There are allegedly around 13,500 of them.
Politically, like death and taxes, they will likely be with us in perpetuity in one organizational arrangement or another. They are the Rodney Dangerfields of our K-12 school systems.
At the same time, though earning widespread disrespect, they are rarely mentioned in the ongoing assault and alleged reform of public schools. They are the frequently elected, sometimes appointed, sometimes qualified, rarely properly vetted electorally, rarely trained/prepared for their functions after installation, rarely perform transparently or are made accountable, and the alleged community representatives we love to hate -- your local school board.
This topic is easily worth books; in fact, there are 37 relevant books on school board governance in the first dozen pages of Amazon listings for a search on “school board reform,” and some multiple of that in relevant journal articles, few of which if any have ever been read by school board members seen to date in this neck of the woods.
To keep this post manageable, the topics are restricted to some high- or perhaps, low-lights: Empirical knowledge about our boards; what happens to school boards; possible board reforms; boards as factors in K-12 reform.
What do we know?
The first item; what do we know about board performance? The answer, virtually nothing based on good research methodology. Compounding the issue of how to gauge board performance is the need to cover years of actions to assess the concordance of board behavior with related school performance. Further complicating assessment, the effects of a board’s function are played out in the diverse operations within a school or district and may show up as delayed effects. One obvious, politically incorrect example, is the board that insidiously puts a school’s sports’ values ahead of learning, even to the extent of choking off spending for learning infrastructure in favor of sports complexes to feed parental and community sports egos. It may take years for the cultural impact of such a value system to be seen in graduation rates, or meaningful assessment of real learning. When it occurs, the board that spawned the degradation of real education is frequently long gone, the link erased to protect the ignorant and guilty. Most schools and boards aren’t believers in “double-loop learning.”
Board research also needs to be longitudinal, and the cost to secure sustainability of current longitudinal research is high, both in maintaining organizational relationships with systems to allow study and the lack of funding for such research, versus the episodic issues seen as central to classroom function. It takes strategic perspective, not big at any recent time in US K-12 education.
What is it about school boards?
Other boards work, why not school boards? This question puts you into the heart of the issue. For example, how can five or seven literate, intelligent, frequently professional human resources seen individually, turn into a board that becomes paranoid, secretive, unresponsive to those who elected them, possibly micromanagers of a system, or alternately so intimidated by a superintendent that they have little effective oversight of that system? Witness to the latter syndrome, boards where the minutes of a board meeting are prepared by a superintendent in their totality and never amended – well in advance of the meeting in question – or where responsibility for strategic issues is simply delegated to a superintendent because board members are risk averse.
The above immediately directs the discussion to the roles of the board, versus roles of a superintendent. Related, whether many school boards, even when they represent reasonable elected membership, are equipped without further professional counsel to hire a superintendent. A local system over a decade has hired in succession three superintendents who were, respectively, unethical, sociopathic and unethical, and educationally incompetent. One reality is that even when you have a competent board, matched with a competent superintendent, the roles to be played are not simply ones that can be easily codified, but represent a subtle dance of the two entities and sets of functions.
One of the most frequent criticisms of boards that are populated by the generally competent is that they are still predisposed to micromanage, or focus on minutiae instead of policy and larger issues. This speaks to whether most boards, even consisting of competent members, have the organizational awareness to fashion the playbook to stay out of most school operations and within the agreed board policy and decision boundaries.
The other side of this coin is whether a board is predisposed to get between school leadership and its community to protect a system from funding and other topics that take on community-wide disagreement. That is one of the roles, but one that is a hard sell when a board lacks confidence in its policy positions, or is more interested in re-election than supporting learning.
Another of those realities is that too frequently school board seats are sought for reasons other than service to K-12 education: For ego and social self-promotion; to pursue special interests, or in many cases a prior grievance with a school; as a stepping stone to other public office; and even as a way to practice nepotism or award the “good old boys’ (or girls’) network” in bringing human resources into a system. As there is little oversight of a school board once installed, unless there has been state reform to enable a malfeasant member or even board removal from office, who watches the watchers?
At the end of the trail in trying to assess board quality, the issue comes down to a combination of how human resources are chosen for any material assignment, and whether after they are chosen, there is in place the necessary developmental work to create the expertise for the role, akin to the fashion of boards in other venues. In sum, you don’t invite the incompetent to become the basis of organizational oversight in good corporations, or in boards of professional associations, or in pubic sector organizations where legitimate oversight is sought, or the illiterate or naïve to serve as oversight of K-12 education.
Is school board reform possible? A raft of optimistic educational researchers, pundits, the National School Boards Association, and related assets still believe it is. Below is an abbreviated list of proposals that have been floated for school board reform.
- Move to appointed boards, or a mix of elected and appointed boards, where qualifications of appointed members can be required.
- Change the electoral patterns for school boards, requiring the testing and debate in the public square characterizing most elective competition.
- Statutorily increase the educational requirements to run for a school board.
- Require mandatory training for elected board members; possibly even certification by testing before a board member can be seated. Add mandatory periodic developmental training for currency.
- Require a code of ethics and conflict-of-interest policy for all boards.
- Statutorily provide for removal of a board member, or an entire board for cause.
- Better define the roles of a board versus a superintendent, even express these contractually.
- Specifically define the duties of board members, with provision for requiring performance to maintain position.
- Create a school board report card, with annual assessments; a recommendation of the NSBA.
- Merge districts for board representation, to reduce the number of boards, increase the pool of competent candidates for election.
- Pay board members at a sufficient level to create performance incentives and provide disincentives for malfeasance.
- Organizational training in addition to educational indoctrination, to improve the actual conduct of board operations, including awareness of the needed transparency and communications relationships of a board with its constituent community.
- Require qualified advisory groups from a community be used to provide professional assessments of superintendent hires, forecasting and budgeting, school design and construction, and social and behavioral issues within a system.
- Take on the voter educational task of explaining K-12 pedagogy and reform needs to parents and the community, because a board is an intermediary between system and those funding it.
- Establish a solid pattern of communicating with parents and the community; one strategy that automatically improves both the contents of school board meetings, and the community’s interest and attention to education, is using the CATS provisions of local cable operation. Put your meetings online, in real time; where this is employed the whole spectrum of quality of content through quality of board deportment improves, and a community in turn learns why there are school challenges, and why their support is important.
Do any of these recommendations, drawn from many sources including ones representing school boards, have a chance in the present reform environment? They are all pretty rational, none really extreme judged against the contents of professional standards expected in other venues that have a lesser impact on American society. Answer: Highly unlikely in the present US education environment.
Bitter addendum from the search.
In the process of researching this post, an opinion piece by nationally known educator Larry Cuban was noted. Always informative, this one captured the writer’s attention, not by its erudition that was substantial, but by the large number and the contents of comments it had elicited from parents with children in our public schools, including many parents who were also educational professionals in some capacity.
The parental comments went beyond troubling, indicating broad frustration and discontent with their own public schools, even myopic teachers, but especially dogmatic, myopic and self-righteous boards, principals and superintendents, more concerned with rules, risk aversion and deflecting transparency and critique, than whether the children involved were ever being educated beyond achieving on standardized tests to keep school images, and their own reputations intact.
Astounding was the sameness of the critiques of public K-12 systems widely scattered across the US, reflecting vitriol for public education professionals who just wanted those parents to go away, let them practice what they knew, even if it was last century’s education, and expressing either disinterest in or contempt for internal creativity and change in any facet of their systems including greater teacher involvement in the core processes. If there is any question why the bizarre combination of a liberal President and a profiteering and potentially dirty segment of the corporate sector, with a few narrow or billionaire do-gooders thrown in, are the merged driving force of alleged K-12 reform, our K-12 public education establishment doesn’t have to look beyond some its own door jambs.
Simultaneously, not new news, perceptions that the teacher is the fulcrum for all alleged reform of US K-12, and the present strategy of whipping schools into compliance with a bizarre and narrow concept of learning represented by standardized testing. What is apparent is that simplistic view of how K-12 learning infrastructure works contains abominable oversight of its own. That greater threats to US K-12 recovery than the VAM scores of even our worst teachers include: Our frequently mediocre to virtually paralyzed school boards; school administrators untrained in contemporary management and ranging from Mr. Chips to Machiavellian and sociopathic; the failure of oversight of both those educational bureaucrats and those supposed to be their watchers; the failure and total absence from the public square of most US schools of education, even in the face of Teach for America; and the continuing poverty and discrimination of too many of America’s children.
Along the way in researching this issue, rediscovered after posting is the appended quote from a working paper. From a PhD researcher at the Intercultural Development Research Association, a bipartisan Texas-based organization working on quality of teaching and learning, the prescriptions for school boards’ efforts to improve performance were both stimulating, then immediately a source of frustration; for the following are what most smaller system boards work diligently to avoid.
“1. Become better informed of community assets and needs, student characteristics, and implications for a quality educational program. Although most states require that their school board members receive training during their tenure, the training rarely targets knowing their communities (assets, needs, student characteristics) or basic knowledge about a quality education program. How can we entrust the education of our children to persons who are responsible for school policy but who have a limited knowledge of quality education and quality teaching?
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for school board members to become totally disconnected from their role and the duty that they are elected or appointed to carry out. The community that elected them should demand greater interest, action and leadership from them.
2. Engage in constant dialogue with community leaders and parents to ensure that schools work in partnership with community members and parents to enrich the quality of education to be provided. Successful school boards meaningfully engage their communities in periodic forums, meetings and reflection sessions to check the pulse of schools in graduating students who are ready for college, in ensuring that schools are holding on to students, and in creating school environments that are safe and responsive to the needs of all students.
Building community consensus and support for school transformations based on research and compassion are powerful methods. It also can neutralize the effects of political rivalry and enmity that cause school board paralysis, deadlock and inappropriate action. Too often school boards engage community only during election times.
3. Promote and facilitate partnerships with community members and parents as a powerful way of creating and sustaining educational change. Recently, a leading school superintendent was lamenting the lack of knowledge and commitment of school administrators to value and partner with their communities and parents to create a learning community that works and supports a quality educational program.
Effective school boards are strong advocates of meaningful engagement. They promote and facilitate partnerships with community and parents as a powerful way of creating and sustaining change that leads to student engagement and success. School administrators must realize that total student success will not be achieved until the school partners with all sectors of the community and parents and has the full confidence of students.
4. Become an integral part of a leadership team responsible for designing school reform efforts. Many times, school boards underestimate their contributions as citizens and elected representatives of the general public in school reform efforts. They bring different, essential perspectives into the planning and design phase of school reform. They are in a position to change policies to enable schools to make the necessary changes.
The total disengagement of school board members from school reform efforts can have a detrimental impact on schools’ success. By disengaging, board members abdicate the power and responsibility entrusted to them through the democratic process.5. Be accountable to the community for excellence and equity in the provision of services and the resultant academic accomplishments. If systemic changes were well-defined, understood and supported by an informed school board, they would be less vulnerable to disruption of educational services to students created by school leadership changes like a new superintendent or new principals. Many times, leadership vacuums left by superintendents’ or administrators’ sudden departure lead to complete school disarray and dysfunction.”