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Shared Decision Making about What? A Comparison of Schools with and without Teacher Participation

by Carol Weiss - 1993

Despite the failure of SDM to live up to its hype, there is something intrinsically appealing about the notion that school administration derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, at least the adult governed. At a time when industry has moved toward greater worker participation in management, it seems only fair that teachers, too, have a say in conditions that affect their work lives.

One of the attractive reforms in what is broadly, if vaguely, called the "restructuring movement" is the inclusion of teachers in the processes of school-wide decision making. Structures for shared decision making give teachers a voice in what had largely been principal-made decisions. This article examines some of the consequences of teacher participation in six high schools that have adopted participatory structures and compares their experience with six high schools with traditional administrative structures.

Shared decision making, as we use the term, is a formal system for the representation of teachers in a decision-making body. In the restructured schools we studied, it was introduced in a variety of ways -- through the initiative of a reformist principal, through directives from the school board or superintendent (sometimes with agreement from the teachers union), or through adoption of a wider reform that also involved parents and community members in school decision making. In all the schools, good-faith efforts were being made to see that the system worked; we found no cases of foot-dragging or sabotage of the shift in authority.

Many rationales have been offered for including teachers in school decision processes. In fact, the justificatory baggage is so eclectic that shared decision making (SDM) begins to seem like an all-purpose solution to a host of different and unrelated problems. Three constellations of reasons have been offered in support of SDM.

Improved school performance

Advocates claim that SDM will yield better policies. Because teachers have detailed, variegated knowledge about students and curriculum, decisions in which they participate will be grounded in intimate understanding of context -- and will thus be wiser.(n1)

Given the areas of teacher expertise, decisions under SDM will focus on teaching, learning, and student issues. Unlike administrators, who devote serious time to bureaucratic concerns, paperwork, and managerial routines, teachers can be expected to point the decision-making apparatus at things that matter to student performance.(n2)

SDM will unleash teacher creativity. Given a voice, teachers will supply fresh ideas and innovative proposals. They may help to revolutionize teaching itself, devising practices that encourage "teaching for understanding," critical thinking, and higher-order knowledge.(n3)

Teacher professionalism

Advocates claim that SDM treats teachers as professionals who are in charge of their own practice. It signals to teachers, parents, and the community that teachers, as professionals, are worthy of regard and respect. It heightens their sense of vocation and improves their morale.(n4)

SDM gives teachers a say about their work conditions. It enables them to identify problems that interfere with teaching and design appropriate solutions. (n5)

Because they share in decision making, teachers become committed to the decisions that are made. They gain a sense of ownership of decisions and are more likely to carry them out. They also can be held accountable for what the school does and does not do.(n6)

The symbolism of participation

SDM represents democracy in action. Irrespective of its outcomes, it gives those affected by a decision a say in the making of decisions and reduces power differentials in the educational system. It is intrinsically fair, and it provides a model to students of what democracy is all about.(n7)

But symbolism can operate in negative ways as well. SDM may give teachers merely a semblance of authority while real authority remains securely anchored in the principal's office or the district headquarters. It can be a gambit of smoke and mirrors, used simply to make teachers feel good. Or it can be an inexpensive means to deflect demands for school reform, a cheap way to show that the system is "doing something," without in effect doing much of anything.(n8)

SDM might even be inspired by more Machiavellian scripts. Some see it as a response to community criticism, a way to spread the blame for schools' poor performance by putting teachers' heads beside administrators' heads on the chopping block. Others wonder if it is not designed to bog teachers down in time-consuming committees and endless quests for "vision statements," so that they do not challenge the powers-that-be. There is even some concern that, by giving teachers increased control over their work life, SDM may be a way to undermine teachers' unions.

Without much evidence pro or con, SDM has become a rallying cry in the current reform movement, and it is being adopted by -- or imposed on -- schools all over the country. Therefore, it is useful to see which of the claims stand up under empirical review.


Here I look at two of the claims about improved school performance:

1. That shared decision making focuses attention on issues of student performance. Because teachers have a central role in decision making, it is expected that they will direct school attention less to administrative procedures and controls and more to curriculum, teaching, and students.

2. That the decisions that SDM bodies come up with are innovative and progressive. It is expected that when teachers have an opportunity to move out from under the rules and regulations of the bureaucratic apparatus and call on their own knowledge and creativity, they will craft forward-looking decisions.

We test the claims with data from a longitudinal study of twelve high schools in eleven states, from Maine to Florida, Texas to Washington state. Half the schools had implemented structures for teacher participation in school decisions, and half were run in traditional principal-led style. We interviewed administrators, teachers, and other school staff such as guidance counselors and librarians. Each interview consisted of a structured set of open-ended questions and asked about leadership in the school. Questions centered on one decision that the respondent had been involved with and the way in which the decision played out from start to finish (if there was a finish). We followed the schools for an average of seventeen months each.(n9) In all, we completed 193 interviews over a period of two and one-half years.


Since this is not a mystery story, let me give a brief summary of our conclusions. Over all, the evidence does not support either hypothesis, that SDM focuses attention on curriculum and students or that SDM leads to innovation and creative change. But the picture is more complicated and more interesting than this single sentence can suggest, so read on.


Table 1 shows the subject matter of the one main decision that each respondent discussed in the interview (N= 191).(n10) Two respondents did not name a specific issue and are excluded.

When we compare schools with and without SDM, we find two main differences in the issues they addressed. SDM schools were involved in decisions about the decision process itself. Seventeen percent of respondents mentioned an issue dealing with the decision-making process, compared with 3 percent of respondents in traditionally run schools. Since most SDM schools were still in relatively early stages of adopting SDM, they were devoting energy to getting the machinery organized and running. In one school that had adopted a highly publicized SDM process, half of all respondents on the first wave of interviews discussed issues relating to operation of the process. Even after three or four years of SDM, a train of subdecisions often had to be made about functions, procedures, and allocation of responsibilities. One school in our sample had been operating under collective decision making for thirteen years, and even there, three respondents described issues that hinged on the overlapping jurisdictions of two SDM bodies.

An example of a response that had to do with governance: The major program that has been put into effect was . . . school-based management.... It was voted upon by faculty members, whether or not they wanted to be part of this program.... The main thing it's taken is the commitment of faculty to give a great deal of extra time. [A42-1FL](n11)

In reference to governance in another school, a respondent spoke about the difficulty of getting teachers to work together on school decisions. She said:

We started our school-based planning.... And one of the first tasks that we had was to begin to get the faculty to pull together as a unit because we were so divided in various groups that no one seemed to get along with anyone else.... [T]he teachers at the beginning did not believe that they could make decisions and they did not believe that they would have much of any input in it. So it took a lot of preliminary groundwork, meeting in a lot of committees, because one of the biggest problems was knowing where to go with our decisionmaking. [T44-15WA]

Responses that mentioned allocation of funds can also be subsumed under the rubric of governance, because most of these responses had to do with deciding where money was to be spent. Thus, one department head said:

Basically your department heads sitting down and saying, "We've got X dollars; now what do we do with it?" And of course you would expect every department head to figure that they deserved the lion's share. [D42-13FL]

When we include budgeting with governance, 23 percent of respondents in SDM schools mentioned governance, compared with 5 percent of respondents in traditionally managed schools.

Another big difference was the higher salience of discipline in traditionally run schools. Twenty-eight percent of the respondents in traditional schools brought up an issue relating to tardiness, absences, dress code, or discipline. In contrast, only 7 percent of respondents in SDM schools raised issues about discipline.

Among the concerns that people in non-SDM schools raised were these:

An issue was the dress code, and that was successful. And I have to attribute that to our principal; he did a fabulous job with that. Our boys [now] have short hair, to their collar, no earrings.... Some teachers kept saying, "What does that have to do with learning?" I feel that it has a lot to do with it, because I believe that it's an attitude problem. [T46-12TX]

An administrator in another traditional school talked about school safety. The school's decision was to establish "ten security stations" in the building [A43-11 IL]. A teacher in another school identified the main issue as student tardiness to class. She said that the solution arrived at was "morning detention" [D39-11VA].

The fact that non-SDM schools are much more likely to dwell on discipline issues than are SDM schools might suggest that SDM schools have a better relationship with students. However, before leaping to such a conclusion, note that three of the traditionally managed schools had student populations that were almost exclusively youngsters of color from poor or working-class backgrounds, and they accounted for fifteen of the twenty-four references to discipline. Schools with substantial minority populations, especially in low-income areas, may feel a need to maintain order and stability within the building. Such a belief may give rise both to managerial control held tightly in the principal's office and to a search for firm rules and strong enforcement of codes for student behavior. To look at the data another way, three of the four schools that stressed discipline (not all the same schools as in the previous sentences) were in the southern part of the United States, and southern schools accounted for sixteen of the twenty-four mentions. It may be that southern traditions, irrespective of race, place an emphasis on seemly behavior, courtesy, and respect for persons in authority. Southern norms may lead to the frequency of decisions about disciplinary issues in the school.(n12)

There were occasional references to discipline in SDM schools as well. Still, a major difference between SDM and non-SDM schools, whatever the reason, is much more frequent attention to issues of discipline in schools where teachers do not share in decision making.


On issues related to curriculum, we find almost an equal percentage of mentions in the two categories of schools. Thirty-four percent of respondents in SDM schools and 36 percent of respondents in traditionally managed schools described decisions regarding curriculum, such as revision of courses, new programs, and changes in the schedule of periods in the school day. People in all six SDM schools and all six traditionally run schools chose curriculum as the decision to talk about.

Many of the curricular decisions, in both types of schools, were modest in scope. For example, a teacher in an SDM school talked about aligning Advanced Placement (AP) history and English curricula. American history was being taught in the same semester as world literature, and European history in the semester with American literature, and the AP teachers wanted to "flip flop." "Whether we'll be able to do that or not I don't know" [T29-6CO].

In a traditionally run school, a math teacher discussed the introduction of an honors program:

[The principal] did give the outline of the [honors] program to the teachers at a faculty meeting, went over it, asked us to make comments, have any input.... So the teachers did participate in the final stages.... I would say the principal, superintendent, school board were actually ones that made the decisions. [T38-50K]

Some decisions in both types of school were also more far-reaching than these. Respondents talked about efforts to institute interdisciplinary courses, team teaching, block scheduling, cooperative learning, assessment through portfolios, and many of the reforms in good currency. In several cases, the school had received an external grant to institute a change in curriculum. Here are two accounts about the introduction of interdisciplinary teaching, one from an SDM school and one from a traditionally managed school. A department head in the SDM school describes the issue:

It's the integration of the curriculum, integration of academic disciplines. English/social studies, science/social studies, science/English, math/science, art/music/social studies.... The administration is very enthused about this idea and has been for some time. There is also some enthusiasm on the faculty side in certain little centers. I think generally there's indifference from the faculty about it.... It started a couple of years ago really, with the coming of the [state grant], with the coming of the new principal.... She saw the departmentalization of the building as a real block to learning, and she wanted students to be able to carry over concepts, skill, subject matter, from one period to the next, one class to the next, all day long. We just sort of sat there.... The faculty has never actually, as a group, sat down and said yes, we want to do this. Well, they did--they did actually take a vote saying they wanted to do it, but--how do I describe it?-it was a vote that was essentially meaningless. [D44-2WA]

The big shift that the principal envisioned has dwindled down to a few isolated changes. The respondent explained that the principal was pushing other reforms as well, and she had to cope with serious problems relating to drugs and gangs, which "sapped a lot of her energy." What has actually changed in practice is that three pairs of teachers are developing collaborative courses. The principal is very receptive to their plans, but no integrated courses have yet made it into the schedule.

The department head's comments vacillate from supportive to skeptical about the change in curriculum. He seems to think that the ideas are worthwhile, but he is conscious of the blockages in the system. Among other things, much of the faculty is middle-aged or older ("you do need a young, invigorated staff, and we don't have it"), and some of the key people are approaching retirement. Moreover, teachers have seen reforms come and go. He says, "A lot of the good things, so-called good things, have turned out to be unsuccessful. And it's made a lot of people very cynical and indifferent about where it's going." His support for the change seems to be tepid.

Compare this situation with that of a non-SDM school that has been discussing a similar curricular change. In the non-SDM school, the change is actually being implemented. When asked about decisions, a department head mentions interdisciplinary teaching:

It's an attempt at cross-curriculum teaching. And there's a science, math, English, and social studies teacher, and they share the same hundred students. I guess they have the same consecutive four periods.... Apparently a grant was received from, I guess, the federal government, and the teachers volunteered to do this.... So it's sort of been imposed on the school system. [D39-9VA]

She goes on to say that the principal and the school superintendent developed the idea. "That is their grant, and it . . . certainly reflects [the principal's] interest. That's the way she thinks education should go.... I don't know whether it should or shouldn't." The respondent is concerned with the way that the change has affected scheduling: There is this lump of four courses that cannot be moved or reassigned.

What concerns her even more is the suspicion that the program is going to expand. She mentions "lots of rumors . . . that it's going to really just get broader and broader till pretty much the whole school is going to be doing that." She is concerned that the faculty is not being kept informed. She talks about dislike of the idea among the teachers and their suspicion of the principal:

There's been a lot of resistance to her and to her ideas of cooperative learning. [The interviewer asks: How is that resistance manifested?] Real unpleasantness at faculty meetings.... We're pretty much ignoring the bright kids.... And we're going to lose them, I think, the very bright kids. [D39-9VA]

In both these schools, we see a principal with convictions about interdisciplinary teaching, whose interests are fortified by an external grant. In both schools, the principal faces a largely skeptical faculty. The SDM school apparently does better in defusing unpleasantness because it provides opportunities for teachers to talk about the plans and even vote on them. However, over almost exactly the same period of time, the traditional school has moved farther along in implementation.

A principal in a third school discusses the difficulty in instituting interdisciplinary teaching. Her school has a system for SDM to which she is committed. She believes that people have to be included in decision making if they are to learn, and that this applies to teachers and to students. But the principal goes on to talk about the problems that such participation poses to the introduction of interdisciplinary courses.

Part of my mission while I'm here is to help create ways that teachers and students can learn in interdisciplinary ways. It's very difficult given the structure of the school. The department heads are department heads of departments.... It's like a little feudal system and they're kind of feudal lords.... The interdepartmental courses so far get some funding through pilot projects.... I hope it [interdisciplinary courses] will happen but it may not happen. I don't know. That's the problems of democracy. [A13-6MA]

Here are several schools embarked on the same kind of reform. In the first SDM school, the principal has great plans, but these get bogged down in constant discussions in the decision-making bodies. The non-SDM school is moving along to interdisciplinary courses more rapidly, but some teachers are suspicious and reluctant to get involved. In the final comment, the principal of the SDM school winds up by emphasizing that shared decision making is a process with inherent uncertainty. When teachers are involved in decision making, they may choose to reject a proposal, modify it, make compromises that bend it out of shape, or put it on hold (a common occurrence in these schools) for long periods of time.

In terms of whether teachers' participation increases the school's focus on curricular issues, our data show no evidence that this is so. Schools that are traditionally managed evidently devote as much of their attention to decisions about curriculum as do SDM schools.


Nine respondents from SDM schools talked about student issues that were not related to curriculum or classwork. As Table 1 shows, four of these issues were responses to student initiatives. Example: a request from the student senate to change election rules to allow students who were failing in school to be elected to the student senate, on the grounds that those students were entitled to representation, too.

The school in which student issues were most often raised is organized around commitment to students. Staff said that the touchstone for school decisions is whether they will benefit students. Every member of the faculty advises a group of students and stays with them for their entire career in the school. It appears to be the student-centered philosophy, rather than anything intrinsic to shared decision making, that brought student issues to the forefront in this school. But it is notable that the philosophy was developed through a process of shared decision making, and it took root and thrived in the climate of continuing teacher involvement in collective management of school affairs.

Three respondents in non-SDM schools also discussed student issues, none of them as the result of student initiatives. Just as they put less emphasis on discipline, so SDM schools give a bit more attention to student-centered issues. Over all, however, the numbers of people who discuss students remain small.


Teaching was hardly mentioned as the focus of school decisions. Only 3 people out of 191 discussed a pedagogical issue. One of these was a vocational teacher who discussed summer workshops that aimed to help teachers vary their teaching styles. He said that the workshops offered techniques to involve students more actively in class, to get them "to ask questions more and be more outgoing and not afraid of what their peers are saying about them" [T45-15UT].

Given the few people who mentioned teaching, there was no appreciable difference between SDM and non-SDM schools.


Schools that had systematic and formal structures for teacher participation in decision making did not deal appreciably more with curriculum, pedagogy, or student issues than did traditionally managed schools. Of course, we are talking about only twelve schools, and each of them is unique in important ways. Nevertheless, we see little support for the contention that SDM is justified by its disposition for turning schools' focus to teaching, learning, and student issues. The time- and energy-consuming process of collegial decision making may even delay the introduction of curricular reforms--or stall them from getting implemented at all.

When asked whether shared decision making affected what goes on inside the classroom, a teacher in one school said:

It's very difficult to figure out how to affect what goes on in the classroom.... In some ways it [SDM] can improve the climate of the school. It can make people happier about their job, it makes them feel more connected.... If the person's happy about the job, that's going to come across to the kids in the classrooms. But really, it's so--I mean, you go in, the bell rings, I close my door and that's my kingdom....It's very tough to make a change in the classroom. You have to change attitudes, and it's tough to change attitudes. And it's tough to make people even want to change. [D42-9FL]

The data do suggest, however, that if curricular issues are addressed and changes implemented, SDM schools do a better job of marshaling teachers' support. Teachers have a sense of ownership, and so long as most of them stay in the school and are not replaced by new teachers who have no such commitment, they are apt to maintain their support for the innovation.

In a number of traditionally organized schools, teachers turned against decisions because they had not had a voice in them. One school changed from a six-period to a seven-period day largely at the principal's behest. He had given teachers the opportunity to vote on the change at the last meeting of the year, and they approved, but as one teacher explained, they did so only to get out of the meeting and go home, not realizing that they were committing themselves to anything. In the fall they came back to find the new schedule in place. They were outraged. As the school year went on, many of the teachers came to like the seven- period schedule, but they were still so incensed at the unilateral way the change had been instituted that they voted to return to the six- period day. Thus mechanisms that create a sense of ownership of decisions among teachers, or "buy-in," as several teachers phrase it, are valuable for sustaining reform.


We now turn to the second proposition: that decisions in which teachers participate are more creative and innovative than decisions in schools where administrators call the shots. Aside from the innovation of the SDM process itself, do the decisions made in SDM schools represent more fundamental change than those made in traditional schools?

We judged more innovative those decisions that had to do with interdisciplinary teaching, block scheduling, de-tracking, introducing hard content for all students--in short, the current reform agenda--as well as decisions that responded to particular needs in the school, such as teacher-organized staff development and special programs for at-risk students. In those terms, we found that SDM schools are more innovative. While at least two of the traditional schools have instituted important new activities on their own initiative,(n13) all of the SDM schools have done so.

It seems clear that the climate in our SDM schools is conducive to the trial of new approaches. However, the formal participation of teachers in decision making was not the main mechanism that led to change. Rather in our sample it was usually the arrival of a reform-minded principal or superintendent. In two of the most innovative schools, a principal came in with a reform agenda. SDM was one, but only one, change that she introduced. Since four out of the six SDM schools had adopted the SDM process within the previous four years, change in the decision-making apparatus coincided with changes or attempted changes in other areas of the school. SDM was a product, more than a cause, of reform energies.

One of the most provocative cases was a school that got a new principal about two years prior to our first visit. Ten years before, the school had been considered highly effective with its largely white student body. In the intervening years, the student population had changed, and many more low-income students and students of color were in attendance. The principal arrived determined to make the school more responsive to their needs. Some of the teachers were not convinced that the school needed drastic change. The watchword was: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Battle lines formed around the issue of whether the school was "broke."

The principal initiated shared decision making. She also showed herself ready to back any teacher who had good ideas about what to do. She convened a group of reform-minded teachers and spent a weekend with them brainstorming about ways to improve the school. She encouraged them, and any other teacher who wanted to make change, to bring forward proposals. One of the first ideas to get off the ground was a special program for students at risk of dropping out of school--students for whom the regular program was not working. The idea came from two young special education teachers, relative newcomers in the school. The principal helped them to get support from a business association and a foundation, and gave them space and encouragement to recruit students and begin operation.

Some of the older teachers in the building, the "established leadership," were indignant. Here was a new, untenured teacher with an office of her own, a telephone, and a computer, while they limped along with no private space. Here were a group of troublesome kids, coming to school late, making noise in the halls during class time, eating in the classroom, breaking school rules, and setting a bad example for others. Classes in the new program were small, while they were dealing with larger numbers of students to take up the slack. Their reaction was vehement. The at-risk program remained, but they stiffened their opposition to any further attempts to make an end run around the department heads and union leadership. And they planned a counterattack.

Early evidence of the counter-reformation was a complete overhaul of the structure of the shared-decision-making body. Its constitution was altered to include representatives elected by the departments. The membership became more heavily status quo. More of its members thought that the school was not "broke" and needed only modest tinkering.

Undaunted, the principal, in collaboration with a small group of like-minded staff, planned to establish six schools-within-a-school. The intent was to break down the anonymity of the large urban high school and give students a "home," a set of adults who knew them and were available to help, and a community of classmates. Each mini-school was to have a special focus. But only the global studies "school" actually began operation, and even global studies soon saw the number of students signing up dwindle (some said because teachers counseled students away from it; others said because it was not very good). None of the other projected schools-within-a-school made it off the drawing board.

At almost every turn, the principal's plans were thwarted. She did manage to force one change through, even in partial violation of her own SDM principles. She went to the SDM body and told them that the school was going to move to block scheduling, that is, class periods of double the usual length. They had no choice about whether to go along; their choice was the particular configuration of the "blocks." Teachers were encouraged to develop a set of alternative plans, which they did, and the whole faculty voted on the schedule they preferred. The block schedule went into effect.

After five years, the principal left the school. Some of the teachers said that they always knew she was more interested in making a reputation for herself than in staying the distance.(n14) Other teachers mourned her departure. The SDM body planned to take part in selection of a new principal who would advance some of the ideas that she had tried to institute and do it better.

This is a case where the impetus for innovation dearly came from the principal. She went scouting through the faculty for kindred spirits, and teachers in the school believed that she was willing to support anyone who had a reasonable idea for change. Although she had her own pet ideas, such as interdisciplinary teaching and subdivision of the large impersonal school, she stood ready to promote other suggestions that promised to serve the interests of students. However, her strategies sometimes backfired. The earliest innovation she supported, the program for at-risk students, created a certain amount of disorder in the building, and the appointment of a young, untenured teacher as its director evoked resentment. It was difficult for her to regain the trust of the established faculty, and her subsequent accomplishments were limited.

Non-SDM schools also make innovative changes. Two of them are doing so largely because of state demands. One state has mandated periodic standardized testing at particular grade levels, with serious consequences not only for students who do not pass but also for the school (and the principal) that fails to meet certain levels of achievement. This push, combined with a state-required teacher evaluation plan, is creating incentives for school change, largely in the direction of greater emphasis on drill and remediation for students who fail the tests.

Other non-SDM schools are being pushed into change because of directives from the district level. For example, one school responded to a district mandate for peer evaluation of teachers. Teachers were chosen to participate in a training program to learn evaluative techniques, and for a year they were relieved of classroom duties in order to serve as evaluators of other teachers' classroom performance.

Where change originated within the school, non-SDM schools, like SDM schools, usually found the change initiated by the administrators. One school gradually eliminated all its "basic" courses for students who were deemed unready for academic work. The intent was to raise the academic content of the courses students were taking. An assistant principal explained where the idea for the change came from:

This is mostly administration. We were trying to show them [teachers] that if we did not put them [students] into regular academic classes, they would never be ready for the top, the entry-level top.... Okay, where we got the idea was we went to several workshops that were facilitated and presented by some people from California that had turned a school completely around. Schools, inner-city schools like ours, where kids were not functioning. [A46-14TX]

This administrator talked at length of the opposition to the plan that came from teachers. She said that teachers threw up resistance. When "basic" students were mixed into academic classes, the failure rate was "very, very high." She said that some of the teachers were discouraged and blamed the failure rate on the administrator. In her view, at least 30 percent of the teachers felt that their students could not master the essential elements of an academic course "because they were basic students" [A46-14TX].

However, a department head from the same school indicated that the elimination of basic courses was an idea that teachers themselves had promoted many years earlier. She said that the school had long had a surfeit of introductory courses, "and there'd be a very few people in what you'd call your academic classes, and even less in honors." Then:

A number of us rallied many years ago, pushing for advanced courses. We wanted to see some honors, gifted and talented.... And that's one of the things that we were fighting for and arguing about way back ... back in the '60s. [D46-3TX]

The principal of this school attributes the move to do away with basic courses to a combination of administration initiatives and "the departments and the campus improvement committee [made up of teachers]" [A46-9B-TX]. It appears that he is being diplomatic, because the campus improvement committee was not in existence when the abolition of basic courses began. Still, his general point may be right. Teachers had evidently laid the groundwork for the change, and many were already in sympathy with the new policy.

The interchange at this school highlights an important point. Although most of the significant changes(n15) that were discussed in both SDM and non-SDM schools reportedly began with administrators, some may have percolated up from the classroom level. Teachers might have had an idea that required structural change and made their preferences known to the principal. After further informational intake and cognitive processing, the principal came to advocate the change. By then he or she may have lost sight of its origin.

Still, new ideas appear to come mostly from administrators. Administrators are the innovators because they have the resources and the time to learn about new ideas, the opportunity to communicate widely, and the authority to bring the proposals to the attention of the school. Administrators, although extremely busy, have flexible schedules; they are not tied down by the tyranny of class bells. They have offices with telephones, and they are in contact with large numbers of people, lay and professional, who bring information and ideas to their notice. They are the ones who are likely to go to the conferences, read the journals, and become enthusiasts for new ideas. As one principal said:

I have to keep an eye on the big picture every day. Teachers have to keep an eye on the classroom. It is stepping out of their normal operation [to be a leader] more than it would be for me or another administrator. For one thing, they don't have all the information at their fingertips, and they need information support and assistance. Clearly, teachers are still careful to make sure that they touch bases with administrators, to make sure they're not overstepping their authority. [A06-6BMA]

This last point, that teachers are wary of overstepping the bounds of their authority, is another reason for teacher conservatism. Several teachers mentioned to us that if they spoke up too much, they could expect retribution, especially if they opposed the principal's ideas or challenged his or her prestige in public.

For a constellation of reasons, teachers tend to be conventional in their approach to schooling. A teacher describes a proposal made by teachers in her school and characterizes their posture as "old-fashioned" or even "reactionary":

The faculty was basically saying that we don't want to fool around with all the more modern buzz words like learning styles.... Administrators tend to be very much in tune with some of the Education School-based notions.... [The attitude of] teachers could probably very well be described as being somewhat reactionary.... Teachers who were involved here believe that we should try to recapture some of the habits and thought patterns and attitudes from 25 years ago . . . being a little nasty about kids who come late to class. [T13-13MA]

In all our schools, those with and without SDM, we see recurrent patterns of teacher conservatism. There are good reasons for such a position. Teachers are the ones who have been battered by the sweep of fads and fashions through the schools, and they have become disenchanted with the latest nostrums. They are busy trying to help students learn. They are less taken with intriguing ideas about cooperative learning, heterogeneous grouping, block scheduling, and so on, because they are the ones who have to translate the high-sounding slogans into the practical day-to-day work of teaching children. They expect that they will be given inadequate help and preparation in the effort and that they will be required to "show results" long before it is reasonable to expect results to emerge.

Moreover, they are often so hedged about with state regulations, district rules, and principals' preferences that they see little latitude for change. They are used to following the rules, and their refuge from uncongenial requirements is to close the door and protect the one space that classroom.

Of course, in every organization, only a tiny minority of people are apt to develop innovative proposals. Human beings thrive on routine. Too much change is disorienting not only to teachers but to students and parents as well.(n16)

Teachers do creative things in their own classes. At the classroom level, we heard about teachers who developed innovative projects. But at the level of the school, teachers usually wait for administrative encouragement before they put themselves on the line to promote change. The major exception is a small school that opened its doors as an SDM school thirteen years before our first visit, where teacher initiative has been a mainstay of the school culture. The school has established a structure and a climate that encourage teachers to innovate. One teacher said: "If I had a problem during the school day, I was always looking and my mind was always open to how I can fix this. I could go to people and work that out." She went on to discuss interdisciplinary math/science teaching, lengthened class periods, and the use of programmed algebra with students who normally would not have gone into algebra. Members of the administrative team were supportive. "So we got the books and went with it" [T32-3ME].

Another teacher in the same school talked about the representation of students. He said that "teachers were so in tune to what the kids wanted" that there was not much of a problem, but about five years ago he thought there should be a student senate. He went on:

I began it on my own without any job, just pulling kids together. I did a lot of background work and surveys on how they felt about the school. . . . We started it. We built a constitution and we built a student senate, which I think is a fantastic thing. [T32-5ME]


We are forced to conclude that the justification for SDM that looks to unleashing teachers' creativity is overoptimistic. Teachers may be well informed about students, their problems and their capacities, but the SDM franchise does not lead them to translate their knowledge into fundamental school reforms.

We reach this conclusion even though most of the schools that have established SDM are also trying to make other important changes, because change seems to be the result of a confluence of reform energies rather than a cause-and-effect sequence. Although more teacher initiatives appear in SDM schools, when this happens we often hear about the not-so-hidden hand of the principal, suggesting, encouraging, seeking grants, pushing. Only in one small school that began as an SDM school do we see teachers taking initiative on their own. There new programs, policies, procedures, and curricula "bubble up" from below. But even in this school, the arrival of a less sympathetic principal seems to be dulling teacherly zest.

SDM does often seem to improve teachers' morale and their sense of ownership of school decisions. Many teachers believe that their position is respected and their voice heard. Sometimes they use that voice to slow down change and modify new ideas to fit with existing practice. But once change comes, they seem more inclined to follow through and support it.

Were the SDM systems in these schools too new to show the hoped-for results? Given more time, will the SDM process mature and yet prove its worth? We have two kinds of evidence on this score. One is the course of SDM in six schools over the two and one-half years of our fieldwork. The other is the history of the school with the longest-standing SDM arrangement.

Over the period of fieldwork, we did not see linear progression in the efficacy of SDM in any of the schools. Everywhere there were ups and downs, movement and relapse, optimism and disenchantment. One school that seemed to be making excellent changes in curriculum and school organization when we first visited was bogged down in controversy on the next visit. A school that was exceedingly proud of its progress at the outset experienced a period of stagnation and then essentially lowered its sights; when we returned, staff had less grandiose expectations and were once again satisfied with the improvements that SDM introduced.

SDM is not a process that, once introduced, necessarily matures and flowers. People in these schools talked about constant assaults on its stability. Sometimes the problem was loss of support from outside-from the superintendent, the union, the school board. Sometimes it was disillusionment among teachers. In several cases a unilateral action by the principal seemed to undermine the grant of authority to teachers and caused them to become suspicious of the "reality" of SDM. Sometimes a new principal came in who was out of sympathy with SDM and tried to re-take authority. Cuts in budget, too, undermined important elements of the SDM process, such as necessary training for members of the SDM body, stipends for all the hours of work they put in, funds to carry out decisions they had made.

In many cases time may lead to more experience, better-defined procedures and precedents, and greater confidence among members of the SDM body. But it will not necessarily lead to the two features we have examined-more emphasis on curriculum and teaching and more willingness to innovate. If the experience of these schools is a guide, time and experience will rather lead to a scaling down of aspirations and the transformation of SDM into a routine management system for second- and third-order issues.

One school did not have to go through a transition from principal-centered to teacher-managed procedure because it began as a SDM school. If transition from one state to the other is the most difficult phase of SDM, this school avoided it. It began with a visionary principal who managed to establish a culture of participation and a commitment to the welfare of students. Informal relationships in a school with only 50-odd teachers sustained the philosophy of the school, and this was supplemented by thoughtful staff development and extensive orientation for newcomers.

Yet here time does not appear to have been favorable to the success of SDM. The central tenets of teacher participation, student-centeredness, and teacher responsibility for solving problems were established in the early days, and subsequent years witnessed a series of assaults -- from school board members, changing superintendents, some parents, and a succession of principals with varying degrees of attachment to SDM. The shared decision making system remains strong, but some of the school's energy has had to go into protecting itself from attack. As the years go by, the crusading zeal of the founding group is diluted by new staff who lack the same dedication to the school's original principles; it is eroded by fatigue, and it is chipped away by subtle inroads from the current principal. Obviously, time alone will not make SDM more effective.


Despite the failure of SDM to live up to its hype, there is something intrinsically appealing about the notion that school administration derives its just powers from the consent of the governed, at least the adult governed. At a time when industry has moved toward greater worker participation in management, it seems only fair that teachers, too, have a say in conditions that affect their work lives.

Moreover, SDM does seem to have potential as one strand of a larger reform effort. It appears to give teachers a forum in which to express their concerns and, in many cases, the opportunity to change conditions that interfere with their work. It may yield benefits in professionalism, morale, and commitment, at least for a sizable fraction of teachers affected.

However, if SDM is to lead to significant improvements in teaching and learning, change in the decision-making structure is not enough. On its own, SDM is simply a set of arrangements for teacher participation, a process without a direction. It can be used to vent gripes or make changes in the placement of teachers' mailboxes. But many people inside and outside education believe that schools need radical change in order to engage students' minds. If we wait for teachers in each school to chart the required course, we are likely to have a long wait.

Where is the direction going to come from? Currently much of the discourse about educational reform is taking place at the national level. A number of professional groups and blue-ribbon commissions have already stated what the school reforms of the nineties should be.(n17) There is a push toward national-level solutions, such as national testing and national certification standards for teachers.(n18) It is paradoxical that the rhetoric of shared decision making coincides with calls for nationalizing policy.

The substance of current proposals for reform is twofold: (1) "hard" content, not just facts and skills, but emphasis on understanding, critical thinking, and application, through students' social construction of their own knowledge, (2) for all students, not just the academically talented or the college bound.

As Porter et al. point out, there is no necessary link between the reform goal of hard content for all and processes of teacher empowerment or shared decision making.(n19) Darling-Hammond attempts to provide a link. She proposes that empowerment strategies can yield hard content if they are supported by (1) regulation of teacher preparation, both preservice and in-service, teacher certification, and selective hiring, so that the quality of the teaching pool is substantially upgraded; (2) teacher control over technical decision making, so that they can control their work environments; and (3) ongoing peer review of practice, to maintain high quality of teacher performance.(n20) Whether or not such additional policies would help to focus shared decision making on "teaching for understanding," in their absence there is certainly no guarantee -- or even likelihood -- that SDM would move high schools in that direction. Our data do not suggest that greater teacher control over school decisions focuses more attention on curriculum, let alone on a reorientation of curriculum to emphasize understanding and application.

But whatever goals come to the fore and wherever they are set, teachers must come to accept and believe in them. Without teacher commitment, even the best-conceptualized reform is destined for failure. SDM helps to provide commitment, certainly for the teachers who participate and usually for those who are reluctant to take on SDM tasks but are willing to go along. When it works well, SDM is a mechanism by which teachers come to own decisions and work to make them fruitful.

SDM of itself does not set direction or even, in most of our schools, enable school people to define and agree on their own direction. What it does provide is a forum and a scheduled set of occasions where teachers and administrators come together and interact around school affairs. It can be, although it has not often functioned in this way, a place where new knowledge enters the school. When we turn to the literature on knowledge utilization, we see that new knowledge needs to be adapted by local people before it influences school decisions.(n21) Louis and Dentler describe the "social processing" that has to take place as school people examine new information and test its relevance and application in the school.(n22) People do not take new research findings or new ideas from journals and implement them. Rather, they have to engage in an interactive conversation around the new knowledge, assessing its promise and its limits and tailoring it to the unique conditions of the local setting.

This view is reinforced by the literature on organizational learning, which shows that organizations do not learn through the individual learning of staff members, however talented. The organization learns only when it domesticates new knowledge, pokes it and shapes it and adds its own brand of seasoning. The new knowledge has to be shared, its meaning for the organization has to be constructed through interactive discourse, and it has to be accepted by a consensus in the organization.(n23) The organization has to provide opportunities for discourse, for argument and counterargument, so that staff recraft the knowledge into a form that fits the environment and the culture of the place. Group discussion transmutes alien information into local knowledge that smells as though it belongs in the family.

The SDM body can be the place where such ongoing conversation takes place. It can be the locus for the social construction of knowledge that will improve the school. Because there are few venues where high school teachers come together across departments, meet with administrators, and talk about real school issues, the SDM body is a unique resource. It can be the place where good information -- from research, national reports, journals, others' experience, their own experience, and sound reasoning -- can be applied to the issues at hand.

Our data show that SDM bodies do not work that way. They display scant receptivity to research and analytic information, or to the academic conversation that one teacher speaks slightingly of as "Ed School stuff." Still the SDM body retains the potential for organizational learning. It can be the site where school people consider reforms and perhaps tailor them to fit the needs of their students, and their own.

Such pious hopes notwithstanding, our data show that most SDM schools in our sample, and they include schools in some of the widely touted reform districts, are not places where teachers focus school decision making on teaching and learning. They are not places where teachers stress innovation or craft creative strategies to improve student achievement. In most of the SDM schools we studied, "empowered" teachers tend to use their power to slow the pace of change. It may be wise that they do. Some changes probably should be rethought and refashioned in order to fit the needs of students and of teachers in the building. But some of the slowdown seems to be born of tiredness and overwork, a feeling that things are OK as they are, and a disinclination to take on anything new unless pushed.

There is evidence that teachers gain a sense of satisfaction by having a say about decisions. They feel better respected and more professional. Teachers from schools without SDM say they wish they had a stronger voice in what their schools do. But participant satisfaction is gained at a high price--for some. Those teachers who take an active part in SDM work long hours, give up opportunities to work more directly with their own students and on their own teaching, and take on responsibilities (such as setting attendance policy, managing discipline, and making budget allocations) that used to be the province of administrators--administrators who, as several teachers reminded us, are much better paid than they are. Active teacher participants in shared decision making like the social and collegial aspects of SDM, as well as the chance to help steer the boat. They enjoy the opportunity to get to know people in other departments and work cooperatively with other adults. Those who do not like these parts of the job do not get involved to start with or else quickly drop out.

Still, it is hard to avoid the sense that in most of the SDM schools we studied, teachers are being co-opted. They are given a limited role in decision making, and the extent of their authority is ambiguous.(n24) Whatever authority they have can be withdrawn. Most of them say that, for all the SDM machinery, the principal is in charge--and a large number say that the principal ought to be in charge because he or she is accountable for the school. Because of their awareness that their preferences can be overridden if they conflict with those of the principal or district administrators, they self-censor what they propose. Canny administrators, therefore, can manipulate the SDM process with small cues about where the zone of acceptability ends. Should teachers actually propose an action that meets administrative resistance, everybody knows who will win.

So teachers are being given a measure of influence over limited issues, some of which (like students coming tardy to class) they care deeply about.

They gain a sense of ownership, which in return commits them to following through on decisions. Teachers who take part in SDM are more likely to implement school decisions and perhaps sustain them over time. So far, it looks like an OK deal for teachers, but perhaps not a great one for students.

I wish to thank the National Center for Educational Leadership at Harvard University for support for this study, Alexander Wyeth and Joseph Cambone for research assistance, and Lee Bolman, Jane Hannaway, Susan Moore Johnson, and Lorraine McDonnell for helpful comments. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Educational Research Association meeting in San Francisco, April 1992.


(n1) Mary H. Futrell, "Teachers in Reform: The Opportunity for Schools," Educational Administration Quarterly 24 (1988): 377, 379; Judith W. Little, "Assessing the Prospects for Teacher Leadership," in Building a Professional Culture in Schools, ed. Ann Lieberman (New York: Teachers College Press, 1988), pp. 78, 98; and Linda Darling-Hammond, "Policy and Professionalism," in Building a Professional Culture in the Schools, ed. Lieberman, p. 59.

(n2) S. Rallis and M. Highsmith, "The Myth of the 'Great Principal,'" American Educator 11 (1987): 21-22.

(n3) Linda Darling-Hammond, "Schools for Tomorrow's Teachers," Teachers College Record 88 (Spring 1987): 356.

(n4) Ann Lieberman, Ellen Saxl, and Matthew Miles, "Teacher Leadership: Ideology and Practice," in Building a Professional Culture in the Schools, ed. Lieberman, pp. 165-66; S. Rosenholtz, Teachers' Workplace: The Social Organization of Schools (White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1989), p. 208; and Roland Barth, Improving Schools from Within (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990), pp. 130, 132, 138.

(n5) P. White, "Teacher Empowerment under 'ldeal' School-Site Autonomy," Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis 14 (1992): 71-75; The Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, A Nation Prepared (New York: Carnegie Forum, 1986), pp. 57-58; and K. S. Louis, "Restructuring and Teachers' Work," in The Changing Contexts of Teaching, 91st Yearbook of the Society for the Study of Education, ed. Ann Lieberman (Chicago: NSSE, 1992), pp. 140-41, 150-51.

(n6) Ann Lieberman et al., "Teacher Leadership: Ideology and Practice," in Building a Professional Culture in Schools, ed. Lieberman, pp. 148-67; S. Rallis, "Professional Teachers and Restructured Schools: Leadership Challenges," in Educational Leadership and Changing Contexts of Families, Communities, and Schools, ed. B. Mitchell and L. Cunningham (Chicago: NSSE, 1990) pp. 192, 196; and P. Cistone, J. Fernandez, and P. Tornillo, "School Based Management/ Shared Decision Making in Dade County (Miami)," Education and Urban Society 21 (1989): 394.

(n7) D. Duke, B. Showers, and M. Imber, "Teachers and Shared Decision Making: The Costs and Benefits of Involvement," Educational Administration Quarterly 16 (1980): 99.

(n8) P. Welsh, "Are Administrators Ready to Share Decision Making with Teachers?" American Educator 11 (1987): 47-48; S. Conley, "'Who's on First?': School Reform, Teacher Participation, and the Decision-Making Process," Education and Urban Society 21 ( 1989): 367-71; M. Parker, "Participation or Control?" Academe 77 (July-August 1991): 44-48; and G. Lichtenstein, M. McLaughlin, and J. Knudson, "Teacher Empowerment and Professional Knowledge," in The Changing Contexts of Teaching, ed. Lieberman, p. 57.

(n9) Bjork did a total census of school decision in one high school in the state of Washington' over a seventeen-month period. Her definition of "decision" was "an observable choice of a specific action in which one or more building administrators participate." Although her coding categories are not the same as those used here, there are marked similarities in the kinds of decisions she identified (L. D. Bjork, "Three Models of Decision Making at Fircrest High School" [Ph.D. dies., Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1991], pp. 55-72).

(n10) Many people discussed multiple decisions. We selected the one that they chose to follow through on in their description of how the school went about making the decision. In a few cases, where respondents did not describe the decision-making process, we selected the issue that they spent the most time discussing.

(n11) The quotations used are from interviews. Numbers in brackets after a quotation are the code letters attached to interviews. The first letter identifies the respondent's position: A is administrator; D is department head; T is teacher; X is other, such as guidance counselor or librarian. The number following the letter is the identification number of the school. The next number is the respondent's ID. A "B" following the number indicates a second interview with the same person. The final letters identify the state.

(n12) The fact that the three schools of color in our sample, each of which had an African-American or Latino principal, did not implement shared decision making is an interesting observation. We had actually chosen one of them explicitly because it was expected to have shared decision making. It was in a district that had adopted a widely publicized school-based management reform with teacher participation but when we went to the school, we found that teachers had little or no say.

(n13) That is, aside from changes mandated from above. One non-SDM school was the only school in our sample introducing portfolios throughout the school.

(n14) Many teachers, in this and other schools, said that administrators come and go but teachers are in it for the long haul. They have to stay and mop up the mess after administrators' "innovations."

(n15) By "significant changes," I mean changes that had a relatively direct influence on curriculum or instruction or student careers. Teachers did initiate large numbers of changes that had to do with eliminating interruptions or intrusions into the classroom (e.g., public address announcements), making discipline more consistent across the school, reducing the number of students who came tardy to class, creating a more orderly environment, expanding the number of after-school activities, scheduling tests and trips, etc. Many of these teacher initiatives were important for improving the quality of school life, but did not deal directly with student learning.

(n16) For further discussion of teacher beliefs in our twelve schools, see J. Cambone, C. H. Weiss, and A. Wyeth, "We're Not Programmed for This: An Exploration of the Variance between the Ways Teachers Think and the Concept of Shared Decision Making in High Schools" (Occasional Paper No. 17, National Center for Educational Leadership, Harvard Graduate School of Education, October 1992).

(n17) National Governors' Association, Educating America: State Strategies for Achieving the National Education Goals, Report of the Task Force on Education (Washington, D.C.: NGA, 1990); and National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, Charting a Course: Social Studies for the 21st Century, report of Task Force (Washington, D.C.: NCSSS, 1989).

(n18) National Council on Education Standards and Testing, Raising Standards for American Education: A Report to Congress, the Secretary of Education, the National Education Goals Panel, and the American People (Address delivered January 24, 1992), pp. 4-7; and The Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, A Nation Prepared, pp. 69-79.

(n19) A. Porter, D. A. Archbald, and A. K. Tyree, "Reforming the Curriculum: Will Empowerment Policies Replace Control?" in The Politics of Curriculum and Testing: The 1990 Yearbook of the Politics of Education Association, ed. S. Fuhrman and B. Malen (London: Taylor and Francis, 1991), pp. 20-22.

(n20) Darling-Hammond, "Policy and Professionalism," p. 59.

(n21) M. Huberman, "Steps toward an Integrated Model of Knowledge Utilization," Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization 8 (1987): 588; and M. G. Fullan with S. Stiegelbauer, The New Meaning of Educational Change (New York: Teachers College Press, 1991), pp. 73-78.

(n22) K. S. Louis and R. Dentler, "Knowledge Use and School Improvement," Curriculum Inquiry 18 (1988): 47-51.

(n23) J. M. Bartunek and M. K. Moch, "First-Order, Second-Order, and Third-Order Change and Organization Development Interventions: A Cognitive Approach," The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 23 (1987): 487-88, 495-96; and K. Kumar and M. S. Thibodeaux, "Organizational Politics and Planned Organization Change: A Pragmatic Approach," Group and Organization Studies 15 (1990): 360-64.

(n24) C. H. Weiss, J. Cambone, and A. Wyeth, "Trouble in Paradise," Educational Administration Quarterly 28 (1992): 357-59.

Table 1. Topic of Decisions That Engaged the School: Percentage of Respondents Reporting(*)

SDM[+] Schools Traditional Schools

(N = 105) (N = 86)

Governance of the School 23% 5%

Decision-making processes,

structure 17 3

Budgeting 6 1

Discipline (tardiness, absence,

dress code, vandalism,

security) 7 28

Curriculum 34 36

Courses 8 12

Program 6 9

Schedule/organization 13 7

Planning, standards,

philosophy 5 5

Other 3 3

Pedagogy 2 1

Student Issues 9 3

Student initiatives 4 --

Student advising, services 3 2

Other 2 1

Teacher Issues 11 10

Hiring, surplusing 4 3

Other (assignment, smoking,

supervision, etc.) 8 7

Testing -- 10

Facilities and equipment 5 1

Accreditation 4 --

Food service, schedule 4 --

Other 2 5

(*) Once decision reported per respondent

[+] SDM = shared decision making

Note: Subcategory percentages do not always add up to category totals, and category totals do not always add up to 100 percent, because of rounding.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 95 Number 1, 1993, p. 69-92
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10519, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 8:59:57 PM

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