Critical Issue:
Implementing Site-Based Management to Support Student Achievement

ISSUE: Site-based management, also known as school-based management, is a way to structure relationships between districts and school sites in a manner that places much more power, authority, and accountability in the school. Site-based management's potential to enable comprehensive reform holds promise for schools and districts seeking to improve the educational system and help students reach higher levels of achievement. Before implementing site-based management, districts need to ensure they have the buy-in of all stakeholders, a well-defined vision, and the time and training for implementation.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Different Viewpoints | Cases | Contacts | References

OVERVIEW: Site-based management is a significant reform initiative that promises to place more authority in individual schools through the adoption of a more democratic decision-making process. "School-based decision making is one aspect of systemic school reform--an approach to improving schools that also includes changing instruction, curriculum, and the institutional web that surrounds the schools to achieve an integrated focus on the outcomes of education," note Wohlstetter and Mohrman (1994, p. 1). Although the forms and methods of site-based management may vary, the primary goal is typically the same: to shift authority away from the district administrative hierarchy and into the hands of school groups (such as teachers and parents) that are more closely connected to the school and, theoretically, better equipped to meet the specialized needs of students.

The concept of site-based management is derived from corporate management theories such as W. Edwards Deming's (1986, 1994) philosophy of management (commonly referred to as Total Quality Management). It also has been influenced by the high-involvement management approach, which finds that employees perform best in an environment where they "are deeply involved in the ongoing improvement of the organization and are committed to its success," states Drury (1999, p. 3). Site-based managed schools and districts are hoping to mirror the positive results such participatory decision-making techniques have yielded for corporations during the past 30 years.

Although school systems and large businesses are by no means structurally identical, they do tend to share many of the same dysfunctions. Both are struggling to break away from the traditional organizational pyramid--typically characterized by its authoritarian, hierarchical, and restrictive tendencies. Corporations such as General Motors have benefited greatly from collapsing the traditional pyramid and using the high-involvement management approach. The success of the Saturn line of automobiles is largely attributed to GM's renewed relationship with the United Auto Workers union and the inclusive management approach that the company has taken with its employees (Dolan, 1994). Essentially, site-based management advocates in the education community are hoping to achieve similar results by breaking down the often-adversarial relationships that exist between teachers, school boards, teachers unions, and the central office.

Site-based management has existed throughout districts in a variety of shapes and forms for decades. Perhaps to its detriment, site-based management initiatives have existed for so long and in such haphazard forms that "in the absence of a clear focus on school performance, site-based management has become an end in itself" (Drury, 1999). Nevertheless, recent controversial school-choice initiatives along with high-stakes assessments have significantly accelerated and renewed interest in decentralized, transferable school management practices. In essence, the more scrutiny the "system" comes under, the faster states and districts are rethinking the roles and functions of all levels of the current educational structure. Like corporations, public schools are being asked to consider not only the needs and demands of their customers, but also the threat of their competitors.

The effects of decentralization on student achievement still remain relatively unknown. Factors such as stakeholder resistance, institutional barriers, lack of focus on student achievement, limited school authority, concentration of authority vested in administrators, and deficiencies in resources have limited the impact of site-based management on educational outcomes (Drury, 1999). More than any other limitation, stakeholder resistance may affect the success or failure of site-based management attempts. In order for schools to move forward in the change process toward site-based management, it is imperative to have buy-in from school board members, central office administration, building-level administration, teachers, and teachers unions.

School board members may view site-based management as a threat to their own authority and therefore may wish to limit school-level decision making. According to Brown (1990, cited in Drury, 1999, p. 11), central office administrators tend to be "the most prominent among groups that work against the implementation of decentralization." They may experience role confusion, lack of security, and a diminished sense of authority. Although building-level administrators usually gain new authority under site-based management, they may fear greater responsibilities, increased accountability, and the loss of power (Drury, 1999). In addition, teachers and teachers unions may provide obstacles to site-based management. Teachers may fear greater accountability, loss of autonomy, added responsibilities, and increased parental involvement (Drury, 1999). Teachers unions often fear their new collaborative role and may believe that site-based management will jeopardize their bargaining position (Drury, 1999).

Considering the multitude of conflicts that may arise, it is important for everyone to be involved in building a collective vision for the school and to understand the potential benefits that may result from implementation of site-based management. As change occurs, all stakeholders should work together through continued participation in the decision-making process and ongoing professional development (Dolan, 1994).

Many educators believe site-based management is a promising strategy to improve educational decision-making because those closest to the students and the needs of a particular school are involved (Cohen, 1989; Stinnette, 1993). Teachers are asked to assume leadership roles in staff development, mentoring, and curriculum development, and to become key partners in school and staff supervision and evaluation. However, researchers have determined that the effectiveness of site-based management is largely dependent on where the locus of authority lies--administrators, school professionals (teaching staff), or members of the community.

Leithwood and Menzies (1998) categorize site-based management as either administratively controlled, professionally controlled, or community controlled. Administratively controlled site-based management focuses predominantly on the effective use of resources; it gives local school administrators (aided by site councils) authority over budgets, personnel, and curriculum. Professionally controlled site-based management makes teachers the primary decision-makers and asks them to use their experience to guide decisions over budgets and curriculum. Community controlled site-based management allows parents and local community members the opportunity to align local values and preferences with curriculum. Regardless of the intent, however, the site-based management effort often is controlled by the school administration. Leithwood and Menzies (1998) note, "Evidence suggests that whatever form of site-based management that districts or states thought they were legislating, what was implemented was some form of administrative control site-based management" (p. 341).

Ideally, and by definition, a site-based managed school should seek to distance itself from any one specific locus of control. Rather, the idea is to draw upon all members within an existing educational community as equal partners working toward a common goal: the improvement of student learning.


An Example of Site-Based Management:
Springfield Public School District 186, Springfield, IL

One successful example of site-based management is Springfield Public School District 186 in Springfield, Illinois. Since 1996, central and building staff have steadily implemented many of the shared decision-making processes developed by author and labor-management consultant W. Patrick Dolan. According to the District 186 Communications Council (1998), the new system "is being established deliberately to place greater authority, responsibility, and related decisions for education within the school itself " (p. 3). Stakeholders from all areas (not just the schools) are constantly involved in the decision-making process. At the district level, a Communications Council (composed of representatives of the board of education, administrators, teachers, and support staff ) meets regularly to "assist and support individual learning communities as they implement shared decision-making" (District 186 Communications Council, 1998, p. 6). The roles of the Communications Council have been clearly defined. Specifically, the council locates resources and training for stakeholders, reviews waivers (allowing sites to function outside board, state, and union policies), provides technical assistance to individual site leadership teams, develops parameters within which the schools will work, and develops an information system throughout the school district. "The council is not a regulatory body, nor does it replace the superintendent, school board, or collective bargaining groups" (District 186 Communications Council, 1998, p. 6).

Site-based management in Springfield District 186 is constantly being adapted to reflect changing needs and phases in the implementation process. In spring of 2000 the name of the Communications Council was changed to the S.I.T.E.E. Council (Shared Initiatives Toward Excellence in Education), and the membership was expanded to include a representative from the site leadership teams of every school in the district. The new Council is organized to operate in a manner congruent with a school's site leadership team.


Author and labor-management consultant W. Patrick Dolan has been a strong advocate of shared decision-making in education. In fact, the Dolan model of school management has influenced site-based management implementation in many schools. Dolan (1994) emphasizes that the implementation of site-based management should be thorough and deliberate. He suggests that implementing site-based management sporadically or through a pilot program is sure to yield limited, inconsequential results. Rather, he suggests phasing it in over a three-year period, implementing it at one-third of the schools in the first year and adding another third each of the following years. "The entire system is one," asserts Dolan (1994, p. xii), "and to change a school is to change a district, its union, board, and management.... Anything else will be short-lived and false."

The district must demonstrate strong support for site-based management. Dolan (1994) suggests the formation of an oversite committee at the district level to initiate the process of shared decision-making. The core of this committee should consist of district-level staff, union representatives, and school board members because agreement from these groups is imperative if power is to shift to the schools. This group will initiate and ultimately be responsible for the implementation of site-based management. Its responsibilities include:

After the oversite committee provides the district's foundation for site-based management, individual schools can create school-site councils to make decisions at each site. The school-site council typically consists of the school's principal, teachers, parents, community members, and sometimes students. David (1996) has identified several key characteristics of successful school-site councils. The most successful school-site councils have a well thought-out committee structure, enable leadership, focus on student and adult learning, and have a schoolwide perspective. School-site councils also need a strong leader who can "exercise leadership by mobilizing others," notes David (1996). Leaders must be able to encourage participation and model reflective thinking. At a typical site-based managed school, the principal may act as team leader, organizing the various decision-making teams and committing them to agree upon goals and implementation strategies. These activities reflect the changing roles for principals in the school improvement process.

Although the oversite committee and the school-site councils work together in their decision making, it is imperative that the oversite committee develop clear guidelines for implementing site-based management and allow schools the power they need to effect change. Holloway (2000) states, "Leaving the design issues ambiguous or ill-defined may have serious consequences. Districts must nurture and support teams by giving all team members a clear picture of the goals and procedures of site-based management and by aiding them in developing communication and decision-making skills" (p. 81). School-site councils need access to four essential resources: power over personnel, curriculum, and budget; information that builds an understanding of available resources, student performance, and parent and community satisfaction; knowledge of teaching approaches, budget development, and problem-solving skills; and rewards to recognize efforts and improvements (Drury, 1999; Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1994). The oversite committee is responsible for helping the schools obtain these resources.

As the district shares power with the schools, it also shares responsibility for student success. Centrally determined goals and standards are necessary if those empowered with decision-making authority are to be held accountable for their decisions. Reasons for failure of site-based management are that schools have failed to address improvements in curriculum and instruction and also have failed to keep focusing on improving student outcomes (Cotton, 1992). Working toward clear district goals and standards helps school-site councils keep this focus.

In order to make improvements, the school-site council must know the needs of the school. This task can be accomplished with an informal needs assessment. After the school-site council understands the needs of the school, it can develop a plan for implementation and evaluation (Dolan, 1994). "Continuous improvement through data-driven decision making is central to the organizational life of schools," states Drury (1999). "Continuous improvement is achieved by assessing current needs, developing and implementing a course of action based on available knowledge and information [from within the school and from outside], evaluating the effects, and finally, repeating the process" (p. 27). Available knowledge and information includes not only needs-assessment data but also information on educational research and best practice. As straightforward as this process may seem, it is a challenge to the thinking and processes of most schools. The evaluation process ensures that schools are meeting goals and making changes as necessary.

Another element critical to the success of site-based management is providing the school-site council with ongoing training. School-site councils must have skills in group problem-solving, consensual decision-making , and conflict resolution (Dolan, 1994; Holloway, 2000). They also need support to work collaboratively in an effective manner. Team building that includes discussions about how the team will work, when and where it will meet, its decision-making process, and how it will communicate with others should occur right at the start. Team building enables the school-site council to focus on maximizing student learning and meeting school goals (David, 1996). Besides providing skill training in group processes, successful school-site councils also take time to educate themselves on different approaches to desired outcomes for students, promising practices, and educational research.

Shared Decision-Making at Springfield Public School District 186, Springfield, IL

In Springfield District 186, a school may participate in the shared decision-making process if at least 80 percent of the school agrees (by secret ballot) to participate. (This process is illustrated in a flowchart of the shared decision-making process.) At the school, a site leadership team is created. The site leadership team is composed of the principal, teachers, support staff, parents, students (at the middle and high schools), and community members. It usually is chaired by a teacher working with the principal. The site leadership team assumes primary responsibility for the education of the school's students and generally handles all communications. After receiving appropriate training, the site leadership team completes a needs assessment. Then it forms design teams to focus on the identified areas of need. The design teams are composed of administrators, staff, parents, and community members. Each design team is charged with developing an action plan (typically predicated upon a review of best practices and available research or literature) that maps out a method of dealing with the problem or need. If approved by the site leadership team, the action plan is presented to the school as a whole for ratification. Once ratified, the plan's implementation is continually monitored and assessed by the design team. At the close of the cycle or school year, the design team's assessments are used as a basis for determining what strategies either did or did not work well. The design team's findings are then worked into the school's next cycle and overall school-improvement plan.

The school board president points out that this shared decision-making process functions best when parameters are clearly defined. School leadership teams are more able to develop effective plans when they understand the scope of their responsibility and their power to make changes. Effective communication also is essential. School board members are kept aware of changes resulting from the implementation of site-based management and are able to respond promptly if they are questioned by community members about the appropriateness of activities in the schools.


There is no definitive estimate of how long it takes to create a successful site-based managed school. Researchers recommend a minimum commitment of anywhere from three to 15 years (Oswald, 1995). However, what is certain is that it is in no way an easy shift in practice or procedure. In the end, schools are betting that the "long-term pain" of clinging to the status quo will be more detrimental than the "short-term pain" of changing (Patterson, 1997). Fortunately, site-based management offers improved educational environments if put in place thoughtfully.

Effective implementation of site-based management has shown several positive effects. Nobel, Deemer, and Davis (1996) note that the implementation of site-based management brings increased collegiality and reduces teacher absenteeism. Leithwood and Menzies (1998) corroborate these findings in their review of 83 research studies on site-based management. Positive effects for teachers include increased collaboration, changes in classroom instruction, a sense of increased control over one's work, and a sense of increased accountability. Principals are found to take on a more managerial role, to become information resources, and to have increased accountability. Parents show an increased satisfaction in their schools. Although none of these results indicates a change in student achievement, the effects seem to increase the overall quality of the educational environment.

Odden and Wohlstetter (1995) identify two characteristics necessary for site-based management to improve student achievement. First, people on school-site councils must have real authority over budget, personnel, and curriculum. Second, changes must be introduced that directly affect teaching and learning. The researchers also indicate that dispersal of power throughout the school, ongoing professional development, knowledge base building, and strong leadership that can delegate responsibility are common attributes in schools that have successfully implemented site-based management. These schools also are more proactive in finding resources for teachers and seeking grants (Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1994). Schools that are less successful with site-based management tend to focus on power and housekeeping issues (Holloway, 2000; Odden & Wohlstetter, 1995) and have less-effective communication systems, which often result in information being passed through the grapevine instead of formally (Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1994).

The ultimate goal of all site-based management efforts should be to improve student achievement. The focus should be on curriculum and learning issues as well as assessment of progress toward district and school learning goals. Although not all issues discussed may seem to have a direct influence on student learning, there should be a conscious effort to connect decisions with creating conditions to maximize learning opportunities (David, 1996).

Districts and schools seeking to implement site-based management must ask one important, rather obvious question: Will more decision-making authority actually be transferred to the school? Although the goals of site-based management are attainable, the "system" currently used to govern schools may not fully support the ideal site-based management model. In actuality, researchers have found that site-based management is seldom implemented fully. Instead, districts and schools often rush into a site-based management model before recognizing what is necessary to make the transition (Holloway, 2000). The result is ill-defined site teams, lack of training, and frustration due to a lack of genuine authority (Holloway, 2000).

Other restraints that can impede site-based management implementation are federal, state, and district mandates (Dolan, 1994; Holloway, 2000). A school may be given discretion over professional development initiatives, but the district might still hold all decision-making authority over what amount of funding, if any, is allocated toward the effort. "Linkages among budget, personnel, instructional, and operational decisions means that decentralized authority ostensibly given to school staff over one class of decisions has effectively been limited by centralized constraints on other classes of decisions," notes the RAND Corporation (1995). States, however, are becoming increasingly aware of site-based management. Many states have enacted legislation allowing the appointment of various parent advisory committees, local school councils, and other advisory boards. Although the power of these various committees, councils, and boards may differ in each state, the legislation suggests a general shift toward an increasingly participatory governance structure. Keeping in mind these realities, schools looking to implement site-based management should prepare themselves not only for an obvious shift in their internal management practices but also for the incongruities that may accompany being a relatively anomalous part of a larger statewide system.

Despite the pitfalls and barriers to implementing site-based management, schools and districts can overcome obstacles by ensuring the participation of all stakeholders in thoughtful planning and by rethinking the use of educational resources to provide time and money to support the change that is necessary to fully implement site-based management. Schools implementing changes can maintain support by consistently assessing progress toward goals and by effectively communicating results to the district as well as the community.

Site-based management may hold the key to increasing support for public education. During a time when pressure for school improvement is strong, bringing the community into the schools will help to deepen understanding of the complexities of education and each school's needs.

GOALS: Site-based management should result in the following:


At the District Level:

At the Site Level:

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Designing and implementing effective site-based management programs may present challenges such as the following:

Site-based management may be considered an end in itself. Frequently, districts focus strictly on changing to site-based management without considering the comprehensive changes that must occur. Yet without a clear set of goals focused on student achievement and a real assessment and accountability system for schools with consequences, sanctions, and rewards, the process of change to site-based management will slow down and little improvement will be made. Evaluation of site-based management requires accurate measurements of system performance--the primary indicator being student achievement (Dolan, 1994). Education communities, however, should be cautious of judging results too quickly upon the basis of standardized tests alone. Along with standardized test scores, measurements of student achievement should include performance-based assessments, portfolios, and other forms of alternative assessment.

Schools may neglect to provide adequate training for teachers, principals, school board members, parents, and community members who are participating on school-site councils. Councils lacking in problem-solving and consensual decision-making skills may find themselves in an adversarial environment struggling for power and focusing on procedural issues instead of student learning. Ongoing training opportunities are critical to creating well-functioning site councils that make well-informed decisions.

School districts may neglect to recognize the time and resources required for change to site-based management. All too often, schools find themselves on the road to change without the proper support. Expecting teachers to work extra hours without pay will create a frustrated, burned-out staff. Finding time and money for teachers to engage in the added responsibilities of effective school-based decision making is key to supporting schools. Meeting this challenge usually means restructuring both the school organization and the teachers' jobs, including how teachers spend their time (Dolan, 1994). Districts need to be proactive in finding resources such as grants, and in using time and existing resources creatively (Else, 1997; Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1994). Districts may want to explore resource reallocation as a means to restructuring time and resources. Rewards for teachers "need to be aligned with the desired outcomes and strategic needs of the school," states Drury (1999, p. 21). Options such as alternative salary schedules may assist schools with providing such rewards.

Districts often are not clear about how decisions should be made or how long the implementation process for site-based management should take. They may leave school-site councils to create their own rules. "Decisions must be worked out concerning appropriate decision-makers and procedures; the scope of decisions to be made at the site; staff training; accountability; resource distribution; and site-based budgeting implementation resources and time tables," states Hadderman (1999). Vague definitions of roles and responsibilities may lead to confusion and frustration. Sometimes the central administration overrules decisions made at the site or quickly moves back to a centralized decision-making system, which leads to disillusionment of those involved. All stakeholds need to understand the expectations and parameters of the site-based management effort (Dolan, 1994; Holloway, 2000). Stakeholders need to participate in establishing a clear plan for the implementation of site-based management. Districts need to recognize that the change to site-based management takes time, rather than expecting that within a year or two they will see improvement in students' test scores. Allowing for time, reflection, and refinement will lead to a workable decision-making system that can improve student performance.

Care should be taken to avoid placing power solely in a school-site council. Entrusting power to a single body within the school may result in an "us and them" relationship among staff (Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1994). It also may place all the responsibility and extra work on a limited set of staff, creating overload and resentment. Instead, power can be dispersed among a set of subcommittees (horizontal decision-making teams) in order to maintain collaboration, spread the workload, and broaden the commitment to reform (Dolan, 1994; Wohlstetter & Mohrman, 1994). In addition, budgets and personnel decisions must be decentralized. School-site councils will be ineffective if they are given the authority to make decisions but are unable to control the budgets or choose the personnel to carry out decisions.

Over time, the sustainability of shared decision-making may be threatened by changes in leadership. New principals, board members, union representatives, and superintendents often bring new initiatives and management styles. Because site-based management goals may take several years to implement, districts must create an infrastructure that will sustain shared decision-making even if the personnel change. The implementation of site-based management should be systemic and not based on individual preference. When new members are brought into leadership roles, there must be clear planning, knowledge base building, and goal setting that can be communicated through a formal process and thus ensure continuity (Dolan, 1994).

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Many people believe that the top-down system of school management ensures accountability, streamlines decision making, and facilitates cohesiveness and alignment between grades and buildings. Some research has revealed that "decentralization increased the fragmentation and complexity of city schooling, which paradoxically expanded administrative burdens, bringing pressures to re-centralize" (Noble, Deemer, & Davis, 1996). In addition, research has documented an increased workload for teachers participating in site-based management. Already burdened by regular teaching duties, teachers who experience the increased workload associated with site-based management may feel overwhelmed. This situation may accelerate teacher burnout and turnover rates. Research also has shown that site-based management slows down the decision-making process and leads to increased frustration by participants working hard to implement changes in the best interest of students (Noble, Deemer, & Davis, 1996). Rather than increasing morale and effort, poorly planned site-based management efforts may have an opposite effect on schools.



Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE)
Graduate School of Education
University of Pennsylvania
3700 Walnut St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104
Contact: Robb Sewell

Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE)
Wisconsin Center for Education Research
University of Wisconsin
Education Sciences Building
1025 W. Johnson St., Room 653
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 263-4260; fax (608) 263-6448
Contact: Allan Odden, Director

National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST)
Teachers College, Columbia University
525 W. 120th St., Box 110
New York, NY 10027
(212) 678-3432; fax (212) 678-4170
Contact: Suzette Hanser


Additional Resources

This Critical Issue was written by Phil Vincent, program specialist at North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, and Debra Johnson, a freelance writer who also is a multiage resource teacher at Lincoln School in Mundelein, Illinois.

Date posted: 2000
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