All over North America, students are facing increased expectations in terms of testing and performance while school districts are facing increased expectations in terms of accountability for the results of this testing. Interestingly, students are performing at higher levels and graduating in record numbers despite the negative perception of the general public, often fueled by the political discourse. However, there remains an unacceptably high disparity in student achievement across school districts, calling for a change in educational processes.

Historically, boards were thought to have little bearing on student achievement; rather, they held more of an oversight role; so, they tended to leave student matters to the administration, focusing on duties like budget, policy and community relations. However, modern boards have begun to be faced with the expectation of raising student achievement. Yet, no one really knew how — or if — board actions affected student achievement.  Up to the turn of the 21st century, most board research had come in the form of anecdotal evidence and war stories. Among educational researchers, critics were arguing that school boards were irrelevant to improving student performance.  It was, in fact, easier to prove the converse — to find where bad board behavior had a negative impact on student achievement.

The role of governance in any organization can easily be taken for granted. After all, employees are the ones handling the daily business of an organization, while managers are the ones directly responsible for overseeing those employees. When an organization fails to produce results, it is the employees or management that most often face blame. Boards usually only receive attention in cases of malfeasance, not cases of underperformance. The same holds true for school boards. While most boards are not ready to throw out traditional governance structures, evidence is mounting that demonstrates the impact boards can have on student achievement.

From Intention to Impact

When individuals run for the board, most candidates report a benevolent reason for seeking a board seat from the outset — they want to help students. They come to the board with good intentions, but no real idea of how to significantly impact student outcomes or even what their role on the board is, much less a sense of what success looks like. If a list of what boards ought to be doing existed, well-intentioned board members would pursue those activities. Then, they would also have a clearer idea of whether they were successful (e.g., a board with a clear and balanced budget could be deemed successful, and a board without one, unsuccessful). In part because of its quantitative nature, most boards focus on fiduciary responsibilities. However, no correlation to producing successful students is tied to a board attending to their fiduciary responsibilities. True boardsmanship goes much deeper than this. Research demonstrates that it takes much more than good intentions to be an effective school board member who can have a positive impact on student learning.

School boards operate at a distance from the students in the classroom, but their decisions and policies have a tremendous effect on student learning. While teachers are the most important factor influencing learning, board decisions impact the classroom environment through decision-making in areas such as policy, curricular determinations, professional development initiatives and class size provisions. School board members do not need to be certified teachers in order to be effective in their role of serving the school district; however, board members do “need to develop sufficient understanding, knowledge, and beliefs in order to create the conditions within the system which will ensure that the professional educators can grow in their education expertise and generate productive change.”

Modern Boardsmanship

The 21st century has marked a shift in research as it pertains to boards. Increasingly, the historic role of governance as a fiduciary oversight entity began to be challenged. John Carver, for example, argued in Boards that Make a Difference (2006) that governing boards could increase organizational performance by focusing on setting broad policy goals, creating and adhering to strict policies on how the board operates, placing clear limits on executive authority, not communicating directly with staff, establishing clear expectations for staff and holding staff accountable for student performance. Carver popularized his brand of governance, but The Iowa Lighthouse Study stands as the defining research that began to explore whether school board governance had the capacity to influence student outcomes. The inquiry began in 1998 with ethnographic case studies of school districts in southern states with similar demographics but vastly different levels of student performance.

The case studies revealed that higher-achieving districts demonstrated common governance behaviors that contrasted with governance behavior in low-achieving districts. For example, board members in generally high-achieving districts did not make excuses for low-achieving students, while board members in generally low-achieving districts consistently blamed outside forces, such as poverty and the poaching of good students by private schools. In high-achieving districts, both school leaders and school board members expressed common goals and unity of purpose. In low-achieving districts, they did not do so.

Data Begins to Emerge

Based on findings, the Iowa Lighthouse Project developed what the project researchers called “conditions for productive change”: 1. connections across the system; 2. knowing what it takes to change achievement; 3. workplace support; 4. professional development; 5. a balance between district-wide direction and building-level autonomy; 6. a strong community connection; and 7. distributed leadership.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) simultaneously launched the Center for Public Education in 2006 to further formalize the functions of school boards. They published a framework consisting of eight different areas in which boards are advised to focus their work. The Key Work of School Boards, as the NSBA dubs them, are not research based, but do offer board members an overview of how successful school boards should be approaching their task. The eight keys, along with descriptive questions, are:

  1. Vision – Where does the board want the district to go?
  2. Standards – Against what should student performance be measured?
  3. Assessment – How should performance against agreed-upon standards be measured?
  4. Accountability – Who does the board hold responsible for student outcomes, and how?
  5. Alignment – Are limited resources allocated in ways that aid achievement?
  6. Climate and Culture – Is everything the district does focused on meeting its vision?
  7. Collaboration and Community Engagement – Who are the outside stakeholders, and how does the district interact with them?
  8. Continuous Improvement – Does the board make informed decisions to keep outcomes moving in the right direction?

While the NSBA does not give prescriptive steps for implementing the framework, they do provide some instructive inquiries, exemplars and paths to action. For example, a high-performing board would call attention to indicators that show the district could further improve student outcomes. An engaged board would use information not to defend or criticize the district, but to inform personnel and policy decisions.

Applying Research to Practice: Getting There From Here

For a board to have success in impacting student achievement, they must be trained; this type of work is not second nature to the average board member. The training needs to be focused not only on setting high-end goals for student learning, but also on determining the means to reach those goals. School board training at conferences and workshops can help board members understand the need for setting a vision and adopting goals to help make tangible progress toward that vision. However, this training requires a deeper dive than most board members can receive at a conference. Effective board training that brings about real change needs to be focused, specific and ongoing.

Extended Pathway to Improvement

This visioning process has been developed over time and is designed to help a district move toward accomplishing goals — moving the district forward in terms of student achievement. This process should be designed to be tailored to district needs and circumstances. In the best situation, a district would use every step. However, it is recognized that communities vary in their needs and opportunities. It should be noted that each of these steps should be informed by data regarding current academic standing as compared to both norm-referenced and criterion-referenced standards. The following overview outlines a full visioning process:

Initial Meeting With the Board for Self-Evaluation:  In this meeting, the board conducts a self-evaluation to assess where they are in the process of having a vision that they embrace, along with a set of clearly defined priorities for the district that structure both the board’s decision-making and the work of the district staff. This is also an opportunity for the board to focus on their dedication to the process.

Community Meetings/Gathering of Data From All Stakeholders:  The district conducts information-gathering sessions with interested members of the community (to include parents, business owners, community leaders, etc.) in a structured format that keeps them focused on moving forward for the betterment of the district. Many districts also create opportunities to solicit input from other stakeholders, including district employees and students. Using structured questions, time limits and facilitators keeps the conversations focused on the aspirations the community holds for its children. This is not a time for airing past grievances.  Vehicles for communication with the district should already be in place.  Participants should be guided to use those if they derail conversations.

Online Questionnaire: Using data from community meetings, an online questionnaire should be developed to solicit further input from community members. This may include people who were not able to attend community meetings, or it may include people who want to comment further after attending the community meeting/meetings.

Visioning: The board uses input from the community sessions, as well as their own knowledge of the students, their learning environment and the community, to write a statement that creates an ideal picture of what is desired for the district in the long term. It should be attainable and cause the district to reach beyond where it is currently. This is the unifying statement that the leadership team uses to form their strategic plan for incremental improvement.

Goal Development: At this point, the board and the superintendent should write district goals based on the vision statement. District goals are more specific than a district vision. They can be short- or long-term and are focused on the results the district’s leaders would like to see as part of the effort in achieving the vision and defining primary areas of focus in advancing student achievement. The goals address the issues the board would like the district’s staff to spend special time, effort and resources on in the coming year and in the long term. The board should use these goals regularly to assess its decision-making.

Superintendent Performance Goals Development: The administration should use the goals to set work priorities for itself and the staff. In this phase, the leadership team meets to develop strategies or performance goals that move the district demonstrably in the direction of the district goals. These performance goals or objectives are then taken back to the board for agreement and adoption.

Superintendent Evaluation Training:  Board training at this point helps the board examine superintendent evaluation strategically and assess how an ongoing evaluation cycle should fit into the goals of the district, establishing a cycle and defining expectations in advance for a process that aids in professional development and strengthens the working relationship with the board-superintendent team. This training should focus on both product and process. The instrument the board uses to evaluate the superintendent cannot be separated from the visioning work to which the team has committed.

The Key to Improving Student Outcomes Is Knowledge

Data is the key to making strides toward improved student achievement. Data, used well, can help school board members and everyone else who cares about education to make good decisions – ones based not on the loudest voices or the latest theories, but on the facts about what students need and how they are currently doing. Boards must glean multiple measures of district student data to identify where improvements are needed the most, then use that data in setting district-wide goals that set a high standard for students and staff. While board members are not professional educators, they should familiarize themselves with the accountability measures required in their state.  A strong board-superintendent relationship is one where the superintendent provides honest data to the board and they work together using the information not to defend or criticize the district, but to inform personnel and policy decisions.

While there is some concern that this level of expectation can put a strain on both staff members and their relationships with the board, research points to the fact that transparency fosters a sense of trust and open communication. Without clearly defined objectives, along with agreements around what counts as success, a pointed focus on change and improvement could begin to feel overwhelming to staff members. In his seminal work on the psychology of change, Michael Fullan found that “the single factor common to every successful change initiative is that relationships improve.” Working through the process together will lead to a stronger leadership team.

Outgrowths of a Focused Vision Process

When a board begins to tie its conversations and decisions to student achievement, the primary goal is to improve student outcomes. School board members, school leaders and district staff see that when setting goals, there must also be a clear indication of the steps necessary for achievement, a timeline for accomplishment and an indication of who is responsible for each objective. This applies the pressure of accountability more evenly on the shoulders of all levels of school leadership, rather than placing it on the individual backs of district teachers. This shared responsibility leads to an improved school culture.

Becoming more informed on the expectations from both accreditation agencies and the community, as well as where the district stands in terms of these expectations, creates a more knowledgeable board. This requires study and often challenges the paradigm of board members who are used to the corporate model of board work that employs a more hands-off approach. One of the most important reasons for building the capacity of the board to understand the needs of students is to ensure that the board approves the allocation of resources that aligns with these goals. Resources not only involve money, but also effort, energy, inventiveness and commitment across the system.

Additionally, this focus on student growth helps board members to educate and inform stakeholders. Many community members have a perception of the school district based on their own or family members’ experiences with the district – whether those experiences accurately reflect the effectiveness of the educational enterprise or not. A more informed board leads to improvement in community relations. Integrity and trust are gained inside and outside of the organization when boards monitor, evaluate and publicize decisions. Leadership and trust are important and matter when it comes to improving teaching and learning.

Governance in the Modern Era

From the discussions that began with The Lighthouse Project to the shift that emerged from the study, Governance in the Accountability Era, boards must continue to evolve.  Research continues to build linking board behaviors with student success. As theorists continue to debate the future of governance, those currently practicing must embrace the tenets of change and lead the way. We need a shift from “Governance in the Accountability Era” to “Governance in the Modern Era”; the future is now. Students can’t wait, and there is too much at stake to leave children languishing in a school that is underperforming. Data is ubiquitous; the platforms to share information are in place. While expectations are increasing on our students, so is disparity, as well as the need to pivot our focus to better equipping students for their future. Stepping up to the expectations of focused improvement is today’s board imperative. Using data to inform decisions, being intentional with those decisions in a goals-based process, becoming informed about what resources are needed, and sharing information and process with the community are all steps toward improvement. Modern board members are up to the challenge.