Site-Based Decision Making: Its Potential for Enhancing Learner Outcomes

Schools are doing a very good job of doing what they were designed to do - decades ago. In the early twentieth century, when the country was moving beyond an agricultural economy into the industrial era, the goal of public education was to provide school attendees with a basic education; the curriculum was dominated by reading, writing, arithmetic (Joyce, Hersh, & McKibbin, 1983). In the current post-industrial period, however, our society has charged schools with delivering a high quality, multi-disciplinary education to all students, seeking to guarantee the promise of successful learning and adulthood employment for each of our children. To complicate this mandate, never before have students come to the public school from such diverse backgrounds, family patterns, and native languages.

Thus, "schools are searching for dramatic new ways to effectively meet the needs of all children," states a study group representing the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals (Fulbright, 1988, preface). This search stems from the difficulties schools are encountering as they address the needs presented by an increasingly diverse student population. School and district governance are being re-examined, and educational leaders at all levels are focusing significant attention on restructuring schools and, specifically, on site-based decision making.

Considering the Possibilities of Site-Based Decision Making

Restructuring is defined by Corbett (1990) as making major changes in the school's organizational rules, roles, and relationships in order to obtain different results. Corbett's conceptualization resonates with Cuban's analysis of change. Cuban (1988), in analyzing school change over the past several decades, has categorized change efforts as either first-order change, "trying to make what already exists more efficient and more effective . . . without substantially altering the ways in which adults and children perform their roles" (p. 342), or second-order change, which "transforms familiar ways of doing things into new ways of solving persistent problems" (p. 342). Such transformation might include, for example, more participatory roles for parents and community members, and broad involvement in decision making by all constituents at the campus level.

Cuban believes that first-order changes have allowed the system to remain "essentially untouched," resulting in insufficient success for all students. He maintains that change should be framed in terms of the second-order type, focusing on the fundamental arrangements by which schools operate in order to achieve different, and better, results in meeting the needs of all children. One example of second order change is site-based decision making, designed to promote shifts in roles and relationships away from the traditional bureaucratic model of schools and districts to a more open, participatory system. Site-based decision making is being proposed by many as a worthy "tool to increase student achievement" (Fulbright, 1988, p. 5).

What is site-based decision making?

Harrison and colleagues (1989) suggest that the new arena for decision making

    "brings the responsibility for decisions as close as possible to the school . . . defining how school staffs can work collaboratively to make these decisions . . . creating ownership for those responsible for carrying out decisions by involving them directly in the decision-making process and by trusting their abilities and judgments . . . " (p. 55).

These ideas are embedded in many of the terms being used to portray the shift of additional authority, autonomy, and accountability to the school site and the personnel within. Included are such terms as decentralization, restructuring, site-based management, school-based management, participatory decision making, school-based autonomy - to name a few.

These terms typically are meant to reflect changes in governance structures, and the identification of the school as the primary unit of improvement; redistributing decision-making authority is viewed as a major vehicle for stimulating improvements (Malen, Ogawa, & Kranz, 1990). The new authority for decision making is used to determine programs, personnel, and budget. Further, decisions involve a wide array of actors at the site level: principals, teachers, parents, community representatives, and students. These site actors are frequently organized in a team or site council to represent their colleagues. Given discretion and influence, participatory decision-making teams can use their authority to consider learning approaches that are tailored to their diverse populations of students.

Despite the advocacy put forward by numerous writers and organizations, Malen and colleagues (1990) suggest from their review of the literature that site-based decision making is not a new idea, but is a "recurrent reform . . . surfacing periodically when public education is under fire" (p. 289). Such efforts, these authors contend, seem to reappear in times of "intense stress - when broad publics are criticizing the performance of schools . . . when, in sum, a turbulent environment generates a host of highly salient demands and the system is pressed to search for solutions to . . . intractable problems" (p. 297). Malen and colleagues' observations may give reason to consider carefully how the introduction of site-based decision making into a district will contribute substantively to improved outcomes for students, rather than serve as a pro forma response to public criticism.

What role changes may be anticipated with site-based decision making?

Corbett (1990), Cuban (1988), and others maintain that restructuring schools entails a major re-design of the ways that schools operate. Governance structures, including decision making, take on very different forms. As Corbett suggests, new roles and relationships differ from those traditionally found in schools and districts. A brief look at the new roles of the various stakeholders in the district and local site follows.

Groups expected to be included in site-based decision making are students, parents, and teachers. Their new roles are described by Gibbs (1991). In the traditional model, students were isolated from operational and policy decisions. In the new shared decision-making model, students, especially older students, may influence policies by providing advice and input through participation in decision making.

Close to students are parents who, in yesterday's model, were mostly uninformed and underutilized resources and, like students, were isolated from decision making and the operations of the school. An abundant literature advocates training parents to develop understandings and skills relative to the education system's purposes, and to act as colleagues in planning and decision making, and as advocates and partners in the local school's change efforts.

Teachers, too, have been isolated from active involvement in significant decision making and have been dependent on administrative and external (to the school) policy development. In the past, they have had limited communication with each other in their own buildings and have been underutilized as sources of ideas and information to each other and the staff as a whole. In site-based decision making, it is expected that they will develop interactions across the campus community and become broadly connected with staff and parents. These interactions provide the setting for their sharing of ideas and concerns, and participation in making decisions for their campus.

Teachers who are professional organization representatives will find their roles also changing (Steinberger, 1990). Whereas they had frequently acted as guardians of teacher rights and the teachers' contract, the new model requires flexibility from the organization's representative. Yesterday's model found these representatives in direct confrontation with the school system, and serving as negotiators of issues; the "new" model embraces collaboration and cooperative participation in decision making in all areas. The typical organizational liaison was a representative of either teachers or administrators; they now need to act as partners with teachers, administrators, the school board, and the broader educational community.

Many school board members also will experience new role expectations (Gibbs,1991). Certainly not all, but many board members, once advocated uniform procedures across the district and maintenance of the status quo. They had been unilateral policy makers. Their roles, too, will become more collegial as they become advocates of flexibility, support change and improvement, and accept partners in policy making.

Gibbs also pictures changed roles for superintendents, other central office staff, and principals. As the chief administrative officer and general manager of the district, director of operations, and deliverer of top down mandates, the superintendent will exhibit new behaviors. These new behaviors will be characterized by inviting participation and serving as an executive team member, encouraging bottom up change. Rather than delivering uniform treatment to all campuses, the superintendent will support differences and uniqueness.

New behaviors of other central office staff will be required. Rather than delivering policies made in the central office and monitoring their implementation in schools, they will respond to schools and serve as resources and facilitators for them, to assist them in their change efforts. Many central office staff have been viewed as isolated from the campuses, as experts or specialists in particular academic areas. In site-based decision making, they will become integrated into various campus activities. They may provide training, coordinate district level human and material resources for the campus, support schools' autonomy, and share decision making.

Perhaps no other role will be more affected by site-based decision making than that of the principal. The principal has been described as the middle manager, enforcer of policies made elsewhere, and maintainer of alignment with the district status quo. In addition, the principal has been characterized as a lonely, isolated person, but nonetheless, the "hero" of school improvement, championing the cause of school change, guiding and managing its success. This individual will continue to have responsibility for the individual school's operations ( Jenni, 1991). And, yet, many other players are expected to share in making decisions for the school.

Thus, the principal will need to develop colleagueship with the faculty and staff in order to participate in and invite staff participation in policy development, and ensure that the needs of his/her school are met. A framework for decision making, such as that provided below, can be very useful as the principal and staff embark upon the new structure of site-based decision making.

How can site-based decision making link to learner outcomes?

The purpose of site-based decision making, as suggested in this paper, is improved educational outcomes for all students. The substance of decision making, therefore, should address issues for improving teaching and learning. To support this purpose, campus decision makers may find it helpful to classify decisions into three types: mandated, expedient, and essential (Dick Foster, personal communication, July 1988). After categorizing decisions, decision makers then give their time and attention to the type of decisions that hold the most promise for quality learning opportunities for students.

There is seldom any need for site-based decision makers to spend significant time discussing whether to implement a mandated policy. There is little reason to discuss the merits of an issue over which the team has no control. Each state's minimum required number of days in the school calendar is an example of a mandate. The principal has the responsibility to communicate this type of decision to the staff through standard administrative practice; however, it may be productive for the staff to plan the way in which a mandate is implemented.

The expedient type of decision improves the efficiency and management of the school. This is the type of decision many board of education members and too many professionals prefer to address. Use of facilities, driveway surfaces, brand of copy machines, and use of energy sources are examples of expediency concerns. There will be a strong temptation for the campus team to want to address matters of expediency as part of the shared decision-making process. There are multiple and competing demands on school staffs' time. If they use it for the expedient type of decisions, they will likely decrease the time and energy that could be focused on essential decisions.

Essential decisions impact the teaching/learning process. These are decisions that involve one or more dimensions of that process, i.e., what we teach (curriculum), how we teach (instruction), or the culture within which we teach. Alteration of curriculum documents, proposed staff development directions, and staffing patterns are examples of this type of decision. Issues that impact the teaching/learning process should demand the major portion of each agenda for a team meeting. The campus decision-making team that expends a major portion of its time and energy on essential decisions has a stronger potential to produce positive results in student learning.

In addition to setting priorities for decision making, the campus team or site council may wish to consider the degree of participation of various role groups or their representatives in particular decisions. Participation can be characterized on a continuum from "no involvement" to "total participation." One schema (adapted from Wallace, et al., 1990) delineates seven levels of involvement:

  1. do not participate, where teachers, parents, or community representatives show no interest in the decision or are not given the opportunity by the principal;
  2. provide information to the administrator, where various role groups provide relevant information to the principal to assist him/her in making a more informed decision;
  3. formulate alternatives, where various role groups are solicited by the principal for their ideas and solutions to problems;
  4. suggest specific alternatives, where role groups generate solutions and advance opinions on how best to proceed, with the principal selecting from the alternatives suggested;
  5. review and comment on proposed decision, where role groups are given responsibility to review and comment on the principal's proposed decision;
  6. jointly make decision, where the principal and role groups analyze problems and arrive at decisions together, with the principal reserving the right to veto or adjust decisions; and
  7. make the decision, where all members of the team, council or school community strive for consensus and share equally in decision making, with the principal an equal member of the group.

In sum, participating in essential decisions that address teaching and learning is proposed as a primary focus for the campus decision makers. The degree to which the various decision makers are involved, as delineated by Wallace and colleagues above, is another variable that may influence opportunities for succeeding more effectively with all students. Schmuck and Runkel (1985) assert that reaching consensus through participatory decision making is most desirable. It makes good sense that a broad array of persons representing various knowledge bases, experiences, and expertise can contribute more meaningfully to discussions and decisions about the increasingly diverse needs of students and how to address them.

Learning from Those Who Have Tried It

In a review of the literature about site-based decision making, Kolsti & Rutherford (1991) discovered that information about its effects on students seldom appears, with any evidence in the form of testimony. Johnson (1991) reports that research studies have failed to find a relationship between site-based management and student achievement. (However, she found patterns of directionality in her study of middle schools. In schools where students were achieving, there was a significantly higher level of shared decision making and less central control.) Most prevalent in the literature are reports of what was learned when implementing site-based decision making at district and campus levels.

In a four year longitudinal study of two Minnesota school districts, Jenni (1991) concluded that issues of power tend to interfere with a school's goal of site-based decision making. Further, whatever their position, individuals in schools tend to resist change. Third, the "activities of site councils tend to be observational and discussional rather than advisory and decisional" (p. 137).

In a study of five school systems across the nation (and documentaries of additional communities), Hill and Bonan (1991) draw conclusions focused on the relationships between the school, district system, and parents. These authors concluded that

  • site-based decision making is a reform of the whole school system even though it focuses on individual schools;
  • change at the school level will result if site-based decision making is the school system's basic strategy for reform, rather than one of several projects for reform;
  • site-managed schools that have their own unique attributes and operations are likely to develop over time;
  • the balanced relationship of the district system and individual schools that represent variety, not uniformity, will require new thinking about accountability; and
  • parental choice, where parents are free "to move among schools," is the ultimate means of accountability for site-managed schools.

In a study of 14 schools in Oregon (whose leadership teams controlled resources of $1,000.00 per teacher for the projects), Conley (1991) reports changes in the behaviors of principals and teachers. Principals in the schools were acting as developers and facilitators, rather than as "bosses." They helped in creating a common vision, or clear sense of purpose, by using a wide array of data. They allocated resources (space, scheduling, personnel) to achieve the vision. They broadened decision-making structures through development of ad hoc committees and task forces. They supported teachers in becoming decision makers through helping them "navigate the sometimes treacherous shoals of the district bureaucracy" (p. 41) and providing information to the total school community about the internal functions of the school (fiscal allocation, available resources, class loads/staffing, etc.).

Teacher changes occurred in new roles, skills, perceptions, and relationships with their peers. Teachers developed a greater sense of efficacy and control, as well as the ability to influence their work environment. They began experiencing more participation and satisfaction; their increased energy, they thought, appeared to impact their instructional practices and teacher-student interactions.

Lessons from these authors and others, most clearly articulated by Jenni (1991, p. 149-150), include the following: Teachers are reluctant to take on new role definitions as decision makers, as they see their primary role in the classroom and the principal as decision maker. Training and retraining are essential but often are nonexistent in site-based decision-making programs. Accountability and decision-making responsibilities are vague, with the principal rather than the school team assuming the ultimate responsibility; if responsibility for decisions rests outside the purview of the decision-making group, what real function does the group serve? Clear purpose and direction must be established for site councils, or school teams, with decision-making parameters clearly delineated; council control of resources also helps.

Preparing for Implementation

In order for a school district to be successful in implementing site-based decision making, the various constituencies involved in decision making must operate synergistically. Each campus should be part of a vision of decentralization whose purpose is improvement. However, uniqueness needs to be maintained. The campuses should not all be alike nor think alike; but, each should be part of an overall effort that "thinks together." The fundamental vehicle for developing a synergistic school district is planning.

How does the district office provide guidance and support?

Initial planning is done at the district level, possibly by a team representing the schools and all constituencies, whereby goals and priorities are articulated for the entire system. These goals form the parameters within which the schools will function so that there is, in fact, a system of schools. Further, the boundaries within which schools will operate are established through district policy development and through the clearly defined and communicated limitations of budgets and program and personnel options. It is neither reasonable nor fair to deliver a decision-making apparatus to schools without accompanying guidelines that inform schools about the amount of flexibility they will be able to have. Campus decision making presents opportunities to develop individualization and uniqueness, yet it also represents the opportunity to proceed toward accomplishing goals common to the campus and to the district.

In addition, there must be a district vision and commitment to shared decision making and planning. Adequate time is a necessity; shared decision making cannot occur if there is insufficient time for meeting. The district can demonstrate its commitment through the provision of time presented to the schools in optional scheduling formats from which they select the most useful.

The district should also provide the resources for training in communication skills, team building, use of decision-making models, conflict management, and understanding of the change process. Some level of technical assistance should be available in order for school staff to receive feedback and suggestions, plus opportunities for improving their decision-making and planning skills.

Central office staff must also model shared decision making. It requires very little time for central office staff members and other instructional leaders to develop rhetoric related to site-based decision making. However, support for the process will erode quickly if leadership advocates shared decision making, but continues to formulate and demonstrate administrative procedures that ultimately inhibit the process. In school districts where site-based decision making is successful, central office staff members assume the role of facilitators. Their new role and behavior patterns exhibit a helping attitude, responding to the decisions and declared needs of the schools.

If central office staff members are to be able to respond appropriately to site-based decision making, they will need to understand change. Site-based decision making is a change of Cuban's "second order" mentioned above - and is very complex. First and foremost, there must be a clear understanding of what site-based decision making is, acts like, looks like. A clear conceptualization of how it will work, with its boundaries and privileges, is highly important. This image of site-based decision making should be consistently held by all persons across the district - at central office, campus, and community levels. Consistency will reduce unnecessary frustrations based on misunderstanding or lack of information.

Another important facet of change is that the individual must be considered at all times. The uniqueness of people and their circumstances cannot be overlooked; this idea resonates with the new expectation that schools will become increasingly unique.

How is collegiality developed at the campus?

Site-based decision making will be more successful on a campus where the principal, teachers, and staff members function as a team. Conversely, decision making will be minimal if the group is unable to work in harmony toward achieving the goals they identify. It should be noted that research suggests that schools' instructional processes occur more effectively as a collegial effort (Little, 1981). Various factors can support the collegiality and the viability of educational decision making on a campus. These include knowledge, understanding, and skills needed for the shared decision-making process.

As already cited, the district makes resources available for supporting the campus staff to function as a team and for developing new skills that contribute to collegial site-based decisions. Another factor is a school's organizational culture, which is characterized as, or in the process of becoming: open, accepting, trusting, and risk taking. Patience and perseverance demonstrated by the staff in developing their approach to decision making are equally supporting. Resources for time and training may be allocated; central office staff can contribute help and assistance; a pleasant, respectful and caring atmosphere may develop at the school site - and substantive, student-related decision making may never occur if the cultural values and norms are not student-directed.

Maintaining the Focus on Learners

This paper suggests that learner outcomes and site-based decision making can be linked. The site-based decision-making process should be thoughtful, purposeful, and well planned. The purpose to be served is increased program quality and equity in the schools; thus, the results should be enhanced outcomes of success for all students. The concluding section of this paper makes a final argument for the tight coupling of site-based decision making, student learning outcomes, and effective leadership.

The literature is mixed in its reports of the motivations for implementing site-based decision making in schools. Some schools adopted the strategy as a pro forma response to increasing external demands for change; others adopted it because it seemed to be "a good thing." It would appear in many cases that site-based decision making was introduced as an end in itself. In others, it served as a schema to professionalize the work environment for teachers, as a way to involve parents in the life of the school, or as a way to "democratize" the school organization. While these latter purposes are worthy, site-based decision making should be explicitly considered as a means to increased learner outcomes. Therefore, the initial emphasis should be on school and classroom improvement, followed by a focus on site-based decision making as a way to strengthen and support the school improvement initiative. This "works" in the following scenario that was developed in a collaborative effort by nine of the ten U. S. regional laboratories funded by OERI (Office of Educational Research and Improvement), and reported by Corbett and Blum (1992).

A district and its schools are mobilized to examine broadly their goals and the end product or outcome of their educational system. Organizing campus improvement committees, the district and school leaders guide a process for describing what students will be able to do and for identifying student attributes. Having articulated the end result, the school committee (representative of the school community) focuses on instruction and the teaching/learning conditions needed for successfully realizing the student outcomes desired. In turn, new structures (i.e., decentralizing governance or decision making to the school) are designed and instituted to support the school in addressing the vital processes of teaching and learning and in more effectively making the changes deemed necessary for success with all students.

Those schools that have been engaged in an effective school/school improvement process have a head start in several ways. They have focused on developing a team that represents the school community and shares in decision making (although it typically has lacked broad authority). The team is an existing structure for instituting site-based decision making. Second, the effective schools process focuses on examining a wide array of data that are aggregated and disaggregated as input for making decisions. A third focus is on implementing the effective school characteristics. These characteristics include focus on instruction, instructional leadership, monitoring and measuring of progress, high expectations for all learners, and a school climate conducive to learning - each one important to site-based decision making where the priority attention is on teaching and learning.

One of the dilemmas many schools have faced in their school improvement efforts is lack of sufficient decision-making authority to bring about their desired plans for increasing student gains. Site-based decision making, accompanied by appropriate accountability, autonomy, and authority distributed from the district level, allows schools more flexibility to meet the unique needs of their students. Because of the increasing diversity of students, many of whom are at risk of not succeeding, schools will need to be less uniform in programs and instructional strategies and less conforming to a singular pattern.

It appears that the effects of site-based decision making on student outcomes have not yet been proven. However, in an environment of decentralization, school leaders have new opportunities to guide their school communities in collegial decision making that addresses more efficiently the vital processes of teaching and learning for all students. As the school community and its leadership study and reflect on the school's goals and the needs of all its students, especially those at risk, their collective wisdom and shared decisions have the possibility to strengthen the selection of strategies that hold the highest potential for student success.


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Credits and Disclaimer

Issues . . . about Change is published and produced quarterly Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). This publication is based on work sponsored by the Office of Educational Research & Improvement, U.S. Department of Education under grant number RP91002003. The content herein does not necessarily reflect the views of the department or any other agency of the U.S. government or any other source. Available in alternative formats.

The Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL) is located at 4700 Mueller Blvd., Austin, Texas 78723; 512-476-6861/800-476-6861. SEDL is an Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and is committed to affording equal employment opportunities to all individuals in all employment matters.

This issue was written by practitioner, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Elvis Arterbury, Beaumont Independent School District, Beaumont, Texas, and Shirley M. Hord, Senior Research Associate, Services for School Improvement, SEDL.

Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 1, Number 4, Site-Based Decision Making: Its Potential for Enhancing Learner Outcomes (1991)