There were still frustrations, but the basic concept, even today, is a very solid one.
      What are some of the results you saw with SBM in Edmonton?
      For me, the most obvious result was that people were more committed to their work and enjoyed it more. I believe that translated into how staff related to students, and students, of course, were the beneficiaries. There was a much closer, cooperative working relationship between staff, parents, and students. Beyond that, there was a closer working relationship between the schools and the district: each understood what the other was up against.
      In terms of student achievement, we eventually experienced significant gains. Initially, we had a number of indications of increased student achievement, but we didn't have full confidence in those numbers because of other factors.
      Edmonton seems to be unusual in the degree of autonomy that schools have to deploy their resources. Many districts claiming to practice SBM give schools very little flexibility.
      That's true. There are people who dismiss the importance of school budgeting, because they claim that they want their people interested in instruction, not money. The reality is that all decisions occur in some context, and money is usually a big part of that context. Until you give schools control over how they use their financial resources, it doesn't matter how much you talk to them about focusing on instruction. Unless the schools can use the resources as needed, every time you turn around, they are focused on resource acquisition.
      This doesn't mean that there are unlimited dollars, just that schools have more flexibility to spend those dollars as they see fit, to get the best value for the money. Before moving to site-based management, schools couldn't take money intended for one function and use it on another. And if they had a surplus, they couldn't carry it forward; even worse, they were in danger of losing it the following year. The logic was that if they couldn't spend it this year, they must not really need it. We'd have a year-end spending spree, because people would save the money all year in case of an emergency, and then rush to spend it at the end of the year. Once schools could carry over surpluses and deficits from year to year, there was no need to rush to spend it. And if schools didn't need money in one area, they could use it in another.
      It seems like giving schools more autonomy could have a downside. For example, what if a school decides to focus on the arts, and it decides to get rid of a science or math teacher? Don't you need some checks to ensure that an individual school doesn't make decisions contrary to the best interests of the district?
      Sure, those kinds of issues come up. But you have to negotiate and redesign the system to balance the appropriate roles of the individual school and the district.
      Take the example of the teacher. We made it very clear from the outset that a school should organize its program to best meet the needs of its student body and community. Looking after the district was our responsibility. Since teaching staff had continuing contracts or tenure, the district had to be involved. If one school didn't need a teacher, we had a responsibility to place that teacher elsewhere in the district. But that wasn't the school's responsibility, because if they kept a staff member they really didn't need, another school might be hiring a teacher for an identical position. That's inefficient.
      With respect to the curriculum, the district did have a curriculum framework, and we did prescribe learning outcomes. We set district priorities, and we involved staff members and the community in developing those. So while schools had a great deal of flexibility in the delivery of the curriculum, they could not contravene the framework and outcomes.
      So it's not a matter of being completely centralized or decentralized.
      Many people see them as dichotomous, but they're complementary. The issue is not whether you centralize or decentralize, but what should be decentralized and what should be centralized.
      I'll give you an example that, in retrospect, seems hard to believe. We had one person, sitting in a 10-by-10 room in the central office, approving bereavement leaves for 7,500 district employees. Now, how do you do that? By formula. That person cannot exercise judgment or feeling, other than by exception. That's the kind of decision that clearly belongs at the school level.
      Many of our readers work in central offices in some of the “silos” you mentioned earlier. Should they be threatened by SBM?
      You might think that, once schools began making more decisions, the need for the central services would diminish. With us, it turned out to be the opposite. People who had all the answers when they couldn't make decisions found that they could benefit from a second opinion, especially if it was free. In fact, the demand for district services went up, but it was a different kind of service. The schools didn't want people who told them what they had to do. Schools were looking for advice that they could sift through to see whether it made sense for them.
      In Edmonton, we eventually began to aggregate a number of central services and ask the schools to pay for them. Today, the level of these services is determined by school demand.
      You mean services like staff development?
      Yes. Schools had some latitude in how they approached this. They determined how much staff development they wanted to “buy,” and from whom. We had some incentive for people to buy within the district as opposed to outside the district, but schools made the choice. One of the other things that we found was that some of the schools wanted to buy services from other schools, because the best and most current resources were not always in the central office. This had an unanticipated spin-off; it meant that a number of the educators who were instructional experts in certain areas could maintain a school practice and still provide leadership within the district through networking.
      So many places that have tried SBM seem unable to generate results. With the best of intentions, SBM teams don't seem to be able to make decisions that result in changes in the classroom, where it counts.
      In a lot of places where they've tried SBM and failed, they got bogged down in decision making. My experience in Edmonton and elsewhere leads me to conclude that the amount of time spent on decision making is inversely proportional to the number of decisions to be made. In a lot of places that have tried SBM, the real work of moving decisions to the school level has not been done. You don't change a system very easily, and, without changing the system, people address it superficially. They train people for making decisions when the decisions are not there to be made. One shouldn't be surprised when this results in even more frustration, because now there are more stakeholders at the table but few decisions to be made.
      Some districts have teams or councils that make school decisions. The Edmonton model, for lack of a better term, was principal-led SBM. How did you choose your approach?
      By law, in Edmonton the principal was held accountable. But principals could not be a one-person show. We did attitude surveys of staff, parents, and students every year in every school, examining issues of confidence, support, communication, goals, working conditions, and recognition. We had indicators to tell us where that involvement at the schools was successful, and where it was not.
      Remember, even where you have formal decision-making groups with representatives of various constituencies, you still may find that the rank-and-file feel disenfranchised. In large measure, it's not so much the particular form of a structure that determines success. To be successful, there must be decisions to be made, and there must be great clarity as to how these decisions are made. It's essential to know whether groups are advisory or have decision-making authority, and to be clear on how accountability is exercised. I don't think any one model is the perfect answer.
      Any tips for people who are just beginning to move to an SBM approach?
      Make sure that people know what they're supposed to achieve, how it's going to be measured, and what freedom or flexibility they're really going to have in operating. Make sure that schools actually have flexibility with their resources. If 97 cents of every dollar schools spend is encumbered, you're just toying with people, and it won't work.
      The other thing is that you've got to realize that people are acting in good faith. In our experience, 95 percent of educators set higher expectations for themselves than any outside supervisor would. When staff take on the responsibility to meet those expectations, that's when you know you're on the right track.
      It comes down to your belief in people. If you believe that people want to succeed—want to make decisions, want to serve—then you must free them to do their work. That's when you get commitment from people and support for what they're trying to achieve. This applies to all people, whether they are in the central office, the principal's office, or the classroom.

      John O'Neil has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

      Learn More

      ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

      Let us help you put your vision into action.
      From our issue
      Product cover image 195220.jpg
      Site-Based Management: Making It Work
      Go To Publication