Initial results of the effects of shared decision making on school reform are beginning to appear in print. In the Fall 1993 Teachers College Record, Carol H. Weiss reported on a two-and-one half-year study comparing schools with and without teacher participation in decision making. Twelve high schools in 11 states were included in the study. Twenty-three percent of teachers in schools with shared decision making reported being involved with governance of their schools as opposed to five percent in traditionally managed schools. Issues of discipline were introduced by teachers much less often in schools with shared decision making (7 percent versus 28 percent), but the two groups were about equal in the discussion of curriculum issues.
However, neither group mentioned teaching strategies and other pedagogical concerns very frequently. Only three out of 191 respondents raised such issues. Weiss reports that the morale of teachers is improved through shared decision making but that schools experience many ups and downs during the process.
Shared decision-making alone does not bring innovation
Weiss concluded that shared decision-making, alone, did not bring about any measurable innovation or reform in curriculum or teaching practices in these schools.
In other research, a dozen elementary schools attempting to improve services for low-achieving students through shared decision making were studied. Seventy-two teachers and 1,362 students in 12 experimental schools were compared to 76 teachers and 1,062 students in 10 control schools. Initially, principals in the 12 experimental schools received instruction in using shared decision making with their staffs along with strategies for instructing and organizing services for remedial and special students.
Following this, principals led their staffs in assessment of students’ needs and worked with teachers to redesign services for low-achieving students.
Finally, experimental schools implemented their new programs for one year. Researchers, Joseph R. Jenkins and Joan Ronk, University of Washington; Judy A. Schrag, Council for Exceptional Children, Reston, Virginia; Gary G. Rude, South Kitsap School District, Port Orchard, Washington and Carole Stowitschek, Tahoma School District, Maple Valley, Washington, measured teachers’ perceptions, students’ achievement and student behavior in experimental and control schools at the end of one year.
In the experimental schools, these researchers found that principals generally succeeded in establishing a participatory, consensus-building change process.
The program resulted in positive teacher attitudes toward the change process and in new approaches for organizing mainstream instruction for low-achieving students.
Over 75 percent of teachers in the experimental schools stated that they had influence in the development of their school’s new program, that they understood and supported it and that they perceived their colleagues as supportive of the new directions their school was taking. (Two principals did not return the confidential teacher surveys and in those schools, it was not assumed that those teachers viewed the planning process and resulting program as successful.)
Achievement test scores in reading, math and spelling of regular, remedial and special education students showed no significant improvement one year after instituting the new programs. However, mainstreaming low-achieving and special education students did not detract from the achievement of average and superior students.
These researchers are unable to determine why achievement scores of low achievers did not improve. One year may simply be too short a time to offset the disruptions and problems of a new program. In addition, the quality and level of implementation of the new programs was based on participants’ judgments and undocumented reports. It is not certain that schools instituted the treatments on a large enough scale or with sufficient intensity to improve achievement.
Implementation of changes at the classroom level is the largest hurdle that reform efforts face. None of the schools in this study had independent verification of the degree of implementation of these reforms or any outside help for teachers in attempting to implement improved services for special students.
The challenge of implementing reform in real school settings
Both of these studies demonstrate how difficult it is to implement reform in real school settings. However, the effects of shared decision making can not be judged on the basis of these preliminary studies alone.
Teachers involved in these reforms overwhelmingly report positive improvement in the climate of their schools. Schools which have begun to reform themselves through shared decision making must assess fairly these initial results and work to refine their reforms to bring about the desired increase in achievement
Teachers College Record, Fall 1993.
Published in ERN, May/June 1994, Volume 7, Number 3.