Perceptions of Elementary Teachers in Tennessee Schools in Regard to Preferred Shared Decision-Making Roles
People want and need to have their voices heard in virtually any type of workplace setting, and many private and public organizations have sought to empower their employees by providing them with the opportunity to actively participate in the decision-making process as it relates to the allocation of resources in recent years. It is reasonable to suggest, though, that not everyone wants and needs the same level of responsibility for formulating important decisions concerning the allocation of resources which by definition are scarce. These issues are particularly important in the public schools where the stakeholders are legion and positive academic outcomes are essential. To gain some additional insights into how teachers typically perceived a shared decision-making role in elementary schools in general and in the State of Tennessee in particular, this chapter provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed and scholarly literature, including an analysis of Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory as the foundational theory for school-based decision making, the relevance of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, and the background of school-based decision making. A discussion concerning the benefits of school-based decision making in elementary schools and some of the problems and pitfalls that are associated with school-based decision making in elementary schools is followed by a summary of the research and important findings.
Bandura’s Self-Efficacy Theory as the Foundational Theory for School-Based Decision Making
Bandura describes self-efficacy as being an integral component of effecting changes in human as well as a primary construct in social cognitive theory (Valois, Umsttatd, Zullig & Paxton, 2008, p. 321). Self-efficacy work is concerned with the level of confidence people have in their abilities to perform various tasks (Valois et al., 2008). Self-efficacy beliefs are defined as being an individual’s beliefs concerning their capabilities to successfully perform a given course of action and such beliefs influence their decision about what types of activities they should use for these purposes (Valois et al., 2008). In addition, Bandura maintains that an individual’s self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations (e.g., the outcomes an individual believes are closely associated with a given behavior), outcome values (e.g., the value an individual places on these behaviors), and self-reactive, self-regulatory strategies that are employed to initiate and sustain a given behavior all represent essential factors that are required to effect changes in behavior (Valois et al., 2008).
Relevance of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U
In order to become effective decision makers, teachers must be able to see the “big picture,” an attribute that is not always possible and perhaps even desirable for some stressed-out educators who are already confronted with overcrowded classrooms and increasing pressure to produce positive academic outcomes. In some ways, then, teachers are like “frogs in a well,” as the Chinese proverb goes, able to see only the small patch of blue sky immediately above them unless they make the effort to become knowledgeable about the legislative and administrative processes that affect the teaching profession and the delivery of educational services in the United States.
The waves of reform efforts that have shaped the nation’s schools in recent years have also resulted in increased accountability for teachers and administrators, a trend that is reflective of Sharmer’s perspective as articulated in his recent book, Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges, “We live in an era of intense conflict and massive institutional failures, a time of painful endings and hopeful beginnings. It is a time that feels as if something profound is shifting and dying while something else wants to be born” (2007, p. 1). Following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, this observation is certainly applicable to the situation faced by many of the nation’s public schools that continue to underperform and run the risk of closure or consolidation with the concomitant loss of employment that may accompany such drastic measures. As Sharmer points out, “Today, many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself — while something else, still indistinct, were rising from the rubble” (2007, p. 1).
The transitional period described by Sharmer is likewise applicable to recent trends in school-based decision making, where teachers are being provided with the opportunity to more actively participate in determining how, where and why scarce resources will be allocated. In order to accomplish this decision-making function effectively, though, educators must “pull themselves out of the well” to see the “big picture.” In this regard, Sharmer suggests that his Theory U can be applied to the process by eliminating blind spots that might prevent effective decision making. For instance, according to a review by Mallette (2009), in this book, Sharmer “introduces the concept of presencing (presence + sensing), that is, operating from the future as it emerges. Part I shows us that we have a blind spot, that invisible dimension from which all our actions originate. In Part II, Scharmer develops his U. process, forming the left part of the U. with co-initiating, descending to co-sensing, and bottoming out with co-presencing. The U. is completed by rising to co-creating and rising again to co-evolving” (para. 2). Moreover, Scharmer’s framework also provides a new approach to educational leadership that can provide principals and administrators with new insights concerning how teachers can actively participate in the decision making process (Cowart, 2009).
This is an especially important step in creating an environment that is conducive to shared decision making. In this regard, Kelley, Thornton and Daugherty report that, “The data from the current study indicates that principals’ perceptions of their leadership styles are not consistent with their teachers’ perceptions. The old adage that ‘perception becomes reality’ needs to be considered; teachers’ perceptions of principal effectiveness are authentic” (2005, p. 17). The blind spot described by Sharmer is reflective of how the Johari Window (see Figure 1 below) is used to graphically depict the relationships between an individual’s known self and the individual’s unknown self.
Figure 1. Example of Jahori Window
The study by Kelley and his associates (2005) demonstrated that the blind quadrant, in other words, those things that are known to others but are unknown to the individual. According to Kelley et al., “For principals, blind spots can occur in many areas: e.g. inconsistent discipline procedures, pet projects, or lack of communication skills. For example, a principal could be quick-tempered, boisterous, and scheming, but unaware of these characteristics and teachers will not tell him/her for a variety of reasons” (2005, p. 18). These types of blind spots in educators, then, can adversely affect the school-based decision-making process from the outset, making the consideration of Sharmer’s concepts an important starting point for developing improved shared decision-making processes in the nation’s schools, the background of which is discussed further below.
Background of School-Based Decision Making
Current efforts to improve the level of decision making by teachers is a continuation of various educational reform initiatives that have taken place in the United States since the early 1980s (Leech & Fulton, 2008). The first wave of such reforms followed the publication of a Nation at Risk by the National Commission on Educational Excellence in 1983 which called for increased accountability, and a second wave sought to restructure schools based on an increased commitment to school-based management (Leech & Fulton, 2008). The latest wave of reform efforts have been focused on the increased need for participation of school staff in the decision making process and teacher empowerment through a participatory style of leadership (Leech & Fulton, 2008). According to Pankratz and Petrosko, “School-based decision making gave teachers at the school level direct control of the key variables in the learning environment, such as the characteristics of the staff, the use of teacher and student time, classroom management techniques, assignment of students, curriculum and learning materials, and the use of equipment and space” (2000, p. 59).
This type of empowerment represents an important step forward in creating more efficient schools that can provide young learners with the educational services they need to effectively compete in the 21st century, but it also represents a significant change — and most people — including teachers — hate change because it takes them out of their comfort zone. As Pankratz and Petrosko point out, “These changes directly affected the roles of central office staff who previously had been responsible for many of the things now delegated to the local school. The role of the school principal also was dramatically changed, from that of administrator to that of collaborator and instructional leader” (2000, p. 63). These trends in promoting shared decision-making at the school level are clearly a dual-edged sword that requires careful implementation and administration to remain effective, and these issues are discussed further below as they apply to school-based decision-making in Tennessee’s elementary schools.
School-Based Decisions Making in Tennessee’s Elementary Schools
The State of Tennessee has been at the forefront of implementing school-based decision making in its elementary schools. In fact, as early as the 1989-1990 school years, school-based decision making was implemented in three elementary schools in the Memphis City School System (Smith, Valesky & Horgan, 1991). Based on this seminal initiative, improvements were cited in: (a) the coordination provided by the school councils; (b) school-based staff development activities; (c) support and services provided by the district central office; (d) data and reports provided to the individual schools; and (e) the value of the school improvement plans (Smith et al., 1991).
A relevant study of the school-based decision-making process in the State of Tennessee by Etheridge (1990) evaluated the impact of different leadership styles used by school principals on the effectiveness of the school-based decision-making process in seven local school councils in Memphis including their elementary schools following their first 15 months of operation. According to Etheridge, the composition of SBDM councils in Tennessee largely reflects those being used elsewhere: “The successful implementation of a school-based decision making (SBDM) management model depends upon the ability of the local school council to develop an effective working style. The councils are comprised of parents, community residents, teachers, and other assigned school staff” (1990, p. 150).
Based on her analysis of data from empirical observations, face-to-face interviews, and a reviews of relevant documentary evidence showed that the type of leadership used by the school principal was a critical factor in determining how effective the councils were in their decision-making efforts; however, the analysis also showed that there were other forces at work as well. Based on her findings, Etheridge (1990) determined that:
1. Principals who exhibited laissez-faire and democratic leadership styles encouraged councils to function cooperatively;
2. Authoritarian principals inhibited cooperative council functioning, especially when information was controlled, communication with the central office and administrators was limited, and teachers did not advocate involvement in decisions; and,
3. Councils were more likely to function cooperatively when chairpersons were strong leaders, council members cooperated with the director and the professional association, and there was a common understanding of the council’s role.
As noted in the chapter introduction, although most people want and need their voice to be heard in any organizational setting, effecting meaningful change can be a painful and arduous process unless the benefits that are involved in the change are made explicitly clear to all stakeholders involved, and these issued are discussed further below.
Benefits of School-Based Decision Making in Elementary Schools
Simply stated, school-based decision making moves public schools from a bureaucratically controlled system to a decentralized one (Heck, 2004). Unfortunately, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that can be used in every situation. According to Whiteley, “[T]here is no single solution to improving student achievement … school-based decision-making provides us with a useful framework to respond directly to the unique needs of a school’s student population” (2006, p. 56). Although every school system and district will be unique in their application of school-based decision making, there are some common types of approaches that have been used in the past that describes how the process functions. For example, according to Jonassen, “School-based decision making may be structured through the use of cooperative teams. A task force considers a school problem and proposes a solution to the faculty as a whole. The faculty is then divided into ad hoc decision-making groups and considers whether to accept or modify the proposal. The decisions made by the ad hoc groups are summarized, and the entire faculty then decides on the action to be taken to solve the problem” (2004, p. 795).
Other approaches to school-based decision making have also emerged in recent years. For example, in some school districts, school-based decision making (SBDM) councils which include teachers and parents have been established to facilitate the process. In this regard, Greenlee (2007) reports that, “Many state-level school reform efforts have focused on creating governance structures that provide stakeholders with greater access to and influence over decisions about schooling. Parent and community involvement in decision making is widely held as an essential component of successful school improvement” (p. 222).
Because the importance of parental involvement in their children’s education is well documented, Greenlee (2007) notes that school-based decision making processes should also include active participation from parents whenever possible. In this regard, Greenlee notes that, “State and local policies are based on engaging local stakeholders in partnership for changing schools to meet the needs of the communities they serve. The rationale for these reforms has been to empower school professionals and to position parents to act as partners with educators in the schooling of their children” (2007, p. 223). Notwithstanding the importance of active parental involvement in school-based decision making initiatives, though, it is teachers and principals who are in the best position to contribute to the decision-making process by virtue of their day-to-day experiences in the schools. As Greenlee emphasizes, “Teachers and principals, the people closest to the classroom, would be the best decision makers for the schools because they have the most information about the school. In theory, by giving school stakeholders more discretion over resources they would be more likely to improve the responsiveness and productivity of the instructional program” (2007, p. 224). The research to date, though, has shown that there are some significant constraints involved in creating truly effective decision-making bodies at the school level for a number of reasons, including the readiness of parents, teachers and principals to actively participate in the process and heated issues over who is really in control (Greenlee, 2007).
These observations have been supported in part by the research to date. For example, Klecker, Austin and Burns (2000) conducted a study of Kentucky’s SBDM Councils and found that they are generally comprised of the following membership:
1. Three teachers (elected by school faculty);
2. Two parents (elected by parent members of the largest parent organization associated with the school); and,
3. An administrator (almost always the school principal).
Public schools in Kentucky also have the alternative available to them of increasing the membership of SBDM councils through the inclusion of additional teachers, parents or administrators based on the above-described three-two-one ratio. According to Klecker et al., “The teacher and parent members of the SBDMs are elected for a one-year term and are eligible to seek reelection. State law in Kentucky stipulates that after a Council has been elected, it can decide to have a different term of office not to exceed two years, but the terms cannot be consecutive in that case” (2000, p. 655). In Kentucky’s SBDM council, the school principal typically acts as the council chair and remains a permanent member of the council. To help SBDM council members perform their decision-making responsibilities more effectively, in-house and outsourced training for members of SBDM councils is also provided (Klecker et al., 2000).
Pursuant to state law, SBDM councils in Kentucky are responsible for formulating policies in several specifically defined areas. Some indication of current trends concerning the frequency and percentages of the types of decisions that are being made by such SBDM councils can be discerned from the categories and corresponding figures shown in Table 1 below.
Frequencies and Percentage of Decisions Made by Site-based Decision Making Councils (N=137)
Number of Decisions
Percentage of Decisions
Determination of curriculum, including needs assessment and curriculum development.*
Assignment of all instructional and non-instructional staff time.*
Assignment of students to classes and programs within the school.*
Determination of the schedule of the school day and week.
Determination of use of school space during the school day.*
Planning and resolution of issues regarding instructional practices.*
Selection and implementation of discipline and classroom management techniques.*
Selection of extracurricular programs and determination of policies relating to student participation.*
Procedures, consistent with local school board policy, for determining alignment with state standards.*
Procedures, consistent with local school policy for technology utilization.*
Procedures, consistent with local school board policy for program appraisal.*
*These categories are mandated by Kentucky state law.
**These categories are not mandated pursuant to Kentucky state law.
Source: Klecker et al., 2000, p. 655
As can be seen in Table 1 above, the largest category of decisions that were made by SBDM councils in Kentucky in the Klecker et al. study involved budget decisions, procedural decisions and personnel consultations, three areas that are not mandated by state law, a finding that the authors attributed to the relatively high turnover in council members that prevented the decision-making bodies from maturing to the point where they felt comfortable and qualified to make decisions in the nine mandated areas. Other salient findings that emerged from this study included the following:
1. The majority of members of the councils were relatively inexperienced as council members. Ninety-seven percent of the parents, 90% of the teachers, and 55% of the principals had three or fewer years of council experience.
2. Large differences in the number of decisions and in the number of meetings were indicated by the minutes.
3. The number of curriculum decisions was statistically significantly lower in the elementary schools than in the middle and high schools.
4. The mean number of decisions about discipline was statistically significantly higher for high schools than for elementary schools.
5. There was inconsistency in content and filing of agenda and minutes (Klecker et al., 2000, p. 655).
Based on the foregoing findings, Klecker and her associates (2000) offered the following recommendations for improving the effectiveness of SDBM councils in Kentucky that may be applicable to similarly situated states:
1. The state should consider changing the law to require two-year terms of office with staggered elections as a means of assuring continuity within the SBDM councils.
2. The state should provide technical assistance to councils that would ensure that the council members would develop the capability and confidence required to focus increased attention upon the categories of curriculum and instructional practices.
3. Training should be focused on the following areas of problems identified in the process of this study:
Council agenda should indicate the topics for discussion and/or action rather than just “Old Business” or “New Business.”
Councils must be aware that the minutes are the official record of council action, and they must accurately reflect the council actions and be permanently maintained.
More definitive requirements for budget approval need to be developed through legislation, regulation, or policy. Although there are requirements for certain budget actions, there were some councils with no recorded budget actions during the 18-month period of this study. The researchers recommended that the council approve the entire budget as a package.
Councils need to include the reason and corresponding section of state law when they enter executive session. Without that information, it is impossible to determine the legality of the closed session.
The SBDM division should continue efforts to improve council members’ ability and willingness to separate policy making (the council’s role) and implementation
(the principal’s role).
The types of decisions that are being made in Kentucky are therefore based on both legislative mandate as well as the personal views of the priority issues identified by the teachers, parents and administrators who comprise these decision-making bodies. To determine how these decision-making processes are further influenced, an examination of the level and type of involvement in the shared decision-making process in schools of differing sizes, geographical locations, per pupil funding and student population is provided below.
Shared Decision-Making in Schools of Differing Sizes, Geographical Location, Per Pupil Funding and Student Population
Policies regarding shared decision-making vary across the country, with California and New York providing useful contrasts. For example, in California, the state board of education policy mandates that training be provided to parents to become more effective participants in the school-based shared decision-making process at each school site that also includes teachers, administrators, students, and other community members irrespective of school size or student population (California State Board of Education Policy #89-01, 2010). With respect to per pupil funding and student population, three California school districts are experimenting with reforms that will draw additional monies to individual schools and teachers by 2013. According to Fensterwald, “This project will go further in granting individual schools charter-school-like authority and flexibility, while addressing issues of equity and accountability. It will incorporate weighted student funding, a concept talked about for years at the state level, providing more money for low-income and high-needs students” (2010, para. 2).
The current system used in other school districts in California assigns a great deal of accountability to school principals for academic achievement but they do not have corresponding authority over school funding (Fensterwald, 2010). Funding in most school districts is based on the curricular offerings and teacher salaries but is not transparent; however, by using a weighted approach to school funding, parents, teachers and principals all gain increased decision-making authority concerning how these funds are used at the school level (Fensterwald, 2010). Although many schools welcome this reform effort, not all principals are supportive. For example, Fensterwald cites an L.A. Unified principal’s reaction as an example: “I think per pupil funding is a waste of my time; I didn’t get into this profession to do accounting. It is a nightmare” (quoted in Fensterwald, 2010 at para. 4).
By contrast, in New York, there is much more specificity involved in the state’s educational policies regarding the purposes of shared decision-making, including how schools will be funded at the district level. For example, in the state of New York, power-sharing relationships between parents and school officials in the form of parent advocacy groups and shared decision making opportunities are required in each school district pursuant to Education Law, section 211-d to:
1. Describe how the annual contract amount shall be used to support new programs and new activities or expand the use of programs and activities demonstrated to improve student achievement, from the allowable programs and activities and/or authorized experimental programs;
2. Specify the new or expanded programs, from the allowable programs and activities and/or authorized experimental programs;
3. Specify how the school district’s annual contract amount will be distributed; and,
4. State, for all funding sources, whether federal, state or local, the instructional expenditures per pupil, the special education expenditures per pupil, and the total expenditures per pupil, projected for the current year and estimated for the base year (Contract for excellence, 2009).
Each school district in the state is then required to distribute the funds it receives for the annual contract using the following formula:
1. For school districts in cities with a population of 125,000 or more, at least 75% of the annual contract amount shall be distributed to benefit students having the greatest educational needs who are enrolled in the top 50% of schools within the district ranked in order of greatest to least relative incidence, as measured against total school enrollment, of poverty, disability, limited English proficiency and low school performance; provided that all schools within the district that are in improvement status shall receive at least their pro rata share of contract funds based on their share of total district need.
2. For all other school districts, at least 75% of the annual contract amount shall be distributed to benefit students having the greatest educational needs enrolled in schools requiring academic progress, or in need of improvement, or in corrective action, or in restructuring; provided that all schools in improvement status shall receive at least their pro rata share of contract funds based on their share of total district need (Contract for excellence, 2009).
Clearly, there are some significant differences between the policy approaches that are being used in California and New York for shared decision-making purposes, with the former providing broad, general guidelines as well as an example of an experimental effort to fine-tune funding at the school level, and the latter providing highly specific guidelines concerning what types of decisions are allowed and how these decisions will be implemented. These current trends and constraints in developing increased participatory decision-making processes in the nation’s public schools are reflective of the painful transitional period described by Sharmer (2007), but there are some other constraints to the effectiveness of school-based decision making in the schools in general and in elementary schools in particular, and these issues are discussed further below.
Problems and Pitfalls of School-Based Decision Making in Elementary Schools
Even under the best of circumstances, shared decision making can be a challenging enterprise. During an era of dwindling federal and state budgets that have forced many school districts across the country to make difficult decisions concerning what programs are “must haves,” the process can be fraught with opportunities for failure and dissension. According to Klempen, “We use the term ‘divided decision making’ to describe the chaos and division that sometimes occur when a school district faces a hot decision, on the surface, this syndrome can be attributed to a number of factors, from the increased diversity within a school community to participatory decision making to the current financial crunch” (2003, p. 18).
Empirical observations by educators, though, suggest that there are more significant problems and pitfalls involved in developing effective school-based decision making. In this regard, Klempen adds that, “No doubt all these forces contribute to divided decision making. But in our experience a more subtle, largely unnoticed, insidious factor is at work: Educational leaders, as well as school boards, faculty, community groups and unions, simply do not have a clear, systematic, agreed-upon thinking process for making the tough choices” (2003, p. 19). In some cases, the school-based decision making process is also constrained by a failure on the part of some of the stakeholders to consider the overall implications of their decisions. For example, Klempen emphasizes that, “Life in school districts is no different than in corporations or families. The best alternative often comes with a time bomb. That’s why assessing risk — arguably the most overlooked step in decision making — is crucial. Just asking, ‘What are the risks associated with this alternative?’ would put you light years ahead of most decision makers” (2003, p. 19).
School-based decision-making also requires a careful and thoughtful approach to the provision of change initiatives or feedback concerning proposed changes developed by others. In this regard, Roberts (2007) recommends that teachers use the following guidance in formulating their school-based decision-making communications:
1. The message must be carefully constructed. It needs to be pointed and concise. It also needs to be consistent every time it is relayed to others.
2. In order for the message to be taken seriously, it must be informed. Teacher cannot base their messages on abstractions, generalities, or misinformation. Know the facts. Research the issues. Structure the message on a strong foundation.
3. Be proactive. Find out what works in other classrooms, other districts, other states. Compile listings of alternatives and the resources that support your suggestions. Teachers’ messages must be supported by possible solutions. If they only point out the problems, they will not be taken seriously (p. 29).
Finally, the key to success in achieving substantive benefits from school-based decision making appears and overcoming the constraints and obstacles to its effectiveness is a high level of collaboration and cooperation between all of the affected stakeholders. For instance, a correlational study by Leech and Fulton (2008) examined decision-making practices in schools to identify opportunities for improvement. Based on their findings, Leech and Fulton report that, “Members of the school community should work collaboratively in the educating of students. All decisions are interdependent. Teachers and principals must understand that their traditional roles have changed and improved organizational teamwork will be fostered by all members of the learning community assuming decision making roles” (2008, p. 630).
This chapter delivered a critical review of the relevant literature concerning Albert Bandura’s self-efficacy theory as the foundational theory for school-based decision making, the relevance of Otto Scharmer’s Theory U, and the background of school-based decision making. Finally, this chapter presented an examination of the various benefits that can accrue to school-based decision making in elementary schools as well as some of the problems and pitfalls that are associated with the process in elementary schools.
California State Board of Education Policy #89-01. (2010). California State Board of Education.
Retrieved from http://www.cde.ca.gov/be/ms/po/policy89-01-sep1994.asp.
Contract for excellence. (2009, December 31). New York State Education Department. Retrieved from http://www.p12.nysed.gov/part100/pages/10013.html.
Cowart, C. (2009). The Louisiana awakening: Church as portal for the emergence of a sustainable social reality. Anglican Theological Review, 91(4), 607-609.
Etheridge, C.P. (1990, November). Leadership, control, communication and comprehension:
Key factors in successful implementation of SBDM. Paper presented at the Annual
Meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association, 150-168.
Fensterwald, J. (2010, November 29). Districts to radically alter funding: Schools to convert to weighted funding. Thoughts on Public Education. Retrieved from http://toped.
Greenlee, B.J. (2007). When school advisory councils decide: Spending choices for school improvement. Planning and Changing, 38(3/4), 222-224.
Heck, R.H. (2004). Studying educational and social policy: Theoretical concepts and research methods. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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Kelley, R.C., Thornton, B. & Daugherty, R. (2005). Relationships between measures of leadership and school climate. Education, 126(1), 17-19.
Klecker, B.M., Austin, J.L. & Burns, L.T. (2000). An in-depth analysis of decisions made by Kentucky’s school-based decision-making councils. Education, 120(4), 655.
Klempen, R.A. (2003, February). Reinventing decision making: A thinking process for school leaders to make tough choices and manage conflict. School Administrator, 60(2), 18-19.
Leech, D. & Fulton, C.R. (2008). Faculty perceptions of shared decision making and the principal’s leadership behaviors in secondary schools in a large urban district. Education,
Mallette, L. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges by C. Otto Scharmer: A
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