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Teacher Participation in the Management of School Systems

by Sharon Conley, Timothy Schmidle & Joseph B. Shedd - 1988

Discusses the rationales for enhancing teacher involvement, and develops a conceptual framework for analyzing teacher participation in school management. The forms teacher participation has taken—both traditional structures and more recent developments—are discussed in turn. Some examples of the roles teacher organizations have played in fostering teacher participation are also provided. Finally, a prognosis of the prospects for teacher participation in management is offered.

The initial phase of this country’s recent education reform movement, ushered in by the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk,1 served to reinforce the bureaucratic structure of school organizations. These early recommendations were consistent with bureaucratic management in two respects. First, they were formulated without teacher involvement; state-level educators, policymakers, and private citizens were the principal authors. Second, the proposals, which involved such measures as teacher competency tests and merit pay, implicitly blamed teachers for education’s deficiencies and prescribed remedies to compel or entice those individuals to improve. Teachers, not surprisingly, felt that their role as professional partners in the educational enterprise was slighted.

The second wave of reform reports began to rectify this imbalance. Task forces of the National Governors’ Association called for giving teachers “a real voice in decision [making]” and for developing “school-site management” that respects the professional judgment of teachers.2 Similar calls were issued by the Education Commission of the States, the Carnegie Commission’s Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, a task force of deans of schools of education, and a prominent state commission.3 The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Education Association jointly developed and publicized a “cooperative model for a successful secondary school” that heavily emphasized teacher participation in an expanded agenda of school-level decision making.4

The teacher participation (research) literature has not kept pace with these new developments, since it usually confines discussion of teacher participation to the making of formal policy and involvement in a limited number of substantive areas, such as instructional policy decisions. This literature ignores the fact that the aforementioned reports as well as current experiments with quality circles, peer review, career ladders, and school improvement encourage teachers to assume more responsibility for a wider array of managerial processes. This article thus seeks to extend the discussion of teacher participation by broadening its focus to include teacher participation in school management generally.

We initially discuss the rationales for enhancing teacher involvement, and develop a conceptual framework for analyzing teacher participation in school management. The forms teacher participation has taken—both traditional structures and more recent developments—are discussed in turn. Some examples of the roles teacher organizations have played in fostering teacher participation are also provided. Finally, a prognosis of the prospects for teacher participation in management is offered.


The suggestion that employees should be allowed to participate in certain organizational decisions is not itself new, but the case for participation has changed dramatically over the last few years. Participation traditionally has been viewed as something that management cedes to employees, either altruistically (out of “good will”) or as a transaction cost (e.g., to “buy” employee acceptance of certain basic management decisions). Research confirms that participation is indeed associated with a number of positive outcomes that can ultimately benefit an employer, including greater employee morale and satisfaction, organizational commitment and acceptance of change, and cooperation and reduction of conflict.5 There is an important caveat, however, even to these general research findings. There is strong evidence that involving employees in decision making does not, in and of itself, guarantee the aforementioned results.6 Rather, the outcomes of employee participation appear to depend on a variety of contextual and intervening factors.7 When employees have the formal authority to make decisions, but their actual discretion is tightly circumscribed by prescribed agenda, organizational norms, resource limitations, or similar factors, the purported benefits of participation strategies are often minimal or nonexistent.

This caveat helps explain why employees often express skepticism about their employer’s motives and intentions in “giving” them opportunities to participate in decisions made at higher levels of the organization. They may see participation as constituting little more than a “rubber stamp.” In education, studies suggest that teachers frequently view participation at best as a meaningless exercise and at worst as a manipulative tool. Teacher respondents in one national survey indicated that previous participation afforded them little real influence and hence increased their skepticism. Nonetheless, they thought that they should be more involved in school and district decision making, especially with respect to issues directly affecting their immediate teaching responsibilities.8

As long as the case for participation rests entirely on potential outcomes providing indirect organizational benefits, such as higher morale or acceptance of management-initiated change, managers’ commitment to “real” participation is likely to be minimal. In turn, employees’ skepticism about their managers’ intentions is likely to be well founded, and undoubtedly will persist. Unless and until employee participation is perceived as something received from—rather than given by—managers, proposals to “enhance participation” are likely to engender critical reactions. Much of the recent interest in employee participation, particularly in the private sector, has arisen because managers are beginning to recognize that participation can have a direct impact on organizational effectiveness. At least in some settings, managers now acknowledge that they need the knowledge, skills, and opinions their employees can bring to organizational decision making.9 It is important to note the exception in that last sentence (“at least in some settings”), because the need for employee participation is more substantial in some kinds of organizations than in others. The case for some kind of employee participation, however, is growing more. apparent in all sorts of organizations.

The literature that generates this conclusion draws the distinction between employee involvement in strategic organizational decisions (concerning overall goals and ends) and employee involvement in operational decisions (concerning specific tasks or means).10 The case for employee involvement in operational decision making derives from the need to take advantage of employees’ intimate knowledge of work processes; the case for employee involvement in strategic decision making is more likely to turn on employee knowledge of client or customer needs. Employees in virtually any type of organization are in a position to identify problems and provide valuable suggestions on operational issues; the value of employee involvement in strategic decision making is more likely to be limited to settings where employees have direct and ongoing contact with clients or customers, where frequent adjustments to meet client or customer needs are required, and where other avenues for securing such information are difficult to establish.11

In education, the distinction between strategic and operational decisions appears to be differentiated by locale and position. In theory, strategic decisions are made outside of the classroom by boards of education and administrators, while operational decisions are made by teachers within the classroom. What Mohrman, Cooke, and Mohrman term “technical” decisions (e.g., about texts and instruction) are, by this distinction, divided between administrators and teachers, depending on whether they are strategic or operational. What the same authors term “managerial” decisions (concerning such things as hiring and job assignments) are closely linked to strategic considerations and hence, in theory, are reserved to school boards and administrators.12

In practice, the distinction between teachers’ and administrators’ decision making is both more complex and simpler than these abstractions suggest. Teachers often determine which strategic board and administrator decisions will actually be implemented; they also frequently make strategic decisions concerning their own goals, objectives, and priorities with little outside direction or scrutiny. Teachers are in a position to do so precisely because they are the only ones with direct and sustained contact with their systems’ primary clients (the students) and because those clients’ needs are difficult to anticipate, vary widely, and are constantly changing.

Boards and administrators, in turn, often make what appear to be operational decisions, using their control over student placement, time schedules, instructional materials, and other resources to exercise practical direction over teachers’ decision making. Teachers must often infer their own responsibilities from general educational policies ostensibly designed to govern student learning or behavior. The distinctions between “technical and managerial” issues and “strategic and operational” decisions blur or evaporate in the face of such realities.

Given this apparent confusion, perhaps the only accurate generalization is that in most school systems, boards and administrators make decisions that affect more than one classroom, while teachers make decisions that affect (or seem to affect) only their own students and classrooms.13 The case for changing this division of labor—for involving teachers in the management of school systems—rests on the impact of participation on the quality of school and district decision making, the work of individual teachers, and the relationship among teachers themselves. Ultimately, it stems from the need for a closer, more organic integration of strategic and operational (as well as technical and managerial) decisions throughout a school system.


The most straightforward argument for enhancing teacher participation is simply that participation will improve the quality of decisions made at the school or district level. Teachers, who have day-to-day instructional responsibilities, are the only school employees with direct, ongoing contact with students. They are thus a school system’s primary reservoir of organizational knowledge about means and ends.14 That they may not, as individuals, fully appreciate or be able to act on their knowledge does not make their collective knowledge any less critical to organizational effectiveness.

The hitch, of course, is that someone has to collect collective knowledge before it can be put to use. Much of the management of school systems involves collecting (or attempting to collect) student- or class-specific information needed to make broader organizational decisions. In this context, those with primary responsibility for school and district decision making need the advice and information of those who are most knowledgeable about students and actual work processes.

In theory, bureaucratic reporting procedures provide one way of securing that advice and information. Such procedures are effective to the extent that those administering these reporting procedures can identify the requisite information, standardize and make requests in a timely fashion, delimit the scope so that those either furnishing or analyzing the information are not overwhelmed, and maintain continuity in reporting requirements to ensure data comparability over time.

Teachers invariably complain about the burden of what they perceive to be the useless bureaucratic paperwork they must complete.15 In our experience, the term useless misses the point. There usually are legitimate managerial needs behind such information requests, but those needs are so unpredictable and subject to change that the conditions listed in the previous paragraph are constantly violated.

Participation strategies provide a different way of bringing important information and advice to the attention of those with school and district decision-making responsibilities. By increasing teachers’ own involvement in such decision making, much of the responsibility for identifying and volunteering information with system-wide implications can shift to those with direct access to that information, allowing school and district officials to decrease their dependence on formal reporting procedures. When formal reporting procedures are used, they are more likely to be accepted and observed if teachers participate in designing them.


Another, less obvious, argument for enhancing teacher participation in school and district decision making involves the nature of teachers’ work. Teaching is increasingly characterized as a decision-making process conducted under conditions of unpredictability and uncertainty in highly interactive settings.16 A recent study of the (self-reported) activities of 1,187 teachers in one large school system identified sixteen major responsibilities that most teachers in the system perform on a daily basis, as well as nine that they perform at least weekly.17


Conceptually, these responsibilities could be distinguished by purpose and process (see Figure 1). Teaching purposes or roles involve instruction (developing the academic skills and achievement of students), supervision (organizing and directing individuals, groups, and whole classes of students), counseling (addressing the social and emotional needs and problems of individual students), and school management (performing responsibilities that are meant to contribute to the effective operation of the school as a whole). Teaching processes or functions involve planning, taking action (or implementation), and evaluating results. Since the performance of any role requires someone to plan, implement, and evaluate, these categories represent twelve sets of potential teaching responsibilities.


Three conclusions about the work of teachers in our study became apparent when this matrix was used to categorize teachers’ responsibilities. First, as expected, there is a sharp differentiation between roles performed inside the classroom and those performed outside the classroom. Within the classroom, most teachers are independently responsible for planning, implementing, and evaluating instructional, counseling, and supervisory efforts with little direction, feedback, or assistance from other adults. Outside the classroom, few teachers play any role in either formulating or evaluating school policies and plans.

Second, teaching is an intensely active profession. Although teachers in our study were responsible for planning and assessing their efforts, most of their planning, evaluating, and adjusting of plans occurred “on their feet,” while students were present and class was in session. Third, it is difficult to distinguish teaching activities by purpose or role because so many responsibilities must be performed simultaneously. Although the twelve sets of responsibilities in the matrix are conceptually distinct, teachers must continuously integrate them in the course of their work. For example, respondents in our study reported that most of their “counseling” of individual students and ‘supervision” of individuals and groups occur while they are pursuing instructional objectives in a group setting. Integration occurs in the context of ongoing revision: Teachers noted that they repeatedly “shift gears” and change plans during the course of instruction, based on their evaluation of classroom events.

Teachers, then, are involved in an intensely active process of integrating and combining multiple roles and functions. They are individually and independently responsible for setting goals and objectives; planning most of their own and their students’ activities; securing the resources needed to execute those plans; organizing their students into appropriate groups and assigning them work; and collecting, assimilating, analyzing, and evaluating large amounts of information on group and individual performance.18

Given the nature of teachers’ work, it is misleading to frame the issue of “teacher participation” as a question of whether teachers should be involved in school management. Teachers are already managers or “executives.“19 They are “line” managers, with direct and ongoing contact with the school system’s primary workers or clients (its students).20 The issue of participation is properly framed as one of closer integration of management decision making at district, school, and classroom levels.

The more teachers are involved in planning, implementing, and evaluating school and district policies, programs, and resources, the more influence the school and the district can be expected to have on the classroom. This influence, moreover, need not be exercised through more directive supervision or more detailed bureaucratic prescriptions. One of the greatest strengths of participation as a managerial strategy is that it tends to build consensus on goals and agreement on priorities, allowing the relaxation of controls over the means that individuals will use to serve those ends.21 The importance that recent research on school effectiveness ascribes to goal consensus and a sense of school mission and the need to allow teachers wide discretion over how they orchestrate their classroom activities thus further support the argument for increasing teacher participation in school and district decision making.22


Teacher participation also promotes horizontal integration among teachers and the decisions that each of them makes. Most studies confirm that teachers have few opportunities to engage in substantive dialogue and exchange of information, even though their pedagogical knowledge, skills, and information about students are arguably a school system’s most valuable resource. The solitary nature of most teaching assignments, the physical layout of school facilities, and restrictive time schedules usually preclude such interaction,23 as do organizational norms that discourage advice giving (or seeking) and treat work as something necessarily and exclusively done in the classroom.24 All too often, teachers define their need for discretion as a right to autonomy, buttressed by an “ideology of noninterference” that regulates interactions among teachers, as well as between teachers and administrators.25  This norm of noninterference tends “to make peer criticism unprofessional”26 and characterizes requests for peer assistance as indications of incompetence.27 As Bishop observes, “The basic isolation which is imposed on the teacher by self-contained classroom organization . . . is extended by her [or him] to become a broader right of isolation from colleagues and their opinions and evaluations. Isolation becomes positively valued.“28

Closely linked to this norm of noninterference is an “egalitarian norm” among teachers. Lortie, for example, indicated (as of 1969) that teachers were unenthusiastic about current differentiations (such as grade and departmental chairperson positions) and expressed no interest in additional ranks.29 Various case studies have indicated that teachers believe that they should have equal status and that requesting or proffering advice confers superior status on the advice-giver.30 The combination of structural and normative factors that isolate teachers from each other produces a number of negative consequences. Teachers may, for example, concurrently develop special instructional materials supplementing a textbook unit, and only later (or never) discover their duplication of effort. Too often, teachers spend weeks or months discovering things about their students that other teachers spent an equivalent amount of time ascertaining the previous year. Beginning teachers typically find agonizing the transition from college and student teaching to the realities of managing their own classrooms, often because they are denied access to the advice, assistance, and support of more senior colleagues.

Thus, the insular, “cellular” structure of schools makes it difficult for teachers to share with one another the reservoir of skills, knowledge, information, and resources that, as individuals, they have acquired through the daily demands of continuous classroom decision making. School systems that are supposedly constrained by time waste enormous amounts of it through the ongoing duplication of effort. They thereby not only preclude individuals from learning from each other, but also deny themselves, as systems, the opportunity to cultivate a continuously expanding body of professional and institutional knowledge that each individual can supplement, reinforce, and pass on to others.

The need for greater collegial interaction, “mentoring,” and information exchanges constitutes another reason for enhancing teacher participation in school and district management. Indeed, this need most clearly illustrates why it is a mistake to define participation solely in terms of involvement in instructional policy decisions. Setting formal policies is only one element in managing the organization. Additional managerial functions that can benefit from teacher participation include: translating general policies into group and individual assignments; coordinating different activities; setting and adjusting time schedules; reconciling conflicting priorities; developing human resources; securing material and other resources; and monitoring the progress of programs, staff members, and students, Indeed, many responsibilities typically reserved for district and school administrators constitute nothing more than indirect ways of coordinating the activities of teachers in adjacent classrooms. Much of the management of school systems involves the movement of students, information, and resources from one place to another; whether directing such movement should necessarily and exclusively be an administrative function is another matter.31


School managerial processes may be classified into four broad areas: direction, organization, support, and monitoring.32 Direction refers to the specification of responsibilities (either collective or individual) in terms of purpose or activity, or both. Organization refers to the structuring of relationships between and among individuals and groups. Support refers to the provision of human, material, and other resources needed to execute responsibilities. Monitoring refers to the ongoing collection and evaluation of information related to performance. Each of these management processes is carried out at all three basic levels of a school system (district, school, and classroom); indeed, direction, organization, support, or monitoring decisions made at the district level must be translated into other management decisions at the school and classroom levels. At the same time, a management decision in one area (say, direction) invariably requires other decisions in other areas (e.g., organization, support, and monitoring).

Teachers, acting individually, are already responsible for making most of the day-to-day, management decisions in school systems (i.e., those at the classroom level). Greater recognition of the importance of teacher involvement in the formulation and implementation of additional decisions at other levels will be accompanied by the increased need for closer coordination of decisions and decision-making processes between levels and across functional areas. As this occurs, educators can be expected to pay increasing attention to the forms such participation might take.


In this section, traditional and nontraditional forms of teacher participation in school management are discussed, and their salient features and limitations are outlined. Particular emphasis is placed on those forms of participation that are not primarily vehicles for making and revising either educational and personnel policies. The increasing extent to which each respective form of participation encompasses the four managerial functions previously delineated will also be demonstrated.


Mechanisms for teacher participation in school and district management, such as departmental structures, faculty meetings, ad hoc committees, and team teaching assignments, have existed for many years. Despite this fact, few researchers have studied these more traditional vehicles.33

Ad hoc teacher committees, which are established at either the district or school level, are expressly designed to enhance teacher participation in decision making. School faculty meetings allegedly serve a similar purpose. However, such committees and meetings are frequently chaired by administrators and thus do not operate under any independent authority. Teachers are thus constrained to respond to agenda items previously selected by administrators, with the broad course of action already determined by school officials. Teachers, critics claim, are relegated to “filling in the details.”

In secondary schools, departmental structures (chairpersons and meetings) traditionally have provided secondary teachers with a mechanism for voicing their opinions. Department chairs, however, can reduce teacher influence by reserving important decisions for themselves, limiting the number of options presented to teachers for consideration, or failing to represent effectively the opinions of their department colleagues in dealing with school and district officials.34 Nevertheless, it is clear that departmental structures potentially may enhance vertical and horizontal participation in management decision making. They could play important roles in the direction, organization, support, and monitoring of teaching and learning, and in assuring coordination of those processes.

Team teaching assignments have been popular in many school systems and are still employed in many middle schools. They enable groups of teachers to coordinate decisions and organize their own instructional, counseling, and supervisory efforts within established parameters. Ironically, if principals who initially had complete responsibility for such coordination then “allowed” teachers to participate in making some of the same decisions, such action would be hailed as a significant reform. However, the simpler, more organic participation implicit in such horizontal staffing arrangements is considered “out of vogue” by many elementary and secondary school officials. It is thus difficult to sustain them long enough to definitely assess their strengths and limitations.35

Despite these weaknesses, traditional forms of participation constitute important potential vehicles for staff involvement and influence. In the context of the managerial processes discussed earlier, departmental structures and teaching teams serve important monitoring, coordination, and support functions. Department chairs and teams facilitate peer assistance and resource acquisition. Ad hoc committees provide a way to monitor and revise policies and programs. Therefore, it is important to recognize that some “new” forms of teacher participation may not be as nascent as they seem. As is noted in subsequent sections of this article, more recent forms of participation sometimes address limitations in more traditional forms. In other instances, it is not clear what improvements they offer.


Quality circles have been widely adopted throughout the private sector in the past decade. This is primarily due to increased acceptance of the doctrine that greater worker participation in decision making enhances productivity and organizational effectiveness.36 Although quality circles may take various forms, their fundamental nature is indicated by the following definition:

A small group of between three and twelve people who do the same or similar work, voluntarily meeting together regularly for about an hour per week in paid time, usually under the leadership of their own supervisor, and trained to identify, analyze, and solve some of the problems in their work, presenting solutions to management, and where possible, implementing the solutions themselves.37

Quality circles in education have received little attention.38 Discussion has been primarily descriptive (and prescriptive) in nature. School systems’ quality circles, it has been asserted, work best when participation is voluntary, group members are trained in problem solving, and participants’ efforts receive “meaningful” recognition.39 Top administrative support and a carefully delimited scope of discussion (i.e., neither addressing topics covered by a collective bargaining agreement nor examining issues that encompass personality problems or management prerogatives) are also important.40

Although quality circles may operate within strict parameters, they nonetheless address some of the weaknesses of such traditional teacher participation forms as ad hoc committees and departmental structures. For example, although the scope of issues to be discussed is limited, the actual agenda items are not pre-set: Circle members are solely responsible for determining the issues or problems to be addressed. They also conduct their own investigation to identify causes of various problems, and similarly generate a list of proposed solutions.

Descriptions of actual implementation experience with quality circles in education are few in number, quite preliminary in their evaluations (due to the recency of quality circle efforts), and generally terse. For example, a brief discussion of seven teacher circles in the St. Louis public school system indicated that the project achieved “modest success,” which was attributed to “the commitment and investment of time by the districts’ staff’ (teacher circles meet on their own time) and to “the posture of central administration,” which has “insisted on a cautious, small-scale approach.” Implementation difficulties have included scheduling problems resulting from time constraints, geographic distances between schools, and interruptions imposed by vacation breaks.41 Quality circles have also been established in the Oregon City School District; a total of six circles were formed (as of 1983-1984) in three schools. Although no formal evaluation of the program had (by 1984) been conducted, initial interviews identified as an outcome “enhanced relationships between teachers and administrators.“42 Some circle members commented that the process was too time consuming; they also objected to administrators’ delays in responding to circle proposals. A school administrator, in turn, suggested that teachers needed to do a better job of demonstrating the cost savings and effectiveness of their proposed solutions.

An additional case study described the development and implementation of three quality circles (termed “professional analysis teams”) in a New York State school district.43 The private-sector quality circle model was modified somewhat to conform to an educational setting. For example, professional analysis teams were composed solely of teachers in a given schoo1.44 Teacher teams identified problems and developed solutions, which were then presented to their principals for approval. In other respects, this approach was similar to that prevalent in private-sector settings: Participation was voluntary and members received intensive and continuous instruction in problem solving. The professional analysis program purportedly enhanced collegiality among participants. Furthermore, several recommendations were adopted by administrators.

Although this limited experience suggests that quality circles may be beneficial, several potential difficulties must be considered. First, teachers may view quality circles as suspect, particularly during the initial phase of implementation. If there is little trust between administrators and teachers, quality circles may merely exacerbate this situation. Second, agreement on compensation and release time for circle participants may be difficult to reach. Third, quality circles lack an explicit and ongoing purpose (and hence differ from peer assistance and career ladder plans, which will be discussed next). At some point, participants must decide to either formally institutionalize or terminate this form of teacher participation. Finally, quality circles are frequently perceived by teachers’ unions as a device to circumvent them. Indeed, quality circles sometimes have been used as a manipulative tool by management.45 However, restricting circle jurisdiction to noncontractual issues may alleviate these concerns.

In some respects, quality circles constitute an expansion of teacher participation in school management. Unlike traditional ad hoc committees, they permit teachers to specify their own agenda and thus define the problems or issues to address. In the context of school management, quality circles allow teachers to assume greater responsibility for coordinative and monitoring functions.


Peer assistance, by its very nature, increases teachers’ responsibilities by actively involving them in the staff development process (incorporating managerial support functions).46 The advantages of teachers’ peer assistance, are, it is asserted, threefold. First, classroom instructors are uniquely aware of “the actual demands, limitations and opportunities” that their colleagues face.47 In providing assistance, they are thus able to take into account such factors as student characteristics, work resources, and school values. This familiarity augments a second advantage: the ability to provide specific feedback. Teachers who combine an awareness of the aforementioned factors with subject matter expertise are singularly qualified to offer useful suggestions. Third, peer assistance may lessen teachers’ sense of isolation.

Peer assistance may be undertaken either by single mentors or by teachers organized into teams. An example of the former approach is the “professional partnership program” in a private New Jersey school. Inexperienced teachers or recent hires work with more senior colleagues. The nature of the assistance provided varies, as it may encompass course material, specific lesson plans, or classroom presentations. User reaction to one aspect of the program was initially negative: “Many teachers felt uncomfortable having a visitor in the classroom and thus did not invite their partners at first.“48 However, most peers did ultimately make in-class observations.

Examples of the team approach include that of a four-member assistance team established in a Missouri junior high school. Team composition is determined by faculty balloting; the most senior member resigns each year. The team’s role is reactive; a teacher must request assistance. The teacher soliciting help determines whether a team member observes his or her class. If observation is waived, the team offers suggestions on the basis of the teacher’s description of the problem. The team must abide by the teacher’s decision as to which suggestions are implemented. The individual requesting assistance may be subsequently asked for a “follow-up summary” of the situation.49

The team approach to peer assistance was also adopted in Florida school districts in the early 1970s. The formation of new middle schools created the demand for in-service education among teachers who had not previously taught at this grade level. “Peer panels,” consisting of three to five teachers who choose each other as members, were formed “to serve as an informal support group” and to provide “continuing professional development.“50

Perhaps the most widely publicized peer assistance effort has been that undertaken in the Toledo (Ohio) school district. Two groups of teachers serve as the primary clientele in Toledo’s peer review program: first-year teachers (interns) and more experienced faculty members with performance deficiencies. Principals do not evaluate the interns; peer consultants assume responsibility for staff development. The consultants decide on the basis of criteria formulated by a union-management review board whether or not the intern should be recommended for reappointment.51 Following reappointment, teachers are evaluated by their building principals.

Experienced teachers believed to be performing poorly may be assigned to an intervention program. The building principal and the union’s building committee, which is elected annually, must agree that intervention is warranted. The assistant superintendent of personnel and the union president must also approve the decision. The consultant “terminates the intervention when success has been achieved, failure is obvious, or further improvement unlikely.“52

During the first three years of the program, 8 of the 124 interns did not acquire second-year status. Twenty-four teachers were assigned to the intervention component, 7 of whom left the profession. Eighty thousand dollars was allocated annually to pay for consultants’ training, salaries, and substitute teachers; the money was also used to provide curriculum and other resources for teachers in the program.53

Although these experiences suggest that peer assistance may provide beneficial effects, its establishment and continued existence may be hampered by lack of administrator and teacher acceptance. Administrators may view peer assistance as a diminution of their own authority, particularly if they feel solely responsible for providing skill assistance to teachers and for making evaluative decisions.

Teachers’ desire for autonomy and their egalitarian norms also represent obstacles to peer assistance efforts. Thus, although teachers may have reservations about their principals’ ability to competently evaluate them,54 they may prefer to be evaluated by principals rather than by their colleagues.55

It is important to note, however, that opposition to peer assistance is not necessarily uniform throughout teacher ranks. An American School Board Journal poll indicated that the higher the grade level of instruction, the less likely were teachers to select building principals as the preferred evaluators.56 The survey also revealed that teachers at higher grade levels were more supportive of peer assistance in general.

Despite these potential drawbacks, it appears that peer assistance has (at least) the potential to (1) increase teacher involvement in what was previously perceived as a management function and (2) encourage teachers to take greater responsibility for collegial involvement.


It is difficult to draw a sharp distinction between career ladders and peer assistance, since peer assistance is often an important component of a career ladder program. While peer assistance involves providing support to individual teachers, however, career ladder programs constitute a hierarchical restructuring of the teaching profession itself. In this context, career ladders also involve teachers in the various structural and normative changes that the career ladder is designed to bring about. Thus, perhaps even more than peer assistance, career ladder programs fulfill the intent to more fully bring teachers into the management of school systems.

According to a recent report, career ladder programs have been implemented in ten states.57 While a few states, like Tennessee and Alabama, have developed and implemented career ladders on a statewide basis, others, like Arizona, have delegated this responsibility to local school districts. In other cases, individual districts, like Charlotte Mecklenburg (North Carolina), have adopted career ladders on their own initiative. To illustrate some of the features of these programs, career ladder plans in Arizona and Utah will be briefly described.

The Arizona career ladder program is a five-year pilot project in which selected school districts receive funding to implement locally developed career ladder plans. An objective of the program is to provide teachers with opportunities for “continued professional advancement based on the demonstration of “advanced teaching skills [and/or] responsibilities.” Districts must provide “evidence of the extent of support for the plan by teachers.”58 Teacher participation in career ladders is voluntary.

Under the program, teachers in nine school districts (in proportions ranging from 30 to 94 percent per district) were selected for career ladders during the 1986-1987 school year. A recent study of the attitudes of 1,935 career ladder participants identified several weaknesses with individual district plans: the “emphasis on work outside the classroom,” lack of “incentive(s) for more experienced/educated teachers,” and excessive time spent on “portfolio development.” Positive aspects of the career ladder program were also noted: the emphasis on “selection and training of peer evaluators” and “teacher designed” components.59

The Utah state government also granted school districts “considerable discretion” in designing career ladder programs.60 Published evidence for one such district indicated that the career ladder program enhanced faculty interaction and encouraged the allocation of decision-making authority (by principals) to teachers.61 The teachers also expressed greater willingness to take on responsibility for decision making: “Teachers felt that they should be able to have more influence over professional decisions in a school as they develop and demonstrate skill”; they believed that experienced teachers “could be promoted to positions of authority over other teachers.“62

An additional analysis of Utah’s career ladder program identified several factors associated with the initial success of the plan, including the active participation of teachers and administrators; the emphasis on teacher collegiality as a criterion for placement in leadership positions; the allocation of authority for implementation to the school level; and the “sharing of support services and leadership functions that were once the exclusive domain of administrators.“63

Despite these positive experiences with career ladders, several pitfalls are apparent. First, it is important to distinguish the two approaches that have been called career ladders, namely, job ladders and career development systems. The former focuses on restructuring formal authority relationships and job duties, while the latter concentrates on providing formative assistance to teachers and linking promotions to tenure or other significant career transitions. More specifically, job ladders disaggregate teaching into different jobs and then rank and pay these jobs according to their supposed level of professional responsibility or importance.64 For example, Tennessee’s career ladder program initially included the provision that teachers may be “opted out” of the plan by “refusing to accept the duties for which the supplement is paid.“65

Alternatively, career development systems emphasize the continuous development of professionals, without drawing formal distinctions between the duties of those at different levels. A genuine career development system is primarily concerned with the expansion of teachers’ skills. Promotion is viewed as a way of providing further opportunities for teachers to expand those skills. In Alabama, for example, the decision to grant tenure is recognized as the first of several career development promotion decisions or steps.66 Similarly, some of the plans in Arizona and Utah apparently focus on helping teachers acquire an increasingly diverse array of skills in teaching.

Although job ladders provide a limited mechanism for teacher participation in decision making (as did their predecessor, differentiated staffing), they do so by excluding others from such participation. By reserving certain functions for teachers at higher levels, job ladders create structural obstacles to participation that do not presently exist. Indeed, this formal differentiation of decision-making responsibilities—rather than the creation of hierarchies per se—has prompted teachers’ associations to oppose most job ladder experiments. When hierarchies have been modeled after those in higher education (assistant, associate, and full professor) or in craft settings (apprentice, journeyman, and master)—that is, where formal duties are not strictly differentiated by level—teachers’ associations tend to be receptive.67

A second possible source of resistance to career ladders was previously noted (in the peer assistance section). Egalitarian norms may be violated when teachers at the top of the career ladder are accorded higher status. Status differentiations may also affect the development of collegial interaction: “The status of an actor, both ascribed (e.g., position) and achieved (a reputation as a master teacher) tends to govern the rights of the actor to initiate and to participate in collegial participation.“68 Thus, career ladder advocates should be aware that status considerations may affect teacher acceptance, although the specific influence is not clear.

Administrator acceptance of career ladders is a third concern. As with peer assistance programs, administrators may view the elevated status of teachers as a threat to their own authority. This appears to be the case, for example, in Rochester, New York, where the administrators’ association has challenged a job ladder agreement between the school district and the local American Federation of Teachers affiliate.69 In the authors’ experience, such concerns are less likely to surface in settings where National Education Association (NEA) affiliates represent teachers. NEA affiliates that have entertained the career ladder concept at all have stressed the importance of not treating even partial movement out of the classroom for the assumption of administrative duties as a reward for teaching excellence. Their insistence that all teachers be given more opportunities to participate in school and district decision making is less threatening to administrators than proposals that appear to create a special class of quasi-administrators.

In conclusion, career ladders—to the extent that they are structured to provide genuine career development opportunities- may enhance continuous development of teachers’ skills, create an atmosphere of closer integration between teachers and administrators and among teachers themselves, and encourage all teachers in the system to exercise greater responsibility for management decisions affecting more than their individual classrooms.


We have argued in this article that a central challenge in education is to allow teachers to assume greater responsibility for the management of school systems. While previous research literature examines teacher participation in terms of narrowly prescribed areas, such as instructional policy decisions, we have sought to broaden this discussion to encompass teacher participation in the overall management of school systems.

The case for teacher participation in management decision making will be weak, we have argued, so long as it is premised on the assumption that participation is something that school boards and administrators give to their teachers. If participation is to be anything more than the latest educational fad, it will be because policymakers increasingly realize, like their counterparts in the private sector, that employee participation in management is actually something that boards and administrators receive. Boards and administrators need the participation of their first-line managers—their teachers—in order to perform their own functions effectively.

Indeed, the literature on effective schools suggests that schools achieve close cooperation between teachers and administrators and among teachers themselves through participatory efforts. We have cited evidence that in effective schools and other organizations participation is associated not only with positive changes in individual attitudes, but also with enhanced group and organizational effectiveness.

In our discussion of the various forms of participation, we have argued that teachers are already assuming greater responsibility for interdependent managerial functions (i.e., direction, organization, support, and monitoring) through such mechanisms as quality circles, peer assistance programs, and career ladders. In some cases, these new forms of participation clearly enhance the participation of teachers in the management of school systems. In other instances, they may represent nothing more than tinkering with more traditional approaches to participation, such as ad hoc committees, faculty meetings, departmental structures, and team teaching assignments. In still other cases, such as some job ladder systems, newer structures may actually restrict the number of teachers who can participate in management decision making as compared to more traditional structures. Without more research on traditional and newer forms of teacher participation, it is difficult to determine whether policymakers have become intoxicated by new wine, new bottles, or simply new labels.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 90 Number 2, 1988, p. 259-280
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 489, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 2:51:43 PM

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  • Sharon Conley
    University of Arizona

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    Cornell University

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