Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Making School-Based Management Work

University of Southern California researchers set out to learn why some districts and schools flourish under this decentralized approach, while others flounder. The answers were instructive.

More and more school districts are turning to school-based management (SBM) as a means of reform. In this approach, control is decentralized from the central district office to individual schools as a way to give school constituents—principals, teachers, parents, community members, and, in some schools, students—more control over what happens. As educators, parents, and the public are discovering, however, some school districts and some schools are experiencing greater success with school-based management than are others.
To identify the conditions that promote improved school performance through SBM, researchers with the School-Based Management Project at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles spent more than three years studying schools and school districts in the United States, Canada, and Australia. In the course of our research, we discovered distinct differences in the approaches of schools where SBM worked well and those that were struggling with the concept.
We would like to share our findings as a set of strategies—a blueprint—for districts embarking on or refining their school-based management plans. This guide should also help individual schools investigate the degree to which they are using these strategies, and then work to sustain and strengthen practice.
All 13 school districts we visited had been operating under SBM for at least four years. In all, we visited 40 schools and interviewed more than 400 people—everyone from school board members and superintendents to principals and teachers to parents and students.
Their inducements for embracing school-based management included involving stakeholders in managing the school, increasing ownership and accountability for school performance at the school site, and, in general, increasing the school's capacity to improve. Some feel that SBM also enables decision makers to take into account a broader range of perspectives, and so better tailor decisions to the needs of the local school community.

What We Found

  1. People at the school site must have genuine authority over budget, personnel, and curriculum.
  2. That authority must be used to introduce changes that directly affect teaching and learning.
Schools that were less successful in making changes seemed to be stuck on power and housekeeping issues: Should the principal have veto power? Who should serve on the site council? Who, indeed, should have access to the copy machine?
  • professional development and training opportunities to strengthen teaching, management, and problem-solving skills of teachers and other stakeholders;
  • adequate information to make informed decisions about student performance, parent and community satisfaction, and school resources; and
  • a reward system to recognize improved performance and to acknowledge the increased effort SBM requires of participants.
Our studies also underscored the importance of a principal's leadership, and of having an instructional guidance mechanism—a curriculum framework, for example—at the school site to guide teaching (Wohlstetter et al. 1994).
Following are six strategies that the most successful projects had in common.

Disperse Power

First, effective SBM schools disperse power throughout the school so that many stakeholders participate in making decisions. Site councils and subcommittees are two such decision-making groups.
Site councils. When SBM is adopted, schools usually begin to rely on a site council to make decisions about programs and resources. In some cases, the district or even the state decides on the structure and composition of the council, while in other cases, the school itself decides (Wohlstetter and Mohrman, in press). Most councils are composed of administrators, teachers, parents, and classified employees, who are elected by their respective constituencies. In some schools, the council has final approval of decisions under its jurisdiction; in others, the principal retains final decision-making authority.
Subcommittees. At many SBM schools, the council or principal creates one or more subcommittees (some schools have as many as 12, others as few as 3) that report directly to the site council. Subcommittees that address core issues, such as curriculum and instruction, may have teacher members only. Others, like those focusing on public relations, technology, or facilities, include teachers, parents, and community representatives. These groups tend to be structured formally, with assigned members and regular meeting times.
One factor that distinguished successful schools from struggling schools was the extent to which power was dispersed beyond the principal and council to subcommittees and other decision-making groups, such as teaching teams and ad hoc interview committees. With the wide dispersal of power, nearly all faculty members at the successful schools took part.
The successful schools used their new power to bring about change in teaching and learning practices. For instance, one school reallocated two teaching positions to create two part-time resource teacher positions: one coordinated professional development for teachers, and the other monitored student absenteeism. Another school council voted to lengthen the school day, so that teachers could have a common planning period one morning a week. Yet another school shortened the day several times a year to schedule parent conferences.
At one elementary school, the council agreed to use the year's total instructional budget to purchase math manipulatives for the entire school. Likewise, schools that had the budget authority to carry over savings from one year to the next used their savings for instructional needs.
With power dispersed and decision making focused on teaching and learning, less isolation and fewer turf skirmishes resulted. By contrast, struggling SBM schools tended to concentrate power in a single school council. The council was often composed of a small group of committed teachers who were painfully aware they did not have broad representation. Subcommittees and other decision-making groups—if they existed at all—did not have wide participation, and so the committed few often felt exhausted and burned-out. Further, teachers experienced strong feelings of isolation in the absence of meetings that allowed them to work with other stakeholders on specific projects, such as the development of a schoolwide portfolio assessment system.

Stress Professional Development

A second strategy used by successful SBM schools is to establish professional development as an ongoing, schoolwide activity. Successful schools oriented activities toward building a schoolwide capacity for change, creating a professional community, and developing a shared knowledge base. In some schools, teachers with release time were responsible for soliciting input from other teachers, and either arranging for the training or actually delivering it themselves. At several schools, small groups of teachers were routinely sent off-site for training, then returned to train the rest of the staff. At all these schools we found widespread knowledge of the training topics and broad, if not universal, participation (see Robertson et al., in press).
Schools where SBM worked were also more likely to have multiyear commitments to professional development for all teachers, and they often offered follow-up sessions. Several schools hired subject-matter consultants who gave demonstration lessons and worked with teachers to solve individual and group problems. Schools actively restructuring themselves used trainers from the district office, from universities, and even from such nontraditional education circles as businesses, which provided training in management and group decision making.
In line with the new decision-making responsibilities, these schools broadened the subject matter of training and the categories of staff who were trained. In addition to training in teaching, learning, curriculum, and assessment, schools offered instruction in interpersonal skills (group decision making, consensus-building, and conflict resolution); and in leadership skills (running meetings, budgeting, and interviewing). Those who were trained included nearly all members of the school organization and the various stakeholders—council members, teachers, administrators, office staff, support personnel, and, in some secondary schools, students.
In struggling schools, professional development tended to have an individual rather than schoolwide focus. We also found more instances of one-shot, passive types of training as opposed to ongoing professional development models. Some teachers at these schools opted out of professional development altogether. Sometimes the site council members received the only training, and even they received no follow up support. One council that was trained early on in making decisions by consensus, but received little ongoing support, eventually shelved potentially controversial subjects, such as block scheduling, in favor of those on which it was easy to reach consensus.
Many struggling schools also lacked a staff development plan. Usually the principal dispensed the funds for training in such schools on a case-by-case basis. And there was no schoolwide involvement in deciding who or what the training should involve.

Disseminate Information

Third, thriving SBM schools disseminate information broadly so that participants can make informed decisions about the school organization and so that all stakeholders are informed of school performance.
The traditional flow of information in schools is from the central office to the school site. In the schools where SBM worked, however, information also flowed from the school to the community and back up to the district office. Particularly noteworthy were the teams of teachers who collected and dispensed information within the school, and the constant efforts to inform parents and the outside community.
Work groups. All schools where SBM worked created some sort of network of work groups where many issues originated or were delegated. Teachers served on grade-level teams and subject-area teams, but also on council subcommittees or schoolwide committees that addressed a particular school priority or goal (Odden and Odden 1994). Often teachers worked on two or more committees. For example, an elementary teacher might serve on a “vertical” work team, in which representatives of all grades address a subject area or a school goal, such as expanding the use of technology in the classroom; and, in addition, serve on a “horizontal” grade-level team with members from relevant departments. Because many committees cut across grade levels and subject areas, teachers had a wide awareness of the needs of the school as a whole.
Meetings. Several schools scheduled brief grade level or department meetings immediately after faculty meetings, so they could obtain feedback quickly. Two secondary schools held short meetings every morning so that all members of the school organization could share information. These work teams produced dramatic results: good schoolwide awareness of issues and much greater ownership in decisions. Further, teachers consistently described curriculum and instruction reform at these schools as a collective effort, with constant problem solving and fine-tuning. By contrast, in struggling SBM schools, we found that teachers often were uninformed about schoolwide issues, and therefore frequently based their opinions on rumors.
Outreach. Most of the successful SBM schools were systematic and creative in communicating with parents and the community. Many distributed annual parent and community satisfaction surveys, typically using the results to help set priorities for the following year. In another common practice, schools regularly disseminated daily attendance and tardiness data to parents. Many schools held parent-teacher conferences, and some offered classes for parents on topics such as computers and student-parent math activities. Another used grant dollars to hire a part-time liaison between the school and parents.
Feedback. The schools where SBM worked collected many kinds of data on school performance and tried to act on the information. Many collected attendance data, and one secondary school regularly printed out each class's grade distributions to monitor student and teacher performance. Student performance data were maintained in a variety of forms, including portfolios and anecdotal records. Schools also piloted narrative report cards, student profiles in reading and mathematics with grade level expectations, and student profiles in all subject areas.
One key concern of central offices was the generally spotty access to up-to-date information on management and operation. Schools engaged in SBM need timely, aggregated information for a wide range of stakeholders. One district's solution was to install an on-line computer system in its schools with data on budgets and personnel, student achievement, electronic invoicing and purchasing, and a master schedule. Most schools, however, were not satisfied with their ability to monitor the status of resources and students.

Select the Right Principal

Fourth, successful SBM schools have principals who can lead and delegate. These principals played a key role in several areas: dispersing power, promoting a schoolwide commitment to growth in skills and knowledge, getting all teachers to participate in the work of the school, collecting information about student learning, and distributing rewards. The principals were often described as facilitators and leaders, as strong supporters of their staffs, and as the people who introduced innovations and moved reform agendas forward.
While successful principals often spearheaded the effort to develop a school mission, they delegated other tasks. They often gave teacher subcommittees responsibilities for material selection, budget development, and professional development schedules, effectively increasing teacher ownership and accountability to the schoolwide program. They also fostered informal communities by scheduling common lunch periods for students and staff and common break times for teachers.
These principals also were instrumental in outreach efforts. For example, some served on boards of local business groups or regularly attended their meetings. Others diligently fostered press relations with local newspapers. And they actively cultivated outside resources, approaching universities for professional development, area businesses for advice on technology, and private foundations and educational networks for financial support.
Instruction and curriculum reform distinguished the schools where SBM worked, yet the principals of these schools were more than instructional leaders: they promoted an organization and climate where the teachers were leaders in instruction and curriculum. The principal's role was to support that leadership by providing resources. In struggling schools, by contrast, principals were often perceived as either too autocratic, dominating all decisions, or as too laissez-faire and insufficiently involved (Wohlstetter and Briggs 1994). Moreover, in many schools, teachers and the principal were engaged in a power struggle, and in some, the faculty simply rejected the principal's unilateral agenda for change.

Have a Vision

Most schools where SBM works also have adopted a well-defined vision of their mission, values, and goals regarding student outcomes—a vision that guides curriculum and instruction as well as conversation in decision-making forums. In some schools, the vision came about through a formal consensus-building process, like a retreat; in others, through more informal and frequent interactions of various stakeholders. Struggling SBM schools, on the other hand, often had power and control issues that interfered with any vision setting. Even when they had a vision statement, it was not a living document that was mentioned frequently.
Most successful schools also operated according to a set of curricular guidelines developed at the district, state, or national level (for example, by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics). Yet teachers perceived themselves as having considerable leeway in curriculum specifics, instructional approaches, and materials for their classes. (At some schools, for example, teachers themselves wrote a separate curriculum framework for each content area; and some teachers used sections from existing frameworks to come up with their own approach.)
Successful schools also benefited from a shared understanding and widespread commitment to the instruction and curriculum approaches that had been adopted.

Reward Accomplishment

Finally, schools that are succeeding with SBM frequently reward individuals and groups on progress they make toward school goals. The schools we studied did not often reward teachers for the added effort and new roles that SBM requires, nor did they often reward groups or schools for improvement, although schools where SBM worked did so slightly more frequently than did struggling schools. Some of the successful SBM schools regularly recognized individuals for work well done; other schools recognized groups.
Monetary rewards included differentiated staffing positions with extra compensation for administrative responsibilities, money for professional development, and grants to reimburse teachers for extra time, including, in one district, money for council membership. Non-monetary recognition included the prestige of responsibilities like mentoring, notes of appreciation from the principal, recognition meals, and plaques. In schools where we found distrust, monetary rewards were suspect, and public recognition was greeted with cynicism.
One district used differentiated staffing to recognize expertise. Some positions offered additional pay and a slightly reduced teaching load, others only reduced teaching loads, and a third type simply offered the prestige and visibility of being a leader. All of these positions had to be applied for and were allocated to schools on the basis of student enrollment, typically accounting for about half the teaching positions.
It has been argued that intrinsic rewards are sufficient to motivate and reinforce teachers. We found that in actively restructuring a school, many teachers were indeed excited and motivated by the climate of professional collaboration and learning. We also found, however, that some teachers who had been working with SBM for several years were tired and wondered if they could keep up their level of involvement.
Unfortunately, too many districts mistakenly assumed that no extra energy and commitment is needed to undertake site-based management. On the contrary, actively restructuring schools demands a lot of everyone involved. The argument that intrinsic rewards are sufficient motivation over the long haul may be too optimistic.
In conclusion, our research demonstrated that there were important differences between schools where SBM brought about instruction and curriculum reform and schools that were struggling with the concept.

Lawler, E. E. (1986). High Involvement Management. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lawler, E. E. (1992). The Ultimate Advantage. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mohrman, S. A., P. Wohlstetter, et al. (1994). School-Based Management: Organizing for High Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Odden, A., and E. Odden. (1994). School-Based Management—The View from “Down Under” (Brief No. 62). Madison: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.

Robertson, P., P. Wohlstetter, and S. A. Mohrman. (In press). “Generating Curriculum and Instructional Changes Through School-Based Management.” Educational Administration Quarterly.

Wohlstetter, P., and K. Briggs. (1994). “The Principal's Role in School-Based Management.” Principal 74, 2: 14–17.

Wohlstetter, P., and S. A. Mohrman. (In press). School-Based Management: Promise and Process (Finance Brief). New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University, Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

Wohlstetter, P., R. Smyer, and S. A. Mohrman. (1994). “New Boundaries for School-Based Management: The High Involvement Model.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 16, 3: 268–286.

End Notes

1 This work is part of the Studies of Education reform program supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), Office of Research. This research has also received generous support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Finance Center of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE). The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the U.S. Department of Education, the University of Southern California, the Carnegie Corporation, or CPRE, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

2 Findings from this research are similar to those found for businesses that employed the “high involvement” model of decentralization (Lawler 1986, 1992).

Eleanor R. Odden 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 195019.jpg
School Reform: What We've Learned
Go To Publication