Beating the Odds: Some School Boards Can Do It

In an Education Week commentary essay about school boards in 2009, I wrote, “[M]y sense of things, after two stints on my local school board…is that school boards have been overtaken by the ‘educatocracy,’ by powerful trade unions, certified specialists, certification agencies, state and federal rule-makers and legislators, grants with strings, billion-dollar-contractor lobbyists, textbook mega-companies, professional associations, and lawyers—the list could go on.”

I am quite gleeful, therefore, that the new report from Fordham entitled Does School Board Leadership Matter? asks most of the right questions about school boards—and provides some very interesting and helpful answers for progress moving forward.

Complaints about school boards are legion—and well known—and they carry on. A few titles in the new report’s endnotes spell it out: “School Boards: A Troubled American Institution” (by Jacqueline Danzberger), School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy (by Gene Maeroff), and Beseiged: School Boards and the Future of American Politics (William Howell). The dates of these publications range from 1992 to 2010. And, of course, Checker Finn beat them all, suggesting in a 1991 Education Week commentary that we should probably “declare local boards and superintendents to be archaic in the 1990s, living fossils of an earlier age…. Local school boards are not just superfluous. They are also dysfunctional.”

“Under these circumstances,” I wrote in my 2009 Ed Week commentary, “it doesn’t surprise me that many people think school boards are irrelevant. They are. Boards do a lot of moving the chairs around on the deck, but they’re not really steering the boat.”

Nevertheless, our 14,000 public-school boards of education remain, more like the iceberg than the boat—useless, unless you run into one.

This short but power-packed study by Arnold Shober, associate professor of government at Lawrence University, and Michael Hartney, researcher in political science at the University of Notre Dame, is here to offer hope: done right, school boards can work for kids.

The authors go right for the jugular, with four very important questions: Do school board members have the capacity to govern effectively? Do districts with higher-capacity board members ‘beat the odds’ and excel academically, despite district characteristics? What characteristics of board members are associated with greater capacity? Is a district’s method of selecting board members associated with its ability to beat the odds?

These are not all the questions that need be posed, but they are essential ones if we are to begin to move American education governance to a place where democracy can reassert itself. As Fordham research manager Dara Zeehandelaar and executive vice president for research Amber Northern write in their introduction, this is “the first large-scale effort to gauge the capacity of board members to lead America’s school districts effectively.”

Though my five-plus years on a school board in upstate New York certainly proved to me that boards lacked the capacity to do much of anything effectively, I never gave up hope. And it’s nice to see the authors of this study using survey data from 900 school board members in 419 unique school districts all across the country to prove that my faith was not in vain. Their findings are not all bleak, and many are nuanced enough to suggest at least a few possible improvements.

The good news is that “just over half of board members have reasonably accurate knowledge of on-the-ground conditions in their districts.” The bad news is that too much information is not “reasonably” accurate—and even when it is, it’s not enough:

*Board members’ knowledge sometimes “diverges widely from the facts” about their districts. Almost half of the survey respondents’ knowledge “did not match district conditions.”
*Board members were most knowledgeable about collective-bargaining requirements and least knowledgeable about academic standards.
*A full 82 percent of respondents believed that “defining success only in terms of student achievement is narrow and shortsighted.”
*Nearly two-thirds of board members receive no pay for their work.
*The capacity of U.S. school board members correlates with the academic performance of students.

This last finding about “capacity” is a crucial part of the study and offers the best on-ramp to improvement. Rather than painting boards and their members with a broad brush, Shober and Hartney spend time defining different types of capacity—possessing accurate knowledge about a district, focusing on student learning, and adopting effective work practices.

Helpfully, using National School Boards Association data, the authors are able to assess actual district conditions with respect to school finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, class size, and academic standards, and they then matched that data with board-member survey results. “If a board member’s knowledge diverges widely from the fact,” they write, “he is governing with a capacity deficit.”

In fact, as mentioned above, many in this survey were so governing. Many board members, for instance, thought that “there is too much pressure to raise academic achievement,” whether they lived in a state with challenging assessment or less challenging ones. The knowledge deficit is a big part of the capacity deficit.

What is most hopeful, however, is that Shober and Hartney were able to find out if those capacities—or lack of them—made a difference in student achievement. Can they “beat the odds”?

We find evidence that districts with high-capacity boards are far more likely to be those that beat the odds. Academic focus and work practices are specifically related to success.

Interestingly, there are also some correlations between board-member professions and political beliefs and their capacity (as Shober and Hartney measure it). Conservatives, for instance, are less likely than liberals to say that funding is a barrier to academic achievement, and liberals are more likely to put less focus on improving student learning.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, board members who are or were educators (27 percent of the total surveyed) believe that funding is a barrier and that the focus on student achievement is misplaced; these beliefs were held “regardless of the actual level of funding in the district,” “regardless of the actual teacher salaries” in the district, and “even after controlling for the type of student population that the district serves and the actual rigor of academic standards” in the district.

Thus, rather starkly, we begin to understand why so many school boards are so ineffective vis-à-vis student academic performance: they don’t accept, or don’t know, the facts. The good news is that “boards composed of more members holding an academic focus…are much more likely to govern districts where students beat the odds—that is, these districts showed better academic achievement per dollar than similar districts.”

The authors suggest that better training, paying board members (62 percent earn nothing), and holding board-member elections at the same time as general elections would help. There is evidence, according to the authors, to suggest that all of these efforts would help build board capacity to govern effectively. A broader electorate, for instance, would no doubt reduce the influence of special interests, but also the high percentage of educators (per above, 27 percent) who end up exercising those special interests as policymakers. School boards “that elect a larger percentage of members at-large and in on-cycle elections,” the authors find, “are substantially more likely to oversee districts that beat the odds.”

Unfortunately, even though 92 percent of board members surveyed said they received “training” for their jobs, the data did not allow the authors to judge the quality of that training. I could offer some insights about that, based on my experience: it’s lousy. In New York state, for instance, board members must take a financial-literacy test, but that test (a) is multiple choice and (b) may be repeated as often as you like until you get it right!

The authors seem to believe that board members spending “little time on district business…might not be an altogether bad thing: limited time on district business could mean less opportunity to micromanage or engage in petty politics.” However, in my experience, low-performing districts need all the micromanaging they can get. In fact, after sitting through an all-day board training session conducted by a representative from our state school board association and listening to the admonition not to micromanage in what must have been ten different languages, I blurted, “This district has followed your micromanagement advice for years and has let the educators run the show. Throughout this period we have been one of the worst-performing districts in the region. What should we do?” There was a moment of silence, then the advisor said, straight-faced, “That’s the board’s problem.”

Indeed, it is the board’s problem. And board members that can disregard bad advice, know the facts, and focus on what counts for student achievement can get the job done. That’s a tall order. And though the authors of this report acknowledge the “countless intervening factors” that “no doubt affect a school board member’s ability to influence district achievement” and which they haven’t covered in this report, they nevertheless provide an invaluable guide to policymakers for making a few simple changes in board governance that could effect major improvements for student academic performance.

-Peter Meyer

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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