Site-Based School Improvement

School-based improvement, sometimes called site-based management or school-based management, has been actively promoted as a means to improve the quality of schools, but there is little research to support the efficacy of the intervention. After working with schools to implement innovations over a period of several years the author has come to the conclusion that a systems approach is required if real change is to be sustained. The present study reviewed literature in both educational change and site-based management to identify key factors that must be managed to to effect the reform. The prominent factors were grouped into Enabling Conditions, Implementation Considerations, and Capacity-Building Components (as adapted from the work of Noble). It should be emphasized that the factors identified here received prominent attention in the literature but may only be representative of a broader range of conditions that may not as yet be identified. A brief description of each of the identified factors follows.


The literature identifies a number of conditions which, if in place at the outset, enhance the chances for success of a school-based improvement model. The prominent factors include a mission to improve instruction, stated authority and operation parameters, guaranteed resources, and strong, public support.

A Mission to Improve Instruction seems to lie at the heart of school change (Wohlstetter, Cotton, Noble, Joyce). Wohlstetter found that schools without the specific purpose to improve instruction had little success in implementing change that brought about increased learning in the students. The Mission, besides being widely known and understood, must have the commitment of the stakeholders.

Authority and Operation Parameters that are known and understood is a second enabling condition (Wohlstetter, Malen and Ogawa, Rochester School District, U.S. Department of Education, Cotton, Noble). A written matrix identifying authority and responsibility of the various constituencies can contribute significantly to the success of the improvement process. Knowing the boundaries within which the school-based team can operate allows everyone to to get on with the work of the team without spending unnecessary time hammering out governance issues.

Guaranteed Resources for the duration of the improvement project may be hard to come by, but if this can be arranged, it has a positive effect on the people working on the change process (Malen and Ogawa, U.S. Department of Education, Cotton). Change imposed on schools from the outside without the necessary resources has often been the norm and school employees tend to “wait-and-see” before committing personal time and energy to any proposed change in the operation of a school.

Strong, Public Support by the Board of Directors and Superintendent is a fourth prominent enabling condition (U.S. Department of Education, Cotton). Making a public commitment to the proposed change adds credibility to the process and increases the buy-in of the people who will have to do the planning and implementation.


As school-based reform is put into practice, four prominent considerations come into play. These include clear roles, procedures and expectations, opportunities for stakeholder involvement, information structures to support decision-making, and a coherent implementation strategy.

Clear Roles, Procedures and Expectations must be adequate, in writing, and well known (Cotton, Noble, Joyce). All of the stakeholders need access to this document and it needs to be written in understandable form. As implementation takes place the guidelines must be followed or, if necessary, jointly modified.

Opportunities for Stakeholder Involvement, written into the implementation plan is a must (Wohlstetter, Oswald, Cotton, Noble, Fullan, Joyce). The plan should provide adequate involvement opportunities covering a wide range of tasks for the various stakeholders and must be widely known and understood. To be an effective element, stakeholders must avail themselves of the opportunities presented.

Information Structures to Support Decision Making must be established (Wohlstetter, Cotton, Noble, Joyce). A well-understood communication plan that gets required information to the right people at the right time is essential to good decision-making. A second component of the communication plan should be designed to inform the stakeholders of decisions that have been made.

A Coherent Implementation Strategy is a fourth prominent implementation consideration (U.S. Department of Education, Cotton, Noble, Joyce). A tendency to try to do too much too soon has been the downfall of many improvement efforts. Sustained, incremental change toward a well-understood goal is the best bet for real improvement. A long-range or strategic plan with annual action plans is a potentially productive implementation strategy.


The need for a capacity-building component is well documented in the change literature (Wohlstetter, Malen and Ogawa, U.S. Department of Education, Cotton, Noble, Fullan, Joyce). This component includes the strategies for changing the norms of the organizational culture and the behaviors off the stakeholders. It also includes the knowledge, skills, and group process training that helps the school improvement team fill in gaps in the enabling conditions and implementation considerations. Problem identification and solution strategies, team learning, school value development, conflict resolution, and constraint theory are some of the avenues to be explored. The capacity-building component provides both the compass and gyroscope to set the course for school improvement and to keep the project in balance as it moves toward fruition.


VALIANT, etc. has developed an instrument to measure the level of attainment for each of the Enabling Conditions and Implementation Considerations. A one-day visitation to the school site to gather information provides our staff with the data needed to develop a snap shot of the current status of the project. This data can then be used to generate recommendations for capacity-building activities to move the school improvement team toward success.

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