Guest Column

Site-Based Councils: Engines ... or Brakes?


Years ago, one of our mentors described school districts as places where everyone has all of the brakes and no one has any of the motors. It is a picture of institutional paralysis that is all too accurate in too many places.


Curriculum specialists, budget analysts, title program administrators and maintenance departments--none of whom are held accountable for student performance--tell the school principal and faculty (who should be held accountable for student performance) what can and cannot be done. That makes it unreasonable to hold the school staff accountable. In the end, no one feels that they have much authority and no one can be held accountable.

Some years later, one of us became a strong advocate of site-based management. The reason was simple: to adopt one of the basic tenets of modern management practice, pushing as far down the hierarchy as possible the decisions on how to meet the needs of the customer. The belief was that those closest to the customer would make the best decisions.

At the same time, those people to whom this authority was to be delegated would be held strictly accountable for the results. School staff members would at last be treated as professionals. The school site council was conceived by some as a way to make sure that many people would be involved and therefore own the decisions that were made and be motivated to implement them with enthusiasm.

What has actually happened has turned out to be a parody of site-based management that has made a bad situation worse.

Misdirected Allegiance

In most places, the central office delegated very little authority to the schools. Central still decided on most expenditures that directly affected the school site, still decided on school staffing structures, still hired and assigned the staff, still made curriculum policy and still rushed out to the school site to take charge the minute the press arrived.

In most places, the school site council has been conceived of as a mechanism for governing, not managing, the school. Elaborate rules get made as to how many seats on the council will be allocated to each constituency and how those constituencies will choose their members. The result is that the members of the council see themselves not as responsible to the principal, superintendent, school board or community for results but to their constituencies for representing their interests.

For weak principals, the school site council has become an excuse and for the good principal it has become just another set of voices that can say no.

Clearly, the principal should be in charge. As a practical matter, the board and the superintendent cannot easily hold a school council composed of parents and faculty accountable for student performance, but they can and must hold the principal accountable. We know of no research that shows schools run by school site councils produce better records of student achievement than schools run by principals.

But if principals are to be in charge, one can expect no better results than we have had until now unless they are given much greater authority over budgeting, staffing and programming and are held fully accountable for the results of their work.

Where the Buck Stops
When we say "accountable," we mean that appropriate rewards should go to the principal and the rest of the professional staff when student scores are rising and that their jobs should be at risk when they are declining. This is an important part of what it means to be a professional in most other professions.

Principals responsible in that way for improving student achievement will quickly learn to focus on instruction. They will also learn that they must involve the professional staff and parents if they are to succeed. Some will choose to create formal councils to advise them. Most will learn to create a cabinet structure to manage the school. No principal who tries to go it alone will succeed.

In the system we have in mind, the school board and the superintendent set the standards for student achievement, give the schools the resources and flexibility they need to do the job and establish the rewards and consequences for the school staff, based on student progress toward the standards.

The principal is responsible for involving many others in the decisions that are needed but, in the end, he or she is the one who is first to accept the rewards and first to bear the consequences when the students do and do not meet the standards. That is what school-site decision making ought to mean.

Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, Suite 750, 700 11th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. E-mail: Judy Codding is the center's vice president for programs. They are co-authors of Standards For Our Schools: How to Set Them, Measure Them, and Reach Them, published by Jossey-Bass Publishers.