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Who influences educational decisions?

Abstract

As part of a larger exploration of four school districts, this single case analyzes teachers' perceptions about the hierarchical or collaborative nature of decision making in their district and how this perception is related to their beliefs about who has influence over decision making. The two sets of perceptions are moderately related, suggesting to educational leaders that affecting one will affect the other. Leaders who understand these dynamics are better equipped to foster collaborative decision making appropriate for working through central instructional challenges.

Introduction

When school districts and their schools encounter student performance that falls short of expectations, they strive to make change that will improve the quality of instruction (Schlechty, 2001). Such is the case in the Piedmont Public School District (The names of the district and the superintendent used in this paper are pseudonyms.), currently embarking on an effort to change literacy-related teaching K-12. This paper explains how perceptions of hierarchy in decision making are related to beliefs about influence over change and implementation decisions in Piedmont. We conclude from these findings that changing perceptions from hierarchical to collaborative and low influence to high influence is critical to making and implementing important instructional decisions.

Studying the influences of multiple individuals and groups on decision making against the backdrop of perceived hierarchy serves to elucidate previously unexplored territory. Apart from a few exceptions (Allison & Zelikow, 1999; Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972; Gersick 1988; 1989), theorists, empirical researchers, and authors oriented toward practice largely ignore the dynamics of varying influence on decision making from different stakeholders. This is particularly true in the educational leadership literature (Blase & Blase, 1997; Bolman & Deal, 2003; Fullan, 2001; Sergiovanni, 2001). Yet, educational leaders need a better understanding of how different constituencies influence them and one another if they wish to embark on more collaborative decision making. As this case demonstrates, perceptions of the nature of decision making and beliefs about who has influence go hand in hand. Explaining how decisions are worked out with multiple players begins with the question, Who influences the process of educational decision making? We provide a preliminary answer to this question for the Piedmont Public School District by exploring the perceptions of teachers regarding how decisions are made in their district. As one case of four we are studying, Piedmont displays trends we are finding in the other districts. To analyze perceptions of influence in decision making, we employ a theoretical perspective that takes into account numerous people participating in decisions over time.

Theoretical Perspective

Complex decisions in districts and schools are not typically made by the superintendent or principal acting alone to gather the facts and choose the outcome maximizing option. The bounded rationality of one individual makes this improbable, if not impossible (Allison & Zelikow, 1999; March, 1994; Simon, 1993). When faced with unusual problems, organizations frequently employ committees to deal with them (Gersick, 1988) as a means to expanding the boundaries of any one individual's thinking. In Piedmont, the superintendent has decided to address how literacy is taught in an effort to improve student achievement district wide. She began the process by establishing the Literacy Committee to help her figure out necessary instructional changes. Using a stakeholder perspective places the superintendent at the center of an influence web. Organizing the Literacy Committee, for example, establishes a web that consists of the school board that will ultimately vote on any new program for the school district, the committee itself that will craft a recommendation to the board, and school principals and teachers who will eventually be charged with implementing whatever new program is adopted.

Prior to data collection and analysis it is not entirely known how or if different stakeholders within the web influence a particular decision and to what degree. We assume that the Piedmont superintendent has created the Literacy Committee in a sincere effort to engage members in designing an effective literacy program that will be implemented throughout the district. As a first step toward understanding the dynamics of the influence web in Piedmont, we investigate perceptions of who has influence over change and implementation decisions at the central office and within school sites.

Methodology

The Piedmont Public School District serves approximately 1,800 students in kindergarten through twelfth grade in rural Virginia. The district is comprised of two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. We were able to gain research access through a district employee who put us in touch with the superintendent, Linda Schumacher, during her first year in the position. In the summer of 2005, a survey asking about respondents' perceptions of various aspects of decision making in their school district was administered to all members of the Literacy Committee during a regularly scheduled meeting. The committee consists of teachers, principals from each of the different kinds of schools (elementary, middle, and high), and a facilitator from the central office. In the fall of 2005 the same survey was administered to all employees in the Piedmont Public School District during faculty meetings. Literacy Committee members were asked not to complete the survey a second time. The predominant participants in the survey are teachers. Fifteen teachers and two administrators responded from the Literacy Committee. District wide, 87 teachers (56% of total), one central office administrator, two school site administrators, and one classified staff member responded.

The survey data guides our understanding about perceptions of decision making in Piedmont. Four questions focus the data analysis: 1) To what degree are the district and the schools perceived to be hierarchical or collaborative in their approach to decision making? 2) Are perceptions of hierarchy related to perceptions about who has influence over decision making? 3) To what degree are teachers perceived to have influence over change and implementation decisions? 4) Do those serving on the Literacy Committee have perceptions about hierarchy and influence over decision making that differ from the district as a whole? We use frequencies, correlation, and ANOVA to help answer these questions. The methodology we employ in this paper is intended to lay the foundation of a case study that will ultimately be used in cross-case analysis with the three additional districts participating in this research. A case study approach is most appropriate when engaged in this kind of exploratory analysis where little is known about the phenomenon under investigation. Our long-range intent is to develop single case studies first, creating a multiple case investigation later (Yin, 2003)

Decision Making Approaches

Survey respondents district wide (not including the Literacy Committee) perceive school district decision making as more hierarchical than collaborative. The survey presents a Likert-type scale with 1 being the most hierarchical decision making and 5 being the most collaborative. The decision making approach of the district was rated by 35.2% of respondents as a 1 or 2, with only 15.4% rating the district 4 or 5. The schools are generally perceived as more collaborative than the district as a whole, but not greatly so. District wide, 26.6% of respondents rated the schools as 1 or 2 and 38.9% rated the schools 4 or 5, a stronger perception of collaboration than for the district.

Literacy Committee members, however, have perceptions that differ from district-wide respondents. They see the district as substantially more collaborative, with 17.7% rating the district 1 or 2 (hierarchical) and 41.2% rating it 4 or 5 (collaborative). ANOVA indicates the difference in perceptions between the two groups is not significant at the .05 level, but nearly so (p = .07). Thus, a partial answer to question 4 is that those on the Literacy Committee have a somewhat different perception of the decision approach of the district compared to those not on the committee. Differences between the perceptions of the Literacy Committee and the perceptions of district-wide respondents are not evident for survey other questions, however.

Examining perceptions of decision making approaches within specific roles supports our findings about the district and schools. Respondents district-wide believe that decision making is more collaborative at school sites with principals than at the district level with the board and/or superintendent. Principals in general are rated by similar proportions of respondents as 1 or 2 compared to 4 or 5 (30.6% and 33.0% respectively). Board members and the superintendent, on the other hand, are perceived by the largest proportions of respondents as hierarchical rather than collaborative--39.5% rated board members a 1 or 2 and 53.4% rated the superintendent as a 1 or 2. Respondents perceive teacher decision making to be very different from administrators, with 69.0% giving teachers highly collaborative ratings of 4 or 5.

Change Decisions

Having established a general description of perceived decision making approaches in the district, we now turn to change decisions specifically. The survey asks participants to rate several roles' influence over change decisions on a 1-5 scale, with 1 as the lowest influence and 5 as the highest. Change decisions are defined in the survey as making a particular modification in the district as a whole or in school sites specifically. The greatest amount of influence over change decisions is attributed by district-wide respondents to the school board, the superintendent, and principals. Ninety percent of respondents ascribed the greatest influence to board members (ratings of 4 or 5) and 63.6% of respondents rated the superintendent's influence this way. Principals are perceived to be nearly as influential as the board with 87.9% of respondents rating them 4 or 5. In sharp contrast, 75.6% of respondents rated teachers' influence over change decisions as 1 or 2.

The relationship between district-wide perceptions of leaders' decision making approaches and perceptions of influence in change decisions is further supported through correlation analysis. Beliefs about how the superintendent and principals make decisions are positively correlated with perceptions of teacher influence over change decisions. Thus, the more collaborative one of these administrators is perceived to be, the more influential teachers are perceived to be. The correlation between perceptions of the superintendent's decision making mode and perceived teacher influence over change decisions is .28 (p < .01). The correlation for principals is stronger at .34 (p < .01).

Despite a larger proportion of Literacy Committee members believing the district is collaborative, the mean of their rating of teacher influence over change decisions is only .39 higher than that of respondents district wide, and this difference is not statistically significant (p =. 16). Yet, the correlation between these two perceptions is higher for members of the Literacy Committee (.50; p = .05). Thus, for Literacy Committee members there is a stronger relationship between their beliefs about the nature of decision making generally and their beliefs about influence over change decisions.

Implementation Decisions

The second aspect of decision making we examined in the survey is implementation, defined as how a particular change will be put in place in the district and/or within schools. Prior to data collection, we anticipated finding that schools generally and teachers specifically would be perceived to have greater influence over implementation decisions. Consistent with our thinking, ratings of the school board's influence over implementation decisions is much lower than attributed influence over change decisions with 40.5% of respondents rating the board at 4 or 5. But surprisingly, perceptions of the superintendent's influence over implementation decisions increases considerably compared to influence over change decisions, rising to 80.0% rating her at 4 or 5. Principals are perceived as having the greatest influence over implementation decisions with 92.2% of respondents rating them 4 or 5. Teachers are viewed as substantially more influential over implementing a change decision compared to making a change decision, but fewer than half (41.1%) of respondents see teachers as highly influential.

The relationship between perceptions of leaders' decision making approaches and beliefs about influence over implementation decisions is similar to what we found for change decisions. The correlation between perceptions of the superintendent's decision approach and perceptions of teacher influence over implementation decisions is .31 (p < .0 l), and similar for principals (.27; p < .01). Just as with beliefs about change decisions, correlations for the Literacy Committee come out stronger. Perceptions of the superintendent's decision making mode are clearly correlated with beliefs about teachers' influence over implementation decisions (.50; p = .05). For principals, the correlation is .48 (p = .05).

In response to the four questions we pose in the Methodology section, we find that: 1) decision making at the district level in Piedmont is seen as more hierarchical while in the schools it is perceived to be somewhat more collaborative; 2) perceptions of hierarchy are moderately correlated to perceptions of who has influence over decision making; 3) teachers are perceived to have very little influence over change decisions with substantially more influence over implementation decisions attributed to them; and 4) Literacy Committee members see the district's approach to decision making somewhat differently from their district-wide counterparts, but the relationship between their beliefs about who has influence over decision making and their perceptions of leaders' decision making modes is quite similar to the district as a whole.

Discussion

Piedmont Superintendent Linda Schumacher is seen by teachers as having more control over her influence web than we anticipated. When presented with our data without interpretation from us, she expressed a desire for herself and her leadership team to be viewed as more collaborative. Examining the relationship between perceptions of the degree of collaboration in the district and its schools and perceptions of influence provides some clues for how Superintendent Schumacher might move in the direction she espouses. Given the positive correlations we present, it stands to reason that if Superintendent Schumacher can move teachers' beliefs toward perceiving Piedmont leaders as making decisions more collaboratively, teachers will view themselves as more influential in decision making. Alternatively, she could change teachers' perceptions of their influence in decision making to generate a greater sense of collaboration within the district.

A caution is appropriate at this point. Collaboration in the form of teachers meeting with leaders to discuss instructional issues does not guarantee that teachers will have influence, perceived or real. Likewise, individual teachers who have the ear of those at the top of the hierarchy could have a great deal of influence in a district that relies on upper echelon leadership to make decisions alone. Furthermore, it is possible that teachers neither seek nor desire collaboration with those in formal leadership positions or influence over important decisions. The dynamics among efforts to collaborate and perceptions of who has influence over different types of decision merit further research.

The perceptions in Superintendent Schumacher's Literacy Committee suggest that involving teachers and others on committees that bring them into contact with leadership and focus on central instructional questions has the potential to engender beliefs that the district will make decisions in a collaborative manner. But this kind of thinking may be short lived unless committee members' experience demonstrates that their participation is meaningful. It may also be difficult to spread similar beliefs among those not serving on the committee. Superintendent Schumacher must strive to extend influence to committee members and to communicate to the district as a whole how teachers on the Literacy Committee helped to shape the ultimate literacy program design. This would signal to others that teacher influence is possible.

Superintendent Schumacher's basic belief about collaborative decision making with teachers is that it will lead to greater commitment on their part to implement the new literacy program faithfully. She is in good company (Bolman & Deal, 2003; Fullan, 2001; Schlechty, 2001; Sergiovanni, 2001). But the leadership challenge she faces with the work of the Literacy Committee is substantial. She must foster collaboration and permit teacher influence consistently over a long period of time in order to change perceptions of hierarchy and influence in the Piedmont Public School District. Succeeding in this one case may help to drive additional improvements in instruction and student achievement in the future.

References

Allison, G. & Zelikow, P. (1999). Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Longman.

Blase, J. & Blase, J. (1997). The micropolitical orientation of facilitative school principals and its effects on teachers' sense of empowerment. Journal of Educational Administration, 35, 138-164.

Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (2003). Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cohen, M. D., March, J. G., & Olsen, J. P. (1972). A garbage can model of organizational choice. Administrative Science Quarterly, 17, 1-25.

Fullan, M. (2001). Leading in a Culture of Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gersick, C. (1988). Time and transition in work teams: toward a new model of group development. Academy of Management Journal, 31, 9-41.

Gersick, C. (1989). Marking time: Predictable transitions in task groups. Academy of Management Journal, 32, 274-309.

March, J. G. (1994). A Primer on Decision Making. New York: The Free Press.

Schlelchty, P. C. (2001). Shaking up the Schoolhouse. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (2001). The Principalship: A Reflective Practice Perspective. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Simon, H. (1993). Decision making: rational, nonrational, and irrational. Educational Administration Quarterly, 29, 392-411.

Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research: Design and methods (3rd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

S. David Brazer, George Mason University

Susan A. Ross, George Mason University

Brazer, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of education leadership and Ross is a doctoral student and principal of Loudoun Valley High School.
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Author:Ross, Susan A.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2006
Words:2877
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