The Graduate School

Research And Opinion

Vol. 8, No. 2
August 1994


By Ulrich C. Reitzug and Beverly E. Cross

Prompted generally by education's emulation of business and industry practices and, specifically, by the Carnegie Foundation's report, A Nation Prepared (Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, 1986), site-based management has become one of the major policy initiatives of the school reform era. In some states, state legislatures have mandated the implementation of site-based management for schools and school districts (e.g., Kentucky), while in other states legislatures have provided incentives to encourage adoption of site-based management or taken other measures to promote its usage. For example, in Wisconsin the legislature recently passed legislation that mandated that every school in the state formally explore and discuss the implementation of site-based management in its schools.

In essence, site-based management (SBM) is the decentralization of decision-making authority from school boards and central offices of school districts to individual schools. S.M. is grounded in dual assumptions that (a) decisions made at schools are likely to be more responsive to specific, individual school contexts than standardized decisions made at the district level and mandated for individual schools; and (b) teachers, parents, and students are more likely to respond positively to decisions that they have been involved in making than to those made by individuals at higher levels of the organizational hierarchy. Thus, site-based management is intended to stimulate "significant change in educational practice" (David, 1989, p. 45) by permitting school staffs to modify policies and restructure practices traditionally mandated from centralized levels of the organization to be more applicable to local conditions.

Site-based management appears to be especially appropriate for urban school districts considering their large bureaucratic structures. Standardized practices of schooling developed to educate the "typical" American suburban student of the past--white, middle class, and living with both parents--poorly serve many of today's urban students--racial or ethnic minority, living in poverty, alienated from mainstream culture, and from a single parent home. Consequently, many urban school districts have implemented SBM as a way to improve their schools.

Despite its widespread acceptance as a desirable education policy little is known about the processes or effects achieved by schools implementing SBM. SBM literature consists primarily of advocacy pieces, with "little empirical research on the topic" (David, 1989, p. 45). Purkey (1990) has described SBM research literature as "woefully thin and unpersuasive" (p. 372) while Malen, Ogawa, and Kranz (2992) in a comprehensive review of SBM literature found many conceptual, theoretical, and advocacy pieces, but few empirically-based studies. Additionally, reviews have concluded that while formal organizational structures may have been altered as a result of SBM, there has been little change in terms of authority, involvement, and influence at most sites (Malen et al., 1991; Reitzug & Capper, submitted for publication). Researchers (Malen, Ogawa, & Kranz, 1991; Reitzug & Capper, submitted for publication) have also been unable to identify studies documenting systemic change in curriculum, teacher instructional practice, leadership, and consequent educational achievement by students as a result of SBM.

Purkey (1990), however, cautions that site-based management should not be dismissed simply because of its questionable success in the few empirically-documented attempts to describe its effects. He argues that SBM will "inevitably vary from site to site" (p. 375) and advocates that it be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. He notes, "Without a careful investigation of what school-based management looks like in a variety of settings, there is little we can say about its outcomes--now or potentially" (p. 375). It is the intent of our research to accept Purkey's charge and add to the knowledge base regarding the impact of SBM in studying its implementation at several urban schools.


This study was conducted from a naturalistic perspective and used qualitative methodology.

Data Sources and Data Collection

Data were collected at six schools spanning two school districts. Schools are located in large, urban areas.

Data were collected through observations and interviews and from documents. Both researchers were present at most observation and interview sessions. At sessions where both researchers were present, each recorded individual observation and interview field notes. Additionally, interviews were tape recorded and transcribed. Site-council meetings were observed throughout the year. Formal interviews were conducted with teacher members and classified staff members on the site councils. Formal and informal interviews were conducted on a regular basis with the principals. School documents that served as data included handouts and minutes from previous and current site council meetings.

Data Analysis

Data analysis was recursive throughout the study. There were a number of times during data collection that the researchers differed in their interpretations of the data. Some of the discrepancies were linked to the differences in race, gender, and discipline (Cross & Reitzug, 1993). Consequently, the researchers initially independently analyzed the data before merging the analyses and constructing shared meanings. One researcher constructed a brief story for each school. The other researcher compiled an overview analysis of the data in terms of the scope of authority, influence, and involvement at each school. From these initial analyses four general codes emerged that the researchers labeled "constraints," "opportunities," "roles," and "relationships." Subsequent to coding the researchers reviewed the data and developed themes (Miles & Huberman, 1984). These codes served as a framework for explicating the findings.


Several trustworthiness techniques discussed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) were used in this study. Triangulation of researchers (see previous discussion), data collection techniques, and data sources occurred. Persistent observation was used in the sense that observations of meetings spanned the entire meeting and academic year. Peer debriefing between the researchers occurred subsequent to many of the data collection sessions. Negative case analysis was used in instances of data incongruency.


The research revealed several key findings through analysis of the practices, issues, dilemmas, constraints, and barriers evident in the schools as they engaged in site-based management. A brief description of each of these findings follows.

Education professionals care a great deal about children and the quality of education provided in their schools. At multiple levels, teachers, principals, counselors, engineers, secretaries and other education professionals exhibited their care for children, their families, and what occurs in their schools. First, during council deliberations, they talked about their dedication to improving education for the children they serve in their schools. They were able to keep their views on what constitutes a quality school and education focal during their discussions. Negative and deficit views of children, families, and their schools were not evident. More evident was their care for determining how the school can become a more meaningful agent in educating children and supporting families. They spoke very positively about children. They spoke of their desire to be effective in teaching them. Their conversations were continuously focused on the children and families, their needs, and how the programs of the schools and work of the staffs supported and extended both. Second, the education professionals on the councils never stated they thought site-based management was a burden in terms of their time and expectations. The process was valued by them and viewed as important to rethinking their school and work as education professionals. The value and necessity of their involvement outweighed concerns about time and expectations. Amid dilemmas of time demands, they still considered their involvement and voice on the councils as essential.

Parents and community members are committed to contributing to the work of the school. The site-based management councils which planned for and desired parent and community participation did not appear to experience difficulty in acquiring and maintaining involvement of either. Parents and community members regularly attended the meetings. They did not seem to experience any more difficulty in participating than did school professionals. During council deliberations, they spoke of their views on supporting the education of children in the community. With only a few exceptions did parents or community members frame their discussion primarily on their own children rather than the good of all children served by the school and by the council. Parents seemed confident that they held important knowledge and visions for educating children. Parents shared that in addition to having children in school they also held responsible positions in the communities as members of the work force. In only one instance were statements made to remind parents that educators hold particular knowledge and experience that positions them differently from parents. This occurred when one site council deliberated over how many teachers versus parents should sit on the council. After deliberation, however, the team concluded that both had equal stake in the education of children and should, thus, have equal representation.

All relationships need to be challenged. Analysis of the data reveals that as more and more relationships are challenged, schools come closer to redefining authority, involvement, and improvement. Throughout the study, the researchers observed relationships being challenged between the school and central offices, unions, school boards, state agencies, and community. The researchers observed relationships being challenged between and among staff, principals, children, parents, and community members. Challenges also occurred between ideals--for example between the principles of reform, the mission of the school, and the mission and goals of the districts. As these relationships were questioned, pushed, rethought, and reconfigured, new relationships were defined and developed to support the work of the councils in improving education for children.

Maintaining old relationships is problematic and may undermine developing new relationships. Perceptions of or actually maintaining traditional relationships can impact on the development of strong ties that are congruent with the schools' notions of site-based management. For example, perceptions or actual practices that maintained and supported "old boys' or girls' networks," principal informants, key players, cronies, and sounding boards are viewed by council members and the entire school staffs as the perpetuation of traditional decision making. If the staff detects these systems are still operational, they may feel that the council is not a legitimate body and only a mirror or front for site-based management. The locus of power, influence, and voice are viewed as still centralized in the principal and selected others in the building. At another level, the relationship of principals with central offices can be viewed as a traditional relationship that results in principals holding and having access to information not available to the remainder of the council. Important information related to and necessary for the work of the council is available to council members only through the principal. The principal remains gatekeeper of what the council knows and has available to them as they conduct their work. This and other forms of traditional relationships need to be challenged as new ones are developeause new relationships are being formed and because old relationships can be viewed as maintaining control, efforts to build solid foundations for trust and respect must occur. The data reveal that trust and respect does not automatically accompany a representational voice or vote. Even in instances where elaborate systems of communication are in place and there are formal arrangements for people to be heard, trust and respect must be developed to accompany these systems. This is an active process and does not occur without effort. Even when a milieu of democracy permeates the school and community, trust and respect are still necessary and must be actively built. Through the process of sharing decision-making, trust and respect are essential for council members and non-council members to feel that their voice and vote are legitimated, desired, and validated. Through this process of legitimation the council and staff feel they count. A guaranteed vote or a solicited voice does not result in trust and respect nor legitimation.

An opportunity to have a voice is not equivalent to structures that solicit participation, views, and ideas. Opportunity is passive. Staff members, particularly those not sitting on the councils, appreciated knowing the formal system through which their voices could be heard. In some instances, the councils appeared to result in another form of centralized authority that resides with a few individuals. The remainder of the staff in these schools sometimes still felt as outsiders to the decision-making process and work of their schools. In schools where the staffs were knowledgeable of and had avenues for input, they felt more than a passive opportunity existed. They felt that their voice would be heard if they took advantage of the process available to them, that their voice would not get lost, and that everyone's ideas were needed and valued. Having a team deliberate and make decisions for the school was not viewed as synonymous with engaging the staff in meaningful ways. Schools benefited when the entire staff felt connected to the work of the council.

The legitimacy of decision making has to be established over time. Setting up a process for site-based management decision making falls dramatically short of legitimating that anything is different in terms of power, voice, or authority. Establishing a team that makes decisions does not automatically transform views on how decisions are made. This can only be established over time as observations are made about how decision making occurs, whose voice is heard, who makes the final decisions, what the range of decisions are, and so on. Skepticism about a new process that serves as a fog for the traditional system diminishes as the work of the teams and the connection of the entire staff are realized and observed. Creating a milieu of site-based management as a legitimate process occurs only over time. It is a process of becoming.

Site-based management does and will vary from school to school. These lessons learned, however, may have implications for the practices, issues, dilemmas, constraints, and barriers encountered as schools engage in whatever form of site-based management that occurs. Thinking about these lessons may inform the planning and implementation of the work of schools as they negotiate the often amorphous and incredulous tasks of managing themselves.


Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy (1986). A nation prepared: Teachers for the 21st century. New York: Author.

Cross, B.E. & Reitzug, U.C. (1993, October). Inquiring into inquiry: Theoretical and practical examinations of conducting multi-faceted qualitative research. Paper presented at the Bergamo Conference of the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing; Dayton, OH.

David, J.L. (1989). Synthesis of research on school-based management. Educational Leadership, 46(8), 45-58.

Lincoln, Y.S. & Guba, E.G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Malen, B., Ogawa, R.T. & Kranz (1991). What do we know about school-based management? A case study of the literature--A call for research. In W.H. Clune & J.F. Witte (Eds.), Choice and control in American education, Volume 2 (pp. 289-342). New York: Falmer Press.

Miles, M.B. & Huberman, A.M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis: A sourcebook of new methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Purkey, S.C. (1990). School-based management: More and less than meets the eye. In W.H. Clune & J.F. Witte (Eds.), Choice and control in American education, Volume 2 (pp. 371-380). Philadelphia: The Falmer Press.

Reitzug, U.C. & Capper, C.A. (submitted for Publication). Deconstructing site-based management: Emancipation and alternative means of control.

Ulrich C. Reitzug is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Administrative Leadership in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee. Beverly E. Cross is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee. The research presented in this newsletter was conducted by Professors Ulrich and Cross through a grant from the Urban Research Initiatives program operated by the Urban Research Center in the Graduate School at UWM. The title of their project, conducted throughout the 1993-94 academic year, was entitled "Multi-Site Investigation of Site-Based Management."

Research and Opinion is a publication of the Urban Research Center located in the Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee.

The Urban Research Center, created in 1974, contributes to UWM's urban mission by encouraging and supporting inter-disciplinary, theory-building research and practice relevant to policy issues of urban society. To achieve its mission the center encourages collaborative, multi-disciplinary research, facilitates linkages among campus researchers, disseminates information on urban research conducted on campus, organizes and facilitates public forums on topical urban issues, and conducts basic and applied research related to urban policy.

The opinions expressed in Research and Opinion represent those of the authors alone, and their publication does not constitute an endorsement by the Urban Research Center, the Graduate School, or the University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee.


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