The Limits of Shared Decision-Making. ERIC Digest.
by Lashway, Larry
In the 1980s, a startling vision of education's future began appearing
in reform proposals: schools run by committees of teachers, without an
administrator in sight. While few practitioners (including teachers) considered
that a serious goal, most agreed that teachers deserved to play a greater
role in school governance. Since then, shared decision-making (SDM) has
become a significant part of school-reform efforts.
In SDM, teachers are key players in determining school policies and
practices. The rationale is simple: those who are closest to student learning
are best equipped to make educational decisions.
Advocates say SDM will improve student learning, create teacher satisfaction,
and develop new forms of leadership. Does it deliver on these promises?
While it is premature to make definitive judgments, early studies suggest
that enthusiasm should be tempered by realism.
WHAT ARE THE PREDICTED EFFECTS OF SDM?
Lynn Liontos (1994) emphasizes that the primary purpose of SDM is to
improve teaching and learning. Since students learn in classrooms, not
board rooms, teachers should be deeply involved in the decision-making
process. Having a practical understanding of classroom complexities, teachers
will presumably focus on programs that improve achievement.
A second predicted outcome is increased job satisfaction. Involvement
in decision-making will create ownership, commitment, and a sense of empowerment,
as collaboration leads to new roles and relationships. At its best, SDM
should promote equality and make the school a more democratic workplace
(Joseph Blase and colleagues 1995).
A third prediction is that SDM will create new forms of leadership.
Not only will teachers be brought into the process, but principals will
devise new strategies based on facilitation and trust rather than hierarchical
authority. "Letting go" will be a major administrative priority (Liontos).
HOW DOES SDM AFFECT TEACHING AND LEARNING?
So far there is little consistent evidence that SDM increases student
achievement (Edward Miller 1995). While it may be too early to expect dramatic
results, some researchers contend that SDM efforts seldom address the "core
issues" of teaching and learning.
Studies of SDM frequently mention a tendency to focus on "trivial" issues
such as parking, bus supervision, and smoking in faculty lounges (Liontos).
Gary Griffin (1995) found that while teachers willingly tackled schoolwide
issues such as curriculum frameworks, they seldom examined daily classroom
Carol Weiss (1995) discovered that SDM schools sometimes launched significant
reforms but that the push for innovation usually came from the principal
against the opposition of many teachers. Teacher participation "acted as
a brake on the pace of school reform."
Faced with these negative findings, researchers speculate that traditional
school culture may simply overpower SDM. New roles and relationships are
ambiguous, time-consuming, and often uncomfortable. SDM may be regarded
skeptically as just another passing fad, giving teachers little reason
to transfer their allegiance to the new way of doing things (Weiss 1995).
Griffin notes that teaching is a "culture of isolation," in which practitioners
use their own professional judgment to make key instructional decisions
in the privacy of their classrooms. The teachers he interviewed believed
their own methods were effective and took a "live and let live" attitude
toward the practices of colleagues.
Weiss (1993) suggests that teachers' caution may be justified. Experience
has taught them to be wary of high-sounding "Ed School ideas" that they
will be expected to translate into practice, often without help from the
HOW DOES SDM AFFECT TEACHER SATISFACTION?
As expected, teachers are pleased when their views influence school
decisions, leading them to feel both respected and empowered. Collaborative
efforts are often taken seriously, and decisions are more likely to be
supported (Griffin; Weiss 1993).
However, Weiss and colleagues (1992) found that SDM often created conflict
among teachers. Disagreements that could formerly be politely ignored now
had to be resolved; the balance of power sometimes shifted, with enthusiastic
rookies having as much influence as veteran teachers; and time and energy
were drained by the need to learn a new way of doing things.
It may take several difficult years before participants learn to work
with the new approach, and the learning curve is not smooth. Weiss (1993)
says her team did not see "linear progression" in the SDM schools they
studied. "Everywhere there were ups and downs, movement and relapse, optimism
and disenchantment....SDM is not a process that, once introduced, necessarily
matures and flowers."
HOW DO PRINCIPALS LEAD SDM EFFORTS?
In theory, SDM calls for new modes of leadership: teachers lend their
expertise, and principals become facilitators rather than directors. In
practice, the new behaviors can be elusive.
Participants often tend to shape their new roles with old assumptions.
For example, Angela Spaulding (1994) studied one principal who was consciously
manipulating the process to move it in the direction he wanted by planting
ideas, pressuring opponents, and showing favoritism to supporters. This
principal characterized his approach as "going through the motions" of
SDM, but he still saw himself as the source of decisions.
Even when principals are committed to SDM, they still have a special
accountability that makes it difficult to be consistently facilitative.
Blase and colleagues found that some enthusiastic supporters of SDM took
a more directive approach at key moments, exercising vetoes when decisions
by teachers threatened to harm students.
Nona Prestine (1993) uncovered another leadership dilemma. If principals
don't play an active, visible role in SDM, teachers may fail to take it
seriously; yet participation that is too vigorous may convince teachers
that the principal is still in charge.
In short, SDM seems to be a complex process that does not lead to simple
WHAT LESSONS HAVE WE LEARNED ABOUT SDM?
Research and practical wisdom make it clear that SDM is not easy for
anyone; teachers and principals do not painlessly reinvent themselves overnight.
Schools using SDM should be prepared for a long-term process requiring
considerable training. Principals who have had success with SDM consciously
strive to develop effective decision-making skills and structures (Kent
Peterson and colleagues 1995).
It is also evident that while teachers may be closest to the classroom,
they do not automatically zero in on substantive instructional issues.
Because the reasons appear to be rooted in the overall culture of schools,
steering the discussion to productive agendas is not a simple task. However,
some schools have achieved good results by beginning with an explicit discussion
of the school's mission and vision for the future (Weiss and colleagues;
Peterson and colleagues).
Finally, principals may need to exercise both facilitative and directive
skills. "Letting go" is important, but there are also times when principals
must act more assertively to keep the effort on track. Knowing when to
"switch hats" from one leadership mode to the other is a key skill.
These difficulties do not mean that SDM has failed, just that major
cultural changes don't happen overnight. Weiss and colleagues note, "In
the schools we studied, people complained a good deal about the aches and
strains of shared decision-making, but only one or two people said that
they wanted to go back to the way things were in the past and even they
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