Harvard Educational Review
  1. Fall 1996 Issue »


    The Editorial Board welcomes comments on articles, reviews, and letters that have appeared in the Harvard Educational Review. Letters from readers will be published, or printed in part, at the Editors' discretion. Authors of the articles under discussion are invited to respond.

    There Is More Than One Model of Shared Decisionmaking: A Response to Weiss

    To the Editors:

    Carol Weiss's article on "The Four `I's' of School Reform" in the Winter 1995 issue of the Harvard Educational Review is extremely useful, and I recommend it highly for anyone trying to use school-based management and shared decisionmaking (SBM/ SDM) as elements of school reform. The article demonstrates powerfully how the four "I's" — interests, ideology, information, and institution — affect teachers' and principals' participation in restructuring efforts, and any chance they might have for improving schools and enhancing children's learning. She shows how failure to understand these four "I's" can result in both frustration and failure, and urges reformers to "craft policies that take these factors into account" (p. 589) if they want success in reforming schools.

    All of this is very valuable and valid. In my opinion, however, there is a major problem with the article. Although it announces that its aim is "to spell out the latent assumptions underlying" (p. 572) such reforms as SBM and SDM (she calls them "venue-changing reforms"), it only deals with SDM — shared decisionmaking — and even there gives the impression that there is only one model and rationale for SDM — namely one in which the "decisionmaking authority" is shifted from principals to teachers on the grounds that teachers "know the students better than the administrators" and have more interest in student achievement and creative ways to improve it (p. 572).

    The article analyzes six schools that tried SDM, and concludes that this kind of reform is highly problematic: The teachers were not interested in much change, not much change actually occurred, and where it did occur it usually came from the leadership of the principal, who was often more hindered than helped by the involvement of teachers in the decisionmaking process. The overall message seems to be that shared decisionmaking is a seriously flawed reform in which interest flags, frustration sets in, and the whole process bogs down and heads toward failure (see also Weiss & Cambone, 1994).

    Weiss is no doubt correct that many schools undertake this model of SDM. In fact, many do so with less rationale than the schools described in her study. These days, SDM is often implemented in response to state, district, or union contract mandates even without the support of the principals, which was generally present in the schools in Weiss's study. And she is no doubt right that proceeding with this model is likely to result in frustration and failure.

    But this is not the only model of SDM, nor the only model of SBM/SDM, in which shared decisionmaking is combined with delegation of more decisionmaking to the school level. Like many reform slogans, SBM and SDM have many different definitions and conceptualizations. In Weiss's article, SBM and SDM are conceived of primarily as governance reforms, dealing only with shifting "decisionmaking authority" from the district to the school, and/or from principals to teachers. But SBM and SDM can also be elements of a transformational reform, which starts with the premise that their purpose is to enhance greatly student engagement and learning. In a transformational context, participatory school-based teams are not committees of teachers running the school instead of the principal or superintendent, but vehicles for changing the bureaucratic culture of the school to one of high commitment and collaboration, and building partnerships of home, school, and community to work together to support much higher levels of student learning and character development.

    This transformational model calls for a high degree of leadership from the principal, but leadership of a different kind from that in the bureaucratic model presented by Weiss. It calls for leadership in developing a shared sense of purpose and teamwork for carrying out this purpose, rather than "command and control" leadership. It also requires extensive training and orientation for all participants to prepare them for the new roles, relationships, and practices needed to attain ambitious and shared goals for higher student achievement. In short, the transformational model requires what is now being called "systemic reform" (at least under some definitions of this term), with many elements working together at the levels of classroom, school, district, community, and (where possible) state to bring about the needed transformation.

    This is the model of SBM/SDM that I arrived at in Education Through Partnership after analyzing many past school reform failures (1981; see also Seeley, 1984, 1985, and 1986, and Seeley, Niemeyer & Greenspan, 1990). This model is also in operation in many Comer, Accelerated, and Essential schools, as well as many individual schools that have taken the trouble to think through what might actually work, instead of just embracing the latest fad or half-baked theory, or complying with the latest state or district mandate.

    All of the rich experience reported in Weiss's valuable research of her six schools seems to point to the superiority of this conception of SBM/SDM. Indeed, at the end of her article Weiss concludes that "unless the institution is changed, . . . reform is likely to pall under adverse conditions and the old ways will reassert themselves" (p. 589). But Weiss confines her article's focus to a very limited definition of SDM, which in my view is seriously flawed: a shift only in terms of who makes the "decisions," in which teachers are the new decisionmakers and students, parents, and the rest of the educational community are largely excluded. In this respect, Weiss gives the impression that reforms like SBM and SDM are a bad idea, and as a result I think the article does what I am sure is an unintentional disservice to the cause of school reform.

    In an earlier article reporting on research in these same six high schools, Weiss (1993) made it clearer that teacher empowerment should be only "one strand of a larger reform effort," and that SDM "is not enough. On its own, SDM is simply a set of arrangements for teacher participation, a process without a direction" (p. 87). In another article growing out of the same research, Weiss (1992) also hinted at a different conception of SDM by suggesting that SDM-related conflicts between teachers and administrators could be more easily resolved "if they were clear about why they were getting involved in collective decision making in the first place," and if the school had "a clear philosophy and shared understandings of mission" that could provide "a common ground on which to negotiate differences" (p. 364).

    While these articles are very useful in describing the many difficulties and conflicts that can arise under SDM, they are also, nevertheless, marred by overgeneralizations based on a definition of SDM that is too narrow, such as "the failure of SDM to live up to its hype," and that SDM "looks like an OK deal for teachers, but perhaps not a great one for students" (1992, pp. 86, 90). Furthermore, these articles again fail to inform the reader that there are other conceptions of shared decisionmaking and school-based management, such as the kind of goal-oriented partnership approach practiced in many Accelerated, Comer, and Essential schools. These alternative models might also be able to explain the "paradox" Weiss sees in reforms that advocate both the "top down" aspect of requiring high academic expectations for all students and the "bottom up" reforms of participatory school-based decisionmaking (1993, p. 87).

    Different conceptions of SBM and SDM must be considered; no doubt, some models are more likely to succeed than others. So long as this is kept in mind, Weiss's research can be very useful in stimulating discussions about how to take the four "I's" of interests, ideologies, information, and institution into account in planning and implementing successful use of SBM/SDM or collaborative school-based planning.
    City University of New York/College of Staten Island

    Seeley, D. (1981). Education through partnership. Boston: Ballinger.

    Seeley, D. (1984). Educational partnership and the dilemmas of school reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 65, 383–388.

    Seeley, D. (1985). Seymour Sarason and the problem of school change. Harvard Educational Review, 55, 342–353.

    Seeley, D. (1986). Partnership's time has come. Educational Leadership, 44(1), 82–85.

    Seeley, D., Niemeyer, J., & Greenspan, R. (1990). Principals speak report no. 1: Restructuring schools and school leadership. New York: City University of New York Research Foundation, Principals Speak Project.

    Weiss, C. (1992). Trouble in paradise: Teacher conflicts in shared decision making. Educational Administration Quarterly, 28, 350–367.

    Weiss, C. (1993). Shared decision making about what? A comparison of schools with and without teacher participation. Teachers College Record, 95, 69–92.

    Weiss, C., & Cambone, J. (1994). Principals, shared decision making, and school reform. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 16, 287–301.

    Weiss Responds to Seeley

    I am pleased that Dr. Seeley found so much to praise in my article. He complains, however, that my model of shared decisionmaking (SDM) is too narrow and that it fails to subsume the more ambitious transformational reform he advocates. I agree with him that a more ambitious and inclusive version of shared decisionmaking would be highly desirable. My hunch, like his, is that SDM (and school-based management) would stand a better chance of making a difference in classrooms if it placed student learning at the center of its vision and surrounded it with high commitment, energetic collaboration, and partnerships among home, school, and community.

    Shared decisionmaking of that type was what we looked for when we chose sites for our study. We made many inquiries about successful sites and, on the basis of available evidence, we chose six school districts that were reputed to have long-term effective experience with SDM. The characteristics of SDM that we reported were the characteristics that we found in high schools in those districts. Despite their sometimes elegant rhetoric, much like the words that Dr. Seeley uses, the schools looked the way I described.

    I didn't invent the definition of SDM that is discussed in my article. What I reported was the definition that we found in practice. I hope, as Dr. Seeley does, that there are examples of school-based management and shared decisionmaking out in the world that are full of earnest commitment and knowledgeable action to advance students' academic performance and character development, where teachers and administrators fully cooperate, energy does not flag, and disputes do not disrupt progress. We didn't find them. I wish we had. But as Dorothy found, even Oz didn't quite turn out to be Oz.
    Harvard Graduate School of Education Banathy Should Not Be Lumped Together with "Third Wave Restructuralists": A Response to Goodman
    To the Editor:

    In response to Jesse Goodman's "Change Without Difference: School Restructuring in Historical Perspective" (HER, Spring 1995), it is hard for me to believe that Goodman has taken the time to read and understand Bela Banathy's books on systems design of education. Banathy is grouped with many others under the label "third wave restructuralists," but his approach is different from that of any other leader in educational research and development. Goodman notes correctly that some restructuralists focus on systems analysis approaches borrowed from business, but he makes some presumptions about Banathy's approach that are simply wrong. Goodman states:

    Once again teachers are being told that they need the knowledge and services of self-proclaimed experts in the fields of educational technology, systems theory and design, instructional development, and even the change process itself. For example, Bela Banathy, a leading proponent of third wave school restructuring, states, "Some reformers are now calling for a radical redesign and transformation of education. It seems, however, that most of those who call for redesign do not know how to go about it." Banathy goes on to assert that in order to transform schools it is necessary to be thoroughly knowledgeable about systems theory and design. The implications of the ideas of Banathy and others engaged in similar work is that the only way schools can be transformed is if they follow the complex labyrinth of models and procedures for school change that have been generated by these systems design experts. Unfortunately, the massive amount and intricacies of this systems information, which is often vague and contradictory in nature, would easily overwhelm those who are unfamiliar with the subject and have little time to study it (p. 21).

    First of all, Banathy would probably not want his name associated with the term "restructuring"; he tends to say things like "one cannot restructure a horse and buggy into a spacecraft" (Banathy, 1991, p. 33). Instead, he suggests, we should figure out how to bring about transformation through a multi-stage process of identifying our core ideas and values without the constraints of the old model, utilizing these to elaborate an ideal vision of education into an image, and then using these images as a strong platform for designing new systems of education. The design process is one that entire communities need to undergo if they are to alter meaningfully the boundaries, functions, structures, and processes of an entire social system (i.e., education).

    The design process is not easy. However, contrary to Goodman's assertion, the process of systems design of education as advocated by Banathy is not an arcane and impossibly intricate set of models and procedures. Nor is it something that has trickled down from the world of business management. In fact, a group in Idaho that includes educators and non-educators alike is working on a project to encourage and enable entire communities — adults and children, educators and non-educators — to go through the journey of designing education anew utilizing Banathy's model of systems design, a unique "image workbook" of our own design, and tools for participatory democracy.

    Design inquiry is indeed a disciplined inquiry. After all, this kind of endeavor calls for something more than a review of documents on reform, a few public hearings, and some brainstorming sessions. We are talking about a complex system that is deeply embedded in surrounding social systems, and we are talking about a great deal of information to integrate and utilize in the wisest manner. If the "massive amount of systems information" is indeed vague, contradictory, and overwhelming, as Goodman suggests, it is partly because broad-based participation, reflection, and design have not taken place. Most educational change agents have yet to recognize the need to establish such a change process before they decide what to change and proceed to undertake change. This is the role that systems design of education can serve. How else can one build a successful transitional bridge between an existing education system and a permanently learning and evolving one that has been conceptualized from scratch, one that could replace "school" with a "learning community"?

    I believe that Banathy would agree that there are no expert "knowers" in this territory, only expert learners. This is what I feel systems design of education is truly about: All stakeholders, whether ten or seventy years old, students or teachers, parents or business people, administrators or legislators, becoming expert learners. I hope that more people concerned with the future of education or even society in general can appreciate and benefit from Banathy's unique contribution to the field.
    Designing Idaho Education for Tomorrow,
    a project of the Idaho Systems Institute
    e-mail: idahomat@micron.net

    Banathy, B. (1991). You can't restructure a horse-and-buggy into a spacecraft. Educational Technology, 31(3), 33.
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    Fall 1996 Issue


    (Li)Ability Grouping
    The New Susceptibility of School Tracking Systems to Legal Challenges
    By Kevin G. Welner and Jeannie Oakes
    Cultural Constellations and Childhood Identities
    On Greek Gods, Cartoon Heroes, and the Social Lives of Schoolchildren
    By Anne Haas Dyson
    Teacher-Researcher Collaboration from Two Perspectives
    By Polly Ulichny and Wendy Schoener
    Troubling Clarity: The Politics of Accessible Language
    By Patti Lather
    "How Come There Are No Brothers on That List?"
    Hearing the Hard Questions All Children Ask
    Kathe Jervis
    Multiple Discourses, Multiple Identities
    Investment and Agency in Second-Language Learning among Chinese Adolescent Immigrant Students
    By Sandra Lee McKay and Sau-Ling Cynthia Wong
    Dominance Concealed through Diversity
    Implications of Inadequate Perspectives on Cultural Pluralism
    By Dwight Boyd

    Book Notes

    The Chicano/Hispanic Image in American Film
    by Frank Javier Garcia Berumen

    Contending with Modernity
    By Philip Gleason

    Computer Programs for Qualitative Data Analysis
    By Eben A. Weitzman and Matthew B. Miles

    The Male Survivor
    By Matthew Parynik Mendel

    In Over Our Heads
    By Robert Kegan

    Technology Education in the Classroom
    By Senta A. Raizen, Peter Sellwood, Ronald D. Todd, and Margaret Vickers

    By Louisa Cook Moats

    A Sense of Self
    By Susannah Sheffer

    An Independent Scholar in Twentieth Century America
    By Vaughn Davis Bornet

    The Deluxe Transitive Vampire
    By Karen Elizabeth Gordon

    Inside the Writing Portfolio
    By Carol Brennan Jenkins

    Edited by Emily Cousins and Melissa Rodgers

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.