Although school decentralization is frequently mentioned as a way of improving our educational system, few systematic studies have been made to determine either how the allocation of greater decision-making authority to teachers might work, or what the effects of such authority would mean to teachers and teaching.
Recently, Paula A. White, University of Wisconsin, made a study of the Winona, Minnesota; Kalispell, Montana, and Poway, California, school districts. These three were selected from more than 100 school districts with decentralization programs because each of their decentralization programs gives considerable authority to teachers in the areas of budget, curriculum, and staffing, and each has had at least five years experience with decentralization. White’s interviews with teachers, principals, and administrators at the three districts focused on the following questions: (a) How do teachers respond to opportunities for more influence? (b) How do these opportunities affect their teaching? (c) How do these opportunities affect how teachers feel about their effectiveness in the classroom?
In all three districts, the original impetus for change came from the central office and school board rather than from teachers. Decentralization of all three districts began with the search for a new superintendent who was committed to decentralization.
Ninety percent of all the interviewed teachers said they were satisfied with the amount of control they had in budgetary matters. Teachers expressed concern, however, about their lack of sufficient training and information about budgets and about the reluctance to relinquish control on the part of some principals. Despite the fact that teachers controlled a relatively small amount of money, they said that their increased control helped them to obtain the materials and in-service workshops necessary to meet the needs of their students. Teachers report – and administrators confirm – that through this new involvement they became better informed and more articulate about decisions made in their school and that this helped improve their relationships with parents. Administrators reported that teachers involved in the fiscal process were more financially prudent.
Ninety-two percent of the teachers interviewed reported that they had become very involved in school curriculum decisions and that administrators in their districts relied on their expertise. Teachers in these districts were given the authority to reject a textbook in favor of teacher-developed curriculum. They were also able to recommend new courses, redesign report cards, make scheduling changes, and select new in-service workshops.
Teachers report that participation in curriculum development provided an opportunity for them to review their philosophies and goals. Having control over curriculum fired their enthusiasm and this, in turn, inspired their students. Both teachers and administrators believe that these changes resulted in increased self-esteem and professionalism among all staff.
Although budget constraints, textbook availability, time and numerous other considerations limited the extent of teacher control over curriculum, teachers were generally satisfied with the amount of authority they were given.
Because teachers in these three school districts are generally content, there is little teacher turnover. Moreover, since the student population in these districts is stable, few additional staff members have been added. For these reasons, only 77% of teachers reported significant involvement in school staffing decisions. About one-third of the teachers in these districts had been directly involved in hiring new staff. They report that their recommendations were followed in most cases.
Teachers state that they looked forward to search committee meetings as an opportunity to discuss school goals and teaching philosophies with other teachers and administrators. Teachers involved in the hiring process assumed more responsibility for supporting the new staff they hired. Most teachers reported they did not want to be involved in firing decisions and most also believed that the principal should have the final say in hiring decisions.
How these schools differ from traditional schools
White notes that in these three school districts, teachers assumed more kinds of responsibilities and worked more closely with one another than in schools with strong, centralized power. Teachers in these districts also relied less on textbooks and developed more of their own teaching materials. Participation in school decision-making gave teachers more experience giving presentations and speaking professionally. Teacher turnover was low. Teachers and principals, by and large, maintained a reciprocal open-door policy.
The three districts are not without problems. Insufficient funding has limited teacher training in shared decision-making, budgets, and curriculum. Also, because it is more time-consuming, group decision-making proved difficult for some schools. There are also administrative barriers. Some administrators still delegate authority reluctantly and, therefore, those schools tended to maintain a traditional hierarchy. Teacher unions, as well, have been slow to endorse decentralization because they fear that teachers will work more hours without additional pay.
Despite these problems, even modest increases in decision-making authority appear to be very important to teachers. White concludes that the overwhelming majority of teachers in these schools support decentralization. She reports that positive changes in the teaching and learning environment did occur as a result of decentralization. Teachers believed that greater authority over decisions directly influencing classroom teaching better enabled them to meet the needs of their students. Being given this authority also increased their energy level and enthusiasm for teaching, which, in turn, increased students’ interest and motivation to learn.
“Teacher Empowerment Under ‘Ideal’ School-Site Autonomy” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis Volume 14, Number 1, pp. 69-82.
Published in ERN September/October 1992 Volume 5 Number 4