Indeed, there only exist arrangements amongst governance models that work better or worse for certain purposes, in certain contexts, and at certain times, according to Frederick M. Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Hess writes that particularly in urban districts, elected members too often violate the norms of effective boards, but frequently they do so in an attempt to address real concerns.
Students of mine from my Ethical and Legal Dimensions of Leadership class probably recall the case study, School Board Governance: The Times They Are A-Changin’ from the Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership. Generally speaking, a deviation from the traditional school board role has taken place in the second half of the 20th century. The primary characteristic of this deviation has been a gradual weakening at the local level as federal and state governments have assumed a greater role in the governance of education, with NCLB being the most recent (and extreme) example of this shift (despite the fact that the U.S. Constitution is silent on the issue of public schools). Special interest pressures and court-issued judgments are also contributors to the erosion of local control. And oh-by-the-way, the encroachment hasn’t worked. The achievement gap has morphed into an opportunity gap in the new order and its movement (or narrowing) has proven to be glacial (please note that this is not in anyway dismissive of the great pockets of work that continue to be done to narrow the gap in many places around our nation and the world).
“School boards are the agents through which the general public exercises control over public education.” About 25 years after that comment was published in a 1968 study of school boards, Michael Kirst, then the Co-Director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) and a professor in the Department of Administration and Policy Analysis at Stanford, noted that social movements were challenging public institutions and trying to make them more responsive to forces outside local administrative structures. Kirst (1994) when on to write, “ Some would assert that these movements help fragment school decision-making so that schools cannot function effectively.”
Kirst was of the opinion then and remained of the opinion 20 years later (as evidenced by his role in the LCFF as the current President of the California State Board of Education) that the school board is the one institution that can focus on the big picture as long as it is not bogged down in operational detail. That’s a cautionary tale for soon-to-be-assembled school boards with the new school year and election season picking up steam. I am blessed in my school district. My team of trustees understands its role, as I do mine as a Superintendent.
A prescient Superintendent, Johnny Jones, in 1978 wrote the following about governance teams, “I've long since learned that a strong school board with a weak superintendent will not only set policy but will administer policy. A strong superintendent with a weak board will not only administer policy but will set it. A weak board and a weak superintendent will neither set policy nor administer it. And that may mean that the citizens will step in - justifiably. But a strong superintendent and a strong board and an informed citizenry happen to be the right elements for an education that can make the difference for our youngsters.” Does your school district governance team have the right elements? If not, it’s likely your district is not functioning at its highest level (and students pay the price). Let’s start with the assumption that governance is not a strategy that improves schooling. While governance creates the conditions in which improvement is either more or less likely to occur, it in itself is not a strategy.
For example, petty board politics bog districts down. When the need for reform is dire, it’s likely board politics have played a role in creating the conditions for reform to be necessary in the first place. To make transformative improvement possible, a strong governance team must focus on its mission to improve student outcomes.
What is a strong board? According to The Trustee Demonstration Project, a five-year study involving trustee boards from more than 20 colleges, schools, and non-profit organizations in the United States, it’s a board that scores high on all six dimensions of board competency: Contextual, Educational, Interpersonal, Analytical, Political, and Strategic. The study resulted in a school board evaluation tool. Trustees evaluate themselves based on a series of statements describing a variety of related board actions. Each action is scored according to how frequently it occurs. At the end of the evaluation, an overall “grade” is assigned to a board. Find the evaluation tool here and learn about board behaviors that lead to student success.
What is a strong superintendent? After all, it takes a strong superintendent and a strong board to improve student outcomes. According to the ACSA Superintendents Committee and the CSBA Superintendents Advisory Council, superintendents that meet the highest standards:
Promote the success of all students and supports the efforts of the Board of Trustees to keep the district focused on learning and achievement.
Value, advocate and support public education and all stakeholders.
Recognize and respect the differences of perspective and style on the Board and among staff, students, parents and the community—and ensure that the diverse range of views inform board decisions.
Act with dignity, treats everyone with civility and respect, and understands the implications of demeanor and behavior.
Serve as a model for the value of lifelong learning and supports the Board’s continuous professional development.
Work with the Board as a “governance team” and assures collective responsibility for building a unity of purpose, communicating a common vision and creating a positive organizational culture.
Recognize that the Board and Superintendent governance relationship is supported by the management team.
Understand the distinctions between board and staff roles, and respects the role of the Board as the representative of the community.
Understand that authority rests with the Board as a whole; provide guidance to the Board to assist in decision-making; and provide leadership based on the direction of the Board as a whole.
Communicate openly with trust and integrity including providing all members of the Board with equal access to information, and recognizes the importance of both responsive and anticipatory communications.
Accept leadership responsibility and accountability for implementing the vision, goals and policies of the district.
Another assumption: Governance teams are not created (or born). They are developed. A superintendent and a school board can become a strong governance team together. According to a Bowling Green State University study, Johnson (2012) concluded that effective districts support a high degree of collaboration between a school board and superintendent. Furthermore, the study indicated that boards and superintendents relied upon the positive trusting relationships to enable them to play strong, interdependent leadership roles, to examine and challenge each other’s views, to study data and confront existing realities, to ask probing questions, and to scrutinize each other’s performance in ways that strengthened and mobilized the entire team. Effective governance teams have well-defined relationships and a clear understanding of the roles that define that relationship. Role confusion is the most common issue plaguing ineffective and dysfunctional boards. High-functioning school district governance teams do not experience role conflict.
Now, back to school board elections, which have been acerbically described as the forgotten elections in American political life, despite dating back two centuries. School board elections are usually low visibility and low turnout, and frequently are uncontested. In fact, with the exception of a course that touches on the policy-making process, the role of values and interest groups, and policy analysis, there is not much interest in school board elections or the process in most educational leadership programs, including the Ed.D. program at CSUF where I teach. There is also an absence of research in this area in most educational leadership program, in part because school board elections are not part of a comprehensive research agenda in political science, but primarily due to a lack of interest.
In a recent study of board elections by Garn and Copeland (2014), seven theoretical approaches served as the context for examining school board elections. The seven theoretical approaches included capture theory, dissatisfaction theory, retrospective voting, partisanship, issue voting, character voting, and sociological theories of voting. Most interesting to me is Capture Theory. As the name implies, voters who have a direct special interest in the election outcome are more likely to vote than others and therefore "capture," or control, the board. But you can imagine that a “captured” board is likely not a high-functioning board acting in student’s best interest. The job of the superintendent is to build a high-functioning governance team from whatever board emerges after an election – captured or not.
Regardless of the dearth of research on school board elections, voters still vote on character first and foremost. Also clear is that voters will seek information about candidates’ character through social networks as well as formal and informal means.
Character still counts. I, for one, believe that good character is a prerequisite for any role having anything to do with kids. As John Wooden said, “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”