Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Whatever Happened to Site-Based Decision-making?

A majority of voters–with or without children in public schools– have to say “yea” to tax levies to erect and maintain buildings, pay teachers, buy books, equipment, and supplies to cover costs of educating the community’s children and youth. Moreover, state laws compel parents to send those children and youth five and older to the age of 16 or so to school.

Governance of these tax-supported public schools reflects the history of a nation suspicious of centralized authority lodged in one person such as a king or a president. So there is no national ministry of education in the U.S. Because the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution says that powers not mentioned in the Constitution belong to the states and since “education” or “schools” go unmentioned in the document, states govern public schools. Every state authorizes local districts to have school boards to govern districts. California has over a thousand districts, Hawaii has one.

So the nation’s schools are decentralized: 50 states and territories make decisions about schooling in over 13,000 school districts across America. Sure there is a U.S. Secretary of Education who sits in the President’s cabinet meetings. Keep in mind, however, that the vast bulk of money spent on schools comes from states and local districts; the federal contribution to school spending is less than a dime out of every dollar spent on public schools.

State and locally elected representatives serve on school boards that decide policies from constructing classrooms, changing curriculum, and requiring teaching credentials to setting high school graduation requirements, determining which tests to give students, and establishing the format of report cards.

These elected representatives scattered across a decentralized system govern about 100,000 public schools housing over 50 million students taught by more than three million teachers. These trustees, often unpaid and part-time, make policy for the district be it small, mid-sized, or large. They are removed from the neighborhood elementary school where decisions have to be made on how much to spend on new books, whether to hire a janitor or a librarian, and what to do with obsolete computer devices.

When one-room schoolhouses dominated the topography of U.S. schooling, local trustees who lived in the rural community, hired and fired the teacher, insured that the official curriculum was taught, and maintained the school building. But as schools and districts grew larger particularly in towns and cities, states permitted locally elected school boards to make such decisions. They still do. However, in big cities with scores, even hundreds of schools and thousands of employees these elected school boards are far removed from children, teachers, principals, and daily operations of each and every school.

As long as urban and suburban schools seem to fulfill what taxpayers and voters expected, say between the 1920s and 1950s, the system seemed to be working. At different times, however, especially since the mid-1960s growing  disaffection with  public schools, anger at low academic performance, high incidence of drugs and teenage pregnancies, stories of in-school violence and gangs, rising dropout rates and low percentages of students going on to college prompted many reforms including ones that changed how schools were governed. Prompted by the report A Nation at Risk (1983) state and federal authorities searched for different ways to toughen public schools so that U.S. students could better compete with international ones. One of these reforms aimed at restoring higher academic and behavioral norms through neighborhood parents together with teachers and principals at each school either advising decision makers or making decisions themselves. Or what has come to be called site-base decision making or management.

What is site-based decision making and when did it begin?

At the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, site-based decision making varied greatly–as one would expect–in a decentralized system of national schooling. Here is how Jane David described it then:

Most variants … involve some sort of representative decision-making council at the school, which may share authority with the principal or be merely advisory. Some councils have the power to hire principals, some hire and fire, some do neither. Some can hire other personnel when there are vacancies. Some councils specify that the principal be the chair, others specify that the principal not be the chair.

The composition of site councils also varies tremendously. In addition to teachers, parents, and the principal, they may include classified staff, community members, students, and business representatives. Educators may outnumber non-educators, or vice versa. States or districts may list constituencies who must be represented, or simply leave it to individual schools…

A number of states approved policies (e.g., Kentucky, Illinois) that allowed and even directed districts to establish site-based decision making (e.g., Chicago).

What problems does site-based decision making aim to solve?

The surge of governance reforms aimed at local citizens making key decisions on school budgets, hiring and firing personnel, curriculum, and services offered occurred in the late-1980s through the 1990s when student performance on international and state tests fell short of policy elites’ expectations for U.S. schools at a time when U.S. economic competitiveness with other nations lagged. Better schools were viewed as engines for a stronger economy.

Assumptions were that top-down decision making left school staffs to being technicians hired to put into practice what policymakers thought they should be doing. Giving teachers and other staff authority to make school-wide decisions would lead to school staffs to work harder to improve schools and increased morale which, in turn, would produce gains in students’ academic performance. Another assumption was that district offices were too top heavy with administrators who were out-of-touch with local school sites; reducing district office officials through firing and re-assignment and strengthening the capacities of locals would improve both decision making and school performance.

As in businesses that had learned to restructure their operations by reducing central administration and driving decisions down to the site that did the actual work, i.e., the school, governance reform swept across states and big cities as a way of improving students academic performance. The primary assumption was that participatory decision making was strongly linked to improved test scores (see herehere, and here)

Does site-based decision making work?

No evidence that I have seen confirms the assumption that participatory decision making in of itself improves student achievement as measured by test scores. While there may be correlations between the two, no causal connection, to my knowledge, has been established (see here and here).

In Chicago where Local School Councils (LSCs) were established in by state law in 1988, each district school–there were over 550 schools–elected parents, teachers and community members to determine policy for the school. These parent-dominated LSCs hired and fired principals, made budget decisions, designed the curriculum, and determined school procedures. In 1995, the state allowed the mayor to control of schools and LSCs lost much of their decision making authority but do continue (see here and here).

Researcher Tony Bryk and colleagues in the Consortium on Chicago School Research  looked closely at these LSCs and concluded that such neighborhood decision making increased student achievement in many but not all schools governed by LSCs if they had put into place certain features (here and here).

That the process of school-site decision making improves the climate of the school, teacher morale by participating in school-wide decision making, and the sense of community–mediating variables between decision making and gains in academic achievement–there is evidence albeit a few decades old (see here).

What has happened to site-based decision making

The Chicago example of LSCs with full decision making authority lasting less than a decade and continuing into 2018 with far shrunken duties in 2018 sticks out as uncommon among governance innovations. Although surveys of district officials establish that every district has some local school mechanism for teacher, parent, and community decision making–in 1994 it was 56 percent of all public schools–but with some inspection many of these school sites have an advisory role rather than full-fledged authority to make critical school-wide decisions.

What has happened since the 1990s, has been an increase in site-based decision making in the growth of charter schools. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia allow publically funded and independently operated charter schools. In 2018, there are over 7,000 charter schools in the U.S enrolling over 3 million students. States do not require that governing boards for charter schools be elected.; they are appointed (full disclosure: I served as a trustee on a four high school charter network called Leadership Public Schools in the San Francisco Bay area for three years). Massachusetts has strict rules for governance mechanisms of charter schools with great variability among the other states that grant charters to individual schools for three to five years.

So site-based decision making continues in various districts across the U.S. that have elected school boards devolving decision making authority to schools but the largest, recent growth in school site governance has been within charter schools.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...