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Site-Based Management: Boon or Boondoggle?

Site-based management is great -- when it works! Today, Education World looks at research on SBM. We talk with a prominent superintendent who leads a large school system in which site-based management has garnered accolades. Learn what that superintendent has to say about making SBM work!

Site-based management (SBM), or school-based management, as it's sometimes called, has been hailed as the greatest invention since sliced bread and condemned as a prescription for disaster. Definitions of SBM vary as much as opinions about it, but all definitions emphasize delegating authority to the school instead of the central office, a shared decision-making model engaging various stakeholders and facilitative rather than directive leadership.

"School-based decision making in our district is an approach that focuses on decisions being made closest to where programming is provided for students, at the school level," Dr. Emery Dosdall, superintendent of the Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada, told Education World.

At the heart of the debate about the effectiveness of SBM is the question of whether the approach improves student achievement. "We know that there is no silver bullet. There is no single solution to improving student achievement," Dosdall said. "School-based decision making provides us with a useful framework to respond directly to the unique needs of each school's student population."

Dosdall began as superintendent of schools in Edmonton five years ago, when SBM had been implemented in the district for nearly 20 years. "I have been able to focus school-based decision making more directly on the goal of improving student achievement," he explained. "Within this focus, principals play a fundamentally critical role. They provide leadership in schools and work closely with school staffs and in consultation with parents, students, and the community...."

Dosdall went on to point out documented improvements in student achievement in the Edmonton school district. "Results from the 1998-1999 administration of district achievement tests tell us that a higher percentage of students in the district are reading at or above grade level in almost all grade levels [than before]. Our provincial achievement test results are also showing improvements at almost all grade levels." (A Canadian province is in many ways comparable to a U.S. state.)

In 2000, the Edmonton school system had 80,368 students. All 206 principals in the district report directly to Dosdall. "A significant majority of students, parents, and community members are satisfied with the quality of education provided by the Edmonton Public Schools," according to the ASCD Education Bulletin of March 26,1999.


The philosophy supporting site-based management has its roots in industry and business. In the last half of the 20th century, an industrial model touting the benefits of empowering factory workers to change their work roles gained widespread celebrity and credibility. Spurred by the economic success and high quality achieved by Japanese car manufacturers that gave factory workers greater latitude to manage their own teams, a number of U.S. factories and businesses gave employees a greater role in decision making in their jobs. Business gurus such as author Tom Peters praised the results of these experiments in white-collar and blue-collar environments.

When the industrial and, later, business model was transplanted into school systems, the approach was named site-based, or school-based, management. One researcher found that between 1986 and 1990, approximately one-third of all school districts in the United States had adopted some form of the SBM process. Since that time, according to indicators, many more districts have implemented the approach. At least five states -- Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas -- have legislated some type of participatory decision making at each school. Such large school districts as Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Rochester (N.Y.) have moved in the direction of site-based management. Although SBM seems to have flowered in some venues, such as Edmonton and in the Minneapolis Public Schools, in others it has withered for lack of nourishment or run wild when left untended.

For additional information about site-based management in Minneapolis schools, type site-based management into the school system's search engine. One such resource is Site-Based Management in Minneapolis Public Schools. Adobe Acrobat is required to read this particular document, but not all site-based management resources on the MPS Web site need the reader.


Site-based management works when a school district puts in place "a clearly articulated vision" and "through the work of administrators and teachers who have adequate time and training to implement the process fully," concludes an April 2000 Educational Leadership article, The Promise and Pitfalls of Site-Based Management. Much of the research done on how well site-based management works has determined that for the approach to be effective, a school system must earmark sufficient time not only for the initial learning of such skills as decision making but also for the ongoing meetings of all stakeholders to achieve productive decision making by consensus rather than fiat.

Schools where SBM works well and schools that struggle with it have distinct differences in approaches. The research article "Making School-Based Management Work," from Educational Leadership, February 1995, cites the following hallmarks of successful site-based management:

  • Decision-makers at the school site champion and implement changes that transform teaching and learning.
  • Power over budget, staffing, and curriculum is in the hands of site-based decision-makers.
  • Power sharing pervades the school and its decision-making group(s).
  • Professional development is continuous and schoolwide.
  • All information is widely and thoroughly distributed throughout the school and community. Many schools and districts employing SBM use Web sites chock full of information and news conveying just about anything anyone would ever want to know about them.
  • The principal is able to simultaneously lead and share power and responsibility.


School systems often fail to implement SBM completely or even consider fully how best to make the change from an approach with more-centralized power to a decentralized modus operandi. That conclusion comes from the study "An Analysis of the Relationships between Site Council Resources, Council Practices, and Outcomes" (S. Bauer and I. Bogotch, 1997). The researchers arrived at or suggested the following conclusions in their study:

  • Site-based teams in many districts set their own parameters for operation; often the limits of their autonomy were unclear.
  • Leaving the issue of autonomy and its limits unclear may hamper a team's effectiveness.
  • Principals need to stop telling others what to do and instead help people develop the skills to become self-directing.
  • Accountability often stays with the superintendent and principals involved in SBM, when it should devolve to the entire decision-making group, typically composed of teachers, parents, and other community representatives.
  • Decision-making groups too often become mired in power and housekeeping matters.


Dosdall can cite nitty-gritty facts that echo the above research. "The district's priorities, planning, and budgeting process ... reflect the focus on school-based decision making," he explained. "For example, for 2000-2001, the district has planned an expenditure of $500.4 million. Ninety-two percent of available dollars is planned directly by the schools, with input from staff, students, parents, and the community.

"Each school receives an allocation of dollars with which to plan numbers of staff as well as the supplies, equipment, and services the staff needs to provide the best possible programs for all students. The allocation is based primarily on the number and categories of the students enrolled in the school. The remaining 8 percent of the district's budget relates to board and central services. This includes 3.5 percent for governance and administration, 3 percent for instruction or instructional support, 0.5 percent for operations and maintenance, 0.5 percent for capital projects, and 0.5 percent for external services."

Perhaps the high percentage of funds allocated for teachers, learning tools, and services as opposed to "overhead" in the Edmonton Public Schools stems partly from the district's commitment to site-based management.

If the Edmonton Public Schools' experience teaches a lesson about site-based management, it may well be that the approach is time-consuming and not easy to implement but, when done right, well worth the work.


  • Site-Based Decision-Making An online book, written by Jamie McKenzie, spotlights such aspects of SBM as "The Perils," "Appraisal: Assessing Organizational Readiness," "Recruitment: Identifying a Positive Campus Council," and "Invention: Adapting and Innovating to Match the School Site Context and Reality."
  • School-Based Management An Education Week summary of what SBM is and where it flourishes, the article also contains several links to significant resources on the topic.
  • Assessment of School-Based Management The Department of Education produced this take on SBM and its ramifications. The report includes a section on how schools make site-based management work.

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Article by Sharon Cromwell
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