“Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought with ardor and attended to with diligence.”
– Abigail Adams
In Pewaukee, WI, graduation rates have risen to rival the leaders in the state, high school graduates’ college attendance rates have increased and disadvantaged students’ test scores have soared. How did they do it? Superintendent JoAnn Stemke reports that things turned a corner when the school board decided to apply the principles of the The Key Work of School Boards. They started by responding more to data, and less to opinion. That data showed a significant achievement gap separating students in the district’s special education program. It then articulated policies to close the gap. After mainstreaming more students and allotting resources differently, it closed the gap entirely. The school board’s commitment to core governance principles ushered in years of further successes.
Pewaukee’s experience reflects applied wisdom from years of studies. The Iowa Association of School Boards broke ground in 2000 with its famed Lighthouse Study, which identified key attributes of school boards in districts with strong student performance. Suddenly, school boards shared the spotlight with teachers and administrators as change-makers. While the Iowa investigators examined only six school districts in Georgia, subsequent larger studies corroborate its findings: “[B]oards that govern districts with high student achievement scores behave quite differently from boards that govern districts with low student achievement scores.” The NSBA translated the Lighthouse findings in its Key Work of School Boards, which it then revised in 2015.
Following these Key Works has led school boards to positively influence student outcomes throughout Wisconsin, in Iowa and elsewhere. University of Wisconsin Professor Michael Ford co-authored a study entitled, “Do School Board Governance Practices Improve District Performance? Testing the Key Work of School Boards in Wisconsin.” His conclusion: “School boards that are adhering to the concepts of the Key Work are outperforming school boards that do not, and by a statistically significant margin.”
What’s the secret? Studies point to five practices of school boards that bring about higher student success rates:
1. Operate as a visionary governance team in partnership with the superintendent.
The term “visionary” might mislead. Effective school boards do not sit around singing “Kumbaya.” With equal parts inspiration and perspiration, they set goals that reflect high standards with an oft-noted timbre of raw confidence. A 2014 study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found outperformance by students in school districts in which board members believed that student learning could improve. The Lighthouse Study, too, reported an intangible quality about school boards with better student outcomes: The board simply believed that students could learn. Low-achieving districts studied by the Lighthouse team accepted limitations that the outperformers boldly set out to overcome.
The high-achieving districts then forged strong relationships with their superintendents and created clear, measurable metrics to which the superintendent was held accountable. The goals reflected the priorities of as many stakeholders as possible. Twenty-year Berlin, CT, school board member Gary Brochu stresses that accountability itself must be held to high standards. Weak accountability, he writes, is not aligned with important objectives and lacks rigor.
2. Provide effective leadership for quality instruction and high, equitable student learning.
The leadership that has succeeded has nothing to do with charisma or lofty narratives. Rather, it consists of establishing and conveying high expectations for student learning, with goals and plans for meeting those expectations. Professor Denise Schares adds that such board leadership is most effective when it is aligned with instructional effort: In other words, the board and the teachers want the same things.
Here again, the term “accountability” is crucial. Student-centered goals reflect the priorities spelled out in the board’s strategic plan, and the board itself answers to that plan by tracking progress toward goals. Pewaukee’s school board president, Jim Huiman, reports that their district “is really focused on our strategic plan, and everything we do flows from that.” The board consults it frequently as it considers which actions to take.
3. Foster a culture that enables excellence and innovation.
The best boards create a climate that attracts and retains strong teachers and staff. A culture of hard work and possibility nurtures talented, goal-oriented professionals who receive continuous opportunities for professional development and learning. The board itself models curiosity and discipline, setting the tone for educational vigor.
The culture of excellence extends to curriculum, technology and high-quality facilities. The “broken windows” theory has support from case after case of messy, disorderly physical spaces that accelerate disrespectful and even self-destructive behavior. A neat environment declares that somebody cares, that it matters to get it right. We sit up straighter in such an environment. In these spaces, students and staff more often behave in ways that create their own success.
4. Lead through sound policy to create transparent, ethical, legal operations.
Does the school board conduct its business in a way that is fair? Or do dominant personalities – or even powerful families – dominate? Does the board follow through on its promises?
In districts with rising student outcomes, the community knows it can trust the school board to live up to the highest standards of professionalism. The RFP process for granting contracts is above board. Executive sessions are held infrequently, with grounds clearly stated. Nothing kills public support like the stench of corruption or the suspicion of government secrecy.
5. Advocate for public education and the needs of students.
Public education has more than its share of critics. In high-performing districts, school board members go to bat on behalf of the schools. They lobby the legislature. They bake cakes for the fundraising fair. They voice support for public education in the media. When disempowered students are falling through the cracks, they take a stand for them in the halls of power. They attend Rotary lunches to broaden community support. The board brings passion and intelligence to the public sphere, forging alliances that bring the entire community on board to help the cause of public schooling.
Just as these board behaviors promote student success, other board practices are associated with lower performance. A study of over 250 board meetings nationwide found that negative board behavior is rampant, and that such behavior is destroying any real chance of system success. Micromanaging the superintendent does not work. Neither does surrendering to the administration.
Above all, damaging boards are characterized by “disarray”. The board members don’t share a common vision, nor do they engage productively with the superintendent or the public. Different actors in the system strive to advance personal agendas unrelated to the rightful goals for the entire district. Or some board members do not understand the role of the boards, intervening with staff and cutting deals that no individual has the authority to broker.
School board governance matters. Measurable student outcomes improve when the board cleans house. Paying attention to community engagement, accountability, teamwork and transparency sets the stage for more and more students to reach ambitious goals, declaring triumphantly, “I did it!”