In fact, as early as the 1989-1990 school years, school-based decision making was implemented in three elementary schools in the Memphis City School System (Smith, Valesky & Horgan, 1991). Based on this seminal initiative, improvements were cited in: (a) the coordination provided by the school councils; (b) school-based staff development activities; (c) support and services provided by the district central office; (d) data and reports provided to the individual schools; and (e) the value of the school improvement plans (Smith et al., 1991).
A relevant study of the school-based decision-making process in the State of Tennessee by Etheridge (1990) evaluated the impact of different leadership styles used by school principals on the effectiveness of the school-based decision-making process in seven local school councils in Memphis including their elementary schools following their first 15 months of operation. According to Etheridge, the composition of SBDM councils in Tennessee largely reflects those being used elsewhere: "The successful implementation of a school-based decision making (SBDM) management model depends upon the ability of the local school council to develop an effective working style. The councils are comprised of parents, community residents, teachers, and other assigned school staff" (1990, p. 150).
Based on her analysis of data from empirical observations, face-to-face interviews, and a reviews of relevant documentary evidence showed that the type of leadership used by the school principal was a critical factor in determining how effective the councils were in their decision-making efforts; however, the analysis also showed that there were other forces at work as well. Based on her findings, Etheridge (1990) determined that:
1. Principals who exhibited laissez-faire and democratic leadership styles encouraged councils to function cooperatively;
2. Authoritarian principals inhibited cooperative council functioning, especially when information was controlled, communication with the central office and administrators was limited, and teachers did not advocate involvement in decisions; and,
3. Councils were more likely to function cooperatively when chairpersons were strong leaders, council members cooperated with the director and the professional association, and there was a common understanding of the council's role.
As noted in the chapter introduction, although most people want and need their voice to be heard in any organizational setting, effecting meaningful change can be a painful and arduous process unless the benefits that are involved in the change are made explicitly clear to all stakeholders involved, and these issued are discussed further below.
Benefits of School-Based Decision Making in Elementary Schools
Simply stated, school-based decision making moves public schools from a bureaucratically controlled system to a decentralized one (Heck, 2004). Unfortunately, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach that can be used in every situation. According to Whiteley, "[T]here is no single solution to improving student achievement ... school-based decision-making provides us with a useful framework to respond directly to the unique needs of a school's student population" (2006, p. 56). Although every school system and district will be unique in their application of school-based decision making, there are some common types of approaches that have been used in the past that describes how the process functions. For example, according to Jonassen, "School-based decision making may be structured through the use of cooperative teams. A task force considers a school problem and proposes a solution to the faculty as a whole. The faculty is then divided into ad hoc decision-making groups and considers whether to accept or modify the proposal. The decisions made by the ad hoc groups are summarized, and the entire faculty then decides on the action to be taken to solve the problem" (2004, p. 795).
Other approaches to school-based decision making have also emerged in recent years. For example, in some school districts, school-based decision making (SBDM) councils which include teachers and parents have been established to facilitate the process. In this regard, Greenlee (2007) reports that, "Many state-level school reform efforts have focused on creating governance structures that provide stakeholders with greater access to and influence over decisions about schooling. Parent and community involvement in decision making is widely held as an essential component of successful school improvement" (p. 222).
Because the importance of parental involvement in their children's education is well documented, Greenlee (2007) notes that school-based decision making processes should also include active participation from parents whenever possible. In this regard, Greenlee notes that, "State and local policies are based on engaging local stakeholders in partnership for changing schools to meet the needs of the communities they serve. The rationale for these reforms has been to empower school professionals and to position parents to act as partners with educators in the schooling of their children" (2007, p. 223). Notwithstanding the importance of active parental involvement in school-based decision making initiatives, though, it is teachers and principals who are in the best position to contribute to the decision-making process by virtue of their day-to-day experiences in the schools. As Greenlee emphasizes, "Teachers and principals, the people closest to the classroom, would be the best decision makers for the schools because they have the most information about the school. In theory, by giving school stakeholders more discretion over resources they would be more likely to improve the responsiveness and productivity of the instructional program" (2007, p. 224). The research to date, though, has shown that there are some significant constraints involved in creating truly effective decision-making bodies at the school level for a number of reasons, including the readiness of parents, teachers and principals to actively participate in the process and heated issues over who is really in control (Greenlee, 2007).
These observations have been supported in part by the research to date. For example, Klecker, Austin and Burns (2000) conducted a study of Kentucky's SBDM Councils and found that they are generally comprised of the following membership:
1. Three teachers (elected by school faculty);
2. Two parents (elected by parent members of the largest parent organization associated with the school); and,
3. An administrator (almost always the school principal).
Public schools in Kentucky also have the alternative available to them of increasing the membership of SBDM councils through the inclusion of additional teachers, parents or administrators based on the above-described three-two-one ratio. According to Klecker et al., "The teacher and parent members of the SBDMs are elected for a one-year term and are eligible to seek reelection. State law in Kentucky stipulates that after a Council has been elected, it can decide to have a different term of office not to exceed two years, but the terms cannot be consecutive in that case" (2000, p. 655). In Kentucky's SBDM council, the school principal typically acts as the council chair and remains a permanent member of the council. To help SBDM council members perform their decision-making responsibilities more effectively, in-house and outsourced training for members of SBDM councils is also provided (Klecker et al., 2000).
Pursuant to state law, SBDM councils in Kentucky are responsible for formulating policies in several specifically defined areas. Some indication of current trends concerning the frequency and percentages of the types of decisions that are being made by such SBDM councils can be discerned from the categories and corresponding figures shown in Table 1 below.
Frequencies and Percentage of Decisions Made by Site-based Decision Making Councils (N=137)
Number of Decisions
Percentage of Decisions
Determination of curriculum, including needs assessment and curriculum development.*
Assignment of all instructional and non-instructional staff time.*
Assignment of students to classes and programs within the school.*
Determination of the schedule of the school day and week.
Determination of use of school space during the school day.*
Planning and resolution of issues regarding instructional practices.*
Selection and implementation of discipline and classroom management techniques.*
Selection of extracurricular programs and determination of policies relating to student participation.*
Procedures, consistent with local school board policy, for determining alignment with state standards.*
Procedures, consistent with local school policy for technology utilization.*
Procedures, consistent with local school board policy for program appraisal.*
*These categories are mandated by Kentucky state law.
**These categories are not mandated pursuant to Kentucky state law.
Source: Klecker et al., 2000, p. 655
As can be seen in Table 1 above, the largest category of decisions that were made by SBDM councils in Kentucky in the Klecker et al. study involved budget decisions, procedural decisions and personnel consultations, three areas that are not mandated by state law, a finding that the authors attributed to the relatively high turnover in council members that prevented the decision-making bodies from maturing to the point where they felt comfortable and qualified to make decisions in the nine mandated areas. Other salient findings that emerged from this study included the following:
1. The majority of members of the councils were relatively inexperienced as council members. Ninety-seven percent of the parents, 90% of the teachers, and 55% of…