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South African Journal of Education

Print version ISSN 0256-0100

S. Afr. j. educ. vol.28 n.1 Pretoria Feb. 2008

 

The perceptions of teachers and school principals of each other's disposition towards teacher involvement in school reform

 

 

Cassie Swanepoel

Cassie Swanepoel is Professor in the Department of Further Teacher Education at the University of South Africa and provides tuition in research methodology and mathematics education. He has 28 years teaching and research management experience and his focus is on educational change and environmental education.

swanech@unisa.ac.za

 

 


ABSTRACT

Worldwide teachers are faced with the task of continuously facilitating and implementing educational reform that has been designed without their participation. This exclusion of the key agents, who must mediate between the change agenda and actual change in the classroom, from the planning and decision-making processes, is detrimental to educational reform. Although school-based management has recently emerged as the instrument to accomplish the decentralisation of decision-making powers to school level, the success thereof depends largely on school principals' disposition regarding teacher involvement. It is argued that the expectation of principals regarding their own leadership role, as well as the professional role teachers should fulfil, is a primary determinant of principals' willingness to involve teachers in responsibility-taking processes outside the classroom. The results from an empirical investigation revealed that principals' perception, of the wishes of teachers regarding involvement, significantly underestimated teachers' actual involvement wishes. Likewise, the expectation of teachers regarding the willingness of principals to involve them was a significant underestimation of the involvement level principals are actually in favour of. These misperceptions probably discourage actual school-based management and could jeopardize the implementation of educational reform in general.

Keywords: decentralised decision-making; educational change; principals' perceptions; school-based management; school reform; teacher involvement; teachers' perceptions;


 

 

Introduction

For an individual, institution or business organisation to cope in a world, where the tempo of change is escalating at an alarming rate, it is of cardinal importance to be able to adjust to and manage change. Radical change impacting on all aspects of life has been the order of the day during the past decade or two in South Africa and will probably continue for years to come. The entire education system, in particular, which is often seen by politicians and governments as an instrument for social engineering and the creation of economic growth, is affected in this regard. Consequently, not only in South Africa but in many countries, teachers have been faced with the task of continuously facilitating and implementing education reform that was designed without involving them (Hargreaves & Bascia, 2000).

It is debatable whether imposed educational change can successfully be implemented and sustained without the agents (teachers), who mediate between the change agenda and the actual change in the classroom, buying into the change agenda. The necessity of involving teachers not only as implementers but also as shared decision-makers during the initiating, planning and management phases is reported in numerous research publications such as Hargreaves, Lieberman, Fullan and Hopkins (1998), Kirk and Macdonald (2001), Singh and Lokotsch (2005) and Frederics, Blumenfeld and Paris (2004). The following two quotes are examples of pronouncements regarding the need for teacher involvement. Carl (2005:228) states that teachers do not wish to be viewed as mere recipients who are to implement and that "... they expect to be included in the initial process of meaningful decision-making where their voices will be heard". According to Poppleton and Williamson (2004:289),

the more teachers participated in responsible and initiating roles in school change, the more positive they felt about the change, and the more willing they were to seriously engage in future change.

From the previous paragraph it is evident that the crux of teacher involvement is shared decision-making. In this regard Bradshaw and Buckner (Botha, 2004:239) argue that the significant changes and reforms demanded of schools can only be attained through devolution of power and through shared decision-making that encourages people to change and address educational problems. Thereunto, it seems that the decentralisation of decision-making powers to the local and school level is currently an international trend (Kruger, 2003:206). Concerning the South African state of affairs, a new education system has been developed in compliance with the constitutional dispensation that was introduced from 1994. A bold and imaginative set of policies has consequently been developed and implemented. In fact, some of these are still in the process of being implemented or refined. An example of the latter, related to this study, is the South African Minister of Education's announcement towards the end of 2005 that she intends introducing legislation that will increase the powers and authority of school principals and thereby curb the role of school governing bodies (Naidoo, 2005). The reason given for this intended policy adjustment is that there is a need to re-assert the professional responsibility of principals. In general, the South African Schools Act of 1996 authorises the establishment of democratic structures of school governance in all schools (Republic of South Africa, 1996). The rationale is that all stakeholders (educators, parents, learners and non-teaching staff) will actively participate in the governance of schools (Van Wyk, 2004:49).

 

The challenge of shared decision-making at school level

It is evident that the role of the school principal has changed dramatically lately. In order to implement educational reform, school-based management has apparently emerged as the instrument to accomplish the decentralisation of decision-making powers to school level (Squelch, 2000:128; Mosoge & Van der Westhuizen, 1998). This implies an increase in the responsibilities of school management teams and especially the school principal. The central role that a principal plays in all programmes of a school entails that he/she has a considerable effect on the tone and ethos of the school (Kruger, 2003: 206). Linking up with this view Botha (2004:239) claimed that "... the role of the school principal becomes even more pivotal and important as these new changes come into effect". The intended adjustment to legislation concerning the professional responsibility of principals, mentioned in the previous paragraph, will probably enhance the leadership role of the principal and will ensure that he/she will become even more influential regarding a variety of school related matters, including educational reform.

An increase in the responsibilities of the school principal naturally results in an increase in workload. It therefore appears that the workload of principals has become more and more unmanageable, and especially secondary school principals lack the time for, and an understanding of, their leadership task (Botha, 2004:239; Edwards, 2002:4; Steyn, 2002:251). This state of affairs could surely impact on principals' view of teacher involvement in shared decision-making, since the latter management style could be regarded as a lot more time-consuming than the more familiar autocratic style of management. Support for this notion is found in, inter alia, a recent collection of writings on dilemmas that principals encounter in engaging teachers in the sharing of leadership in schools (Chrispeels, 2004).

Principals in South Africa have been prescribed, to a large extent, by education authorities on how to fulfil their management task. However, until recently they could accomplish their task with relative sole authority within the prescribed parameters, without being compelled to seriously involve other stakeholders. Heystek and Paquette (1999:191) mention in this regard that neither educators nor parents have had much experience of participatory decision-making since, in the past, principals were generally considered to be the only people with the knowledge and authority to make decisions. The shift that has occurred, from the old authoritarian paradigm and accompanying view of power, is however not a straightforward matter for all school principals, if one keeps in mind that the majority of principals were teachers who advanced into administrative posts with little or no management training.

As mentioned earlier, previously teachers were not really part of the education decision-making processes, despite the fact that research results have reiterated this necessity over and over. Teachers' desire to be involved has also been reported in numerous research publications. Poppleton and Williamson (2004:289), for example, mention that they found that the active involvement of teachers in school change was more powerful than any of the study's other variables for promoting positive work life outcomes for teachers as well as generating teachers' receptiveness and positive feelings towards change itself. It appears, though, that teachers have a perception that they are excluded from decision and management processes. Carl (2005:223), for instance, found that teachers' perception was that, although they were the subject and/or learning area specialists, little attention, if any, was given to their voice.

Although teacher involvement in initiating and responsibility-sharing processes seems to be imperative, it is important to keep in mind that whether change amounts to reform, restructuring, or innovation, teacher participation in these processes implies a new layer of responsibilities and an additional workload (Poppleton & Williamson, 2004:310). This aspect could be a significant factor, taking into account that previous studies have revealed that South African teachers have to cope with a workload that has increased quite significantly over the last couple of years (Swanepoel & Booyse, 2003: 97). In a recent research project, conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council, confirmation was found for this trend when it was revealed that more than 80% of teachers believed that their workload had increased a lot since 2000 (Rademeyer, 2005:2). Unfortunately, this reality creates some doubt whether teachers want to be involved unconditionally in more responsibilities, even if they are change initiatives that could have a positive influence on their work environment.

Complicating the scenario of teacher involvement even more is the fact that a considerable proportion of teachers are not sufficiently qualified or trained and they lack the competences to either implement the new policies capably or take part in the decision-making processes in the school. It is doubted whether substantial progress has been made since 1995, when only 64% of the full-time equivalent teachers were considered to be fully qualified (Booyse & Swanepoel, 2004:174). To embrace transformation when one is not properly qualified and probably overworked is demanding a lot.

 

Research problem and aim of investigation

In the previous paragraph some of the issues that could probably hamper the involvement of teachers in shared decision-making in schools were highlighted. An aspect that has received scant attention in research, in this regard, deals with the perceptions of teachers and principals regarding each others' disposition towards teacher involvement in decision-making and responsibility-taking processes. It is argued that what happens towards the implementation of shared decision-making depends to a large extent on principals' assumption of the position of teachers' desire to be involved, on the continuum apathetic-pushy. The same applies to how supportive teachers think principals are about including them — totally committed to including them on one pole of the continuum to extremely hesitant on the other pole.

It is foreseen that role expectations are closely related to the above perceptions. The way a principal interprets his/her own professional role, and the role teachers should fulfil, is expected to be a primary determiner of the willingness of principals to involve teachers in particular tasks or responsibilities as well as their perception of what teachers wish for in this regard. The same applies to what teachers think and anticipate.

In previous research it was found that in South Africa, as well as in each of nine other countries, there is fairly strong support from principals for the involvement of teachers in most school change activities. Moreover, it appears that opportunities for teacher involvement in school change responsibilities may be more readily available than teachers actively seek (Swanepoel & Booyse, 2006). Empowerment of teachers, however, entails not only giving permission but also creating opportunities. Therefore, the question arises whether it is possible that misplaced perceptions could hamper the creation of opportunities for teacher involvement and/or for taking up the opportunities that are available.

In order to address the above question this research aimed at determining whether teachers' perceptions of principals' support, and conversely principals' perceptions of teachers' desires to be involved in responsibility-taking, hampered the active involvement of teachers in school-based management regarding school change initiatives.

 

Methodology matters

Research design

Initially, a review of the literature was undertaken to establish the nature and limitations of teacher involvement in school change. This was followed by a cross-country empirical investigation, which consisted of two quantitative investigations that can be described as exploratory. Two structured questionnaires, which were interrelated, were developed in order to obtain the views and perceptions of secondary school principals and of teachers, respectively, on the involvement of teachers in responsibility-taking for school change initiatives. Samples of principals and teachers were drawn in 10 countries. Although the research project was designed to enable cross-country comparisons, in this article I focus mainly on the results obtained from the South African samples with only reference to 10-country trends where applicable.

Data gathering

In order to obtain comparable data from the 10 countries, which participated in the research project, it was necessary to apply the same questionnaire to secondary school principals in each of the countries and likewise a questionnaire to secondary school teachers. This implied that the two instruments should have been of such a nature that, to a large extent, they suited each country's unique educational setting. Besides the native language alterations, no other alterations or deviations from the questionnaire were possible since this would have jeopardized cross-country comparisons.

A research team from the University of Michigan took the lead in the development of the two questionnaires. Each consisted of the same 20, tightly focused items that represented aspects of school change in which teachers could possibly be involved in sharing responsibility. These aspects were identified from existing literature as well as own experience. Role expectation theory played an important role in this process. The primary role expectation for a teacher was defined to encompass any action that had a direct impact on day-to-day classroom activities. In the same manner the primary role expectation for principals was defined as administration of the school, which implies planning, organising, supervising, and co-ordinating the activities of teachers, other staff, and learners in order to meet the safety concerns and educational expectations of parents and the community. Back-translation procedures were employed in the precise construction of the items and native language alterations were done where required. Country-specific field-testing was also conducted.

For each of the 20 items, school principals were requested to answer the following two questions:

• How much do you think teachers want to take part in this responsibility?
• How much do you feel teachers should take part in this responsibility?

The two questions teachers were requested to respond to were:

• How much do you wish to take part in this responsibility?
• How much does your principal think teachers should take part in this responsibility?

All four questions were answered according to a five-point Likert-type scale, namely: none/little/some/much/very much.

Samples

Both the questionnaire for teachers and the questionnaire for school principals were disseminated by research teams from 10 countries. The research teams were from Australia, Canada, China, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Singapore, South Africa, and the USA. In accordance with the collective cross-country design the South African sample of principals consisted of 50 secondary school principals drawn from urban-suburban areas in Gauteng province. The South African sample of teachers comprised 176 secondary school teachers, drawn from similar areas as the principals.

 

Data analysis

With a view to simplifying the complexity of cross-country comparisons as well as teacher-principal comparisons, the items were clustered into four indexes (clusters) according to similarity of theme or function. The four clusters were considered to be conceptual units and formed four new variables for data analysis. It was argued that this process would lead to a reasonable amount of data reduction and clusters would be obtained, each consisting of enough items to yield a reasonable reliability coefficient.

The four clusters were labelled Administration and co-ordination, Human relations, Teacher support and Classroom activities, respectively. The Administration and co-ordination cluster, which related to the primary role of the principal as administrator, consisted of items that dealt with staffing, budgeting, assigning learners to classes and staff meetings. Items that dealt with relations with external groups or teacher-staff-administration relations were assigned to the Human relations cluster. The Teacher support cluster comprised items that dealt with assistance or support of teachers. Items grouped in the Classroom activities cluster related to curriculum matters, student behaviour and class schedules. Also included in the last cluster were the issues of implementing and evaluating change, since it was assumed that most changes affected the classroom environment and classroom activities.

It was, furthermore, hypothesised that the cluster means would increase in the order in which the clusters were listed in Table 1. In this regard the previously mentioned role expectations for principals and teachers were used to determine the ascending order of clusters. It was argued that, theoretically, it was expected that the positioning of the clusters would correspond to the following four involvement levels along a continuum of role responsibility:

• Primarily a principal's function
• Mostly a principal's function with some teacher responsibility
• A principal's function with major teacher responsibility
• Mostly a teacher's function with some principal responsibility

 

 

The statistical analysis of the single-country data consisted of obtaining response percentages, distributional percentages, means for each item and each cluster as well as grand questionnaire means. Reliability coefficients (Cronbach alpha) were calculated for the cluster averages and grand questionnaire means. To identify systematic similarities and differences in result-patterns, t tests of pairs of ordered means and one-way ANOVAS followed by the application of a Newman-Keuls test of differences among ordered means (Pagano, 1990:361) were utilised. Subsequently, the data for all countries were combined so that both univariate and multivariate analyses could be used for cross-country comparisons.

 

Discussion of results

A synopsis of the results obtained from the questionnaires, completed by the South African samples of teachers and principals, respectively, is presented in Table 1. In order to simplify the description of the results, responses obtained from principals, on the question of how much they thought teachers wanted to be involved, are referred to as principals' perceptions. Likewise their views, on how much teachers should be involved, were labelled principals' support. Responses obtained from teachers, on how much they wished to be involved, are similarly referred to as teachers' desire and their perceptions on how much their principals thought teachers should be involved as teachers' perceptions. The means of the responses to each of the four questions with respect to each of the 20 items are given in Table 1. Also included are means for the item clusters as well as grand questionnaire means. All the means are means of responses on the five-point scale given at the bottom of Table 1.

In the section on 'Data analysis' it was mentioned that the 20 questionnaire items were grouped into four clusters according to their conceptual similarity. It was argued that indices consisting of items with common themes tend to be much more reliable than individual items. The international team also decided that a cluster score would be considered to have sufficient reliability to provide useful results if it obtained a Cronbach alpha reliability coefficient of at least 0.70. This expectation was fulfilled in the sense that reliability coefficients higher than this criterion were obtained for all the clusters (see bottom of Table 1). Likewise, the reliability coefficients of 0.90 and higher, which were obtained for the questionnaire totals, were acceptable.

It was mentioned earlier (see section on Data analysis) that the four clusters were listed, in ascending order, according to the theoretical expectation of their expected score levels. In this manner the theoretical premise allowed us to predict the relative magnitude of principals' ratings for various groups of responsibilities. The results included in Table 1 indicated that, for both principals and teachers, the ascending order of the cluster means concurred with the theoretical expectation and listing. Parenthetically, this tendency was confirmed in every country without a single exception. (The data are not provided for all the other countries because they are too space consuming.) The confirmation of the theoretical expectation by the statistical analysis suggested that both the underlying theory and the questionnaires used complied with the prerequisites of construct validity.

A closer look at Table 1 reveals that with the exception of one item, the item means, cluster means and grand means obtained were higher regarding the teachers' desire to be involved column than the principals' perception of teachers' desire to be involved column. Similarly, the item means, cluster means, and grand means with respect to the principals' support of teacher involvement responses were higher than the corresponding means with respect to the teachers' perception of principals' support for teacher involvement responses, except for three item means. In order to determine how much value could be attached to these tendencies, it had to be established to what extent the differences between the various means were significant. A t test of pairs of ordered means was consequently applied to the data to ascertain whether the grand means and cluster means differed significantly when teachers' desire was compared with principals' perception and principals' support with teachers' perception. A synopsis of the results of the additional analyses appears in Table 2. Although in this article I focus mainly on the South African context, the corresponding results of the 10-country sample are included, in this instance, in order to interpret the earlier results against the broader context. The results from a Newman-Keuls test, that were applied to obtain statistical clarity on the significance of the differences between the cluster means of the principals' responses mutually and for the teachers' responses, likewise, are also indicated in the table.

 

 

From Table 2 it is evident that with regard to the South African samples the TD minus PP values of all the clusters as well as the grand mean were higher than the criterion for significance of 0.20. This implied that these values could be considered as significant differences. We could, therefore, conclude, with the necessary confidence, that the South African teachers who were included in the sample wished to be more involved in school change initiatives and related responsibilities than the amount principals anticipated they wanted to be involved. It was also illuminating that exactly the same tendency was found for the combined 10-country sample. The TD minus PP values for the latter were all above the 0.10 criterion for significance.

To determine how principals' views on the amount that teachers should be involved in school change activities compared with teachers' perceptions of principals' views in this regard, the PS minus TP values (Table 2) must be scrutinised. As far as the South African situation is concerned the values mentioned were all equal or higher than the criterion of 0.20, except the one obtained for the Administration and co-ordination cluster. With the exception of this cluster of items, it could, similarly, be stated that the amount of teacher involvement in school change that principals deemed desirable exceeded the amount of involvement teachers believed principals were in favour of. The corresponding values for the combined 10-country data showed a similar picture except that the cluster value, which did not meet the criterion for significance in the case of South Africa's data, also complied with the requirement for significance in the case of the 10-country data.

Another interesting observation that emerges from Table 2 is how the magnitude of the teacher-principal differences fluctuated from cluster to cluster. The difference between the teachers' desire to be involved and the principals' perception of the teachers' desire was considerably higher for the Administration and co-ordination and Human relations clusters than the other two clusters (DT minus PP column). This is of significance when one bears in mind that the two clusters mentioned were, more than the other two, linked to the domain that could be considered as primarily a principal's function. On the other hand, when one considers the magnitude of the differences between principals' support and teachers' perception of principals' support a reverse tendency was found. The magnitude of differences increased along with the ascending order that was theoretically determined and statistically verified. In the latter the difference value increased from basically no significant difference in the case of the Administration and co-ordination cluster to the biggest difference in the case of the Classroom activities cluster.

In addition to what was previously concluded about the gap between how much principals think teachers want to be involved in school change activities and what teachers really desire, it was also clear from the results mentioned in the previous paragraph that teachers wanted to be involved more holistically regarding the scope of responsibilities than the role principals anticipated teachers wished to fulfill. A further confirmation of this inference is found in the significance of cluster mean differences as indicated in the last row of Table 2. According to these tabulations principals assumed that teachers wanted to be significantly more involved in Teacher support and Classroom activities than the rest of school change activities. Concerning the gap between principals' support and teachers' perception thereof, it is notable that the amount of support principals were in favour of increased along the order that we had predicted (PS column) while teachers' perception of such support remained more or less the same along the spectrum Human relations, Teacher support, Classroom activities (HTC is underlined in the last row, column TP). It appeared, therefore, that teachers did not believe that principals would more likely support teacher involvement in aspects directly linked to the classroom than aspects more distant from their day-to-day teaching.

 

Concluding remarks

Worldwide educational change has been a topical point of discussion in recent years. A survey of publications on this topic, whether newspaper reports or published research, reveals that the successful implementation thereof has frequently failed. A consideration of published research on the ins and outs of this issue shows that education systems worldwide apparently do not make full use of teachers as a professional resource in initiating, planning, and implementing school change. It appears that the role of teachers as key agents in the facilitation of such change is, for the most part, overlooked or plainly ignored. However, can it be taken for granted that the majority of teachers want to be involved in change initiatives?

While it is common knowledge that the workload of South African teachers has increased considerably in recent years, it can be expected that not all teachers would be keen to be involved in additional responsibilities. In this regard Swanepoel and Booyse (2006) mention that it appears that opportunities for teacher involvement in school change responsibilities may be more readily available than teachers actively seek.

Arising from the opposing perspectives mentioned above, this study was undertaken to obtain more clarity on how school principals and teachers perceive each other when teacher involvement in school change is at stake. The two questionnaires, which were developed to obtain the views of school principals and teachers, respectively, in ten countries, proved to be suitable instruments for this purpose. Notwithstanding the risk that instruments, developed for use in various countries, are often not perfectly suited for each country, these results indicated that in this case the questionnaires demonstrated the required validity and reliability. The pattern of results supported the theoretical framework used to classify school change activities into clusters as well as the particular listing of clusters.

From the responses of principals and teachers it was evident that the mean scores of both principals' perception and teachers' perception were not only above average but also higher than the 10-country means. Consequently, it could be inferred that, judged on its own merits, neither of these perceptions could be described as negative. On the other hand the results revealed that the amount principals thought teachers should be involved in school change was significantly higher than what teachers anticipated in this regard, especially when it came to responsibilities closely related to classroom activities. Likewise, the amount teachers wished to be involved was significantly more and the range of responsibilities significantly larger than what principals expected to be the case. From these results one concludes that principals and teachers have negative perceptions of each other when it concerns teacher involvement in responsibility-sharing regarding school change.

These misperceptions may contribute to a situation where principals do not promote teacher involvement but rather restrict it, while teachers feel excluded and estranged from the decision-making processes with the accompanying negative influence on their professional life and professional growth. This not only discourages shared principal-teacher vision and planning of school change but jeopardizes the implementation of educational change in general. While it is obvious that there is still a way to go towards school principals as well as teachers attaining mindset changes regarding educational change governance, follow-up research is needed on how to effect this.

 

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