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School Boards' Marks on Own Assessment Give Critics Credence

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School board members turn out to agree with many of the harsh judgments that have been leveled against them by a growing chorus of critics, a report to be released this week has found.

The Institute for Educational Leadership, a Washington-based think tank, based its report on self-assessment data collected from individuals serving on nearly 300 school boards in 16 states.

Board members gave themselves failing or barely passing grades in such core areas of governance as their influence on other decisionmakers, their ability to provide leadership and policy oversight, their involvement of parents and other community members, planning and goal-setting, and their commitment to assessing and improving their own performance.

Board members also said they involve themselves too much in the day-to-day management of schools and have weak procedures for handling conflicts with their superintendents--two frequent charges of critics of the way school boards operate.

They gave themselves high marks for their ability to make decisions and govern their own conduct and said they are "somewhat effective'' over all.

"Getting national education standards to take root in communities requires introducing higher standards, new forms of assessment, support for staff development, and providing comprehensive services for children--areas of policy planning and development in which school boards say they are weakest,'' said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the I.E.L. and a co-author of the report.

To rectify the problem, states should redefine the roles and responsibilities of school boards by repealing all laws and regulations that govern them and reconstituting them as "local education policy boards,'' the report, entitled "Governing Public Schools: New Times, New Requirements,'' advocates.

A task force of the Twentieth Century Fund and the Danforth Foundation made similar recommendations last spring. (See Education Week, April 8, 1992.)

But, in the short term, the I.E.L. study also urges states to "actively encourage'' broad-scale experimentation with local governance.

Such experiments might include merging education with general-purpose government, establishing a governing body that oversees all public policies related to children and families, and contracting out the operation of schools.

Jacqueline P. Danzberger, the director of governance programs for the I.E.L. and one of the study's co-authors, said last week that the institute will use a $25,000 grant from the Danforth Foundation to help draft model legislation to reconfigure school boards and seek sponsors to introduce it in at least five states.

The I.E.L. has also received $235,000 from the Lilly Endowment to work with up to three urban districts to reform their governance structures in cooperation with the National Civic League.

'A Tactical Error'

The report reflects the increasing scrutiny that school boards have come under in the past year. (See Education Week, April 29, 1992.)

In addition to the Twentieth Century Fund and I.E.L. reports, the Committee for Economic Development this winter is scheduled to release a third study on school organization, management, and governance.

Media attention has also focused on the turmoil of many big-city boards of education and on the handful of radical school-governance experiments now under way across the country. These include the use of public funds to send children to private schools in Milwaukee; the takeover of the Chelsea, Mass., schools by Boston University; and the creation of parent-dominated school councils in Chicago.

"Such radical rearrangement of the public schools may become more common in the 1990's,'' the I.E.L. report predicts. "School officials who still believe that the status quo can be sustained are making, in our estimation, a major tactical and substantive error.''

Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and one of the study's co-authors, said in an interview that school boards have failed to change with the world around them.

Increasing poverty rates among children and their families, the shift toward national standards and assessments, and the greater involvement of business and political leaders in education all call for new, more collaborative strategies, he argued.

"A whole confluence of factors is coming at school boards,'' Mr. Kirst said, "and their role and operation have not changed fundamentally since 1920, when the last reforms of school boards were completed.''

No Best System

But the report cautions that there may not be "one best governance structure'' for every community.

Instead, it urges states to enact legislation that would enable communities to change their governance structure in response to locally determined problems and solutions.

In extreme cases, states could require localities to enter into a process for reforming their governance deficiencies.

The authors urge local boards to take the lead in initiating governance changes, rather than waiting to have them imposed from the outside.

Boards can still play a pivotal role in school improvement, they assert, if they accept the challenge.

"At the local level,'' they argue, "the school board is the only entity which can ensure that various components of restructuring are linked coherently and do not become merely disjointed projects.''

Ms. Danzberger said last week, "The board has the authority to determine the priorities and the policy framework in which anything is to be accomplished, and, to a certain extent, where the concentration of resources will be.''

But the report argues that efforts at self-reform on the part of school boards are not likely to happen in enough places soon enough and that outside interventions, including state laws, are needed.

Despite their perceived weaknesses, public school boards still retain tremendous clout in their communities. They employ some 2.7 million people, including 1.5 million teachers and 917,000 service employees. They also oversee expenditures of $220 billion and the education of 47 million students.

Detailed 'Road Map'

Building on the earlier work of the Twentieth Century Fund, the I.E.L. report provides what Mr. Kirst describes as a "road map'' for legislators and school boards to follow.

According to the authors, state laws or regulations should empower school boards to:

  • Hire a superintendent. State laws mandating the election of superintendents should be repealed, the report recommends.
  • Approve the budget and spending priorities.
  • Where collective bargaining exists, determine the policies and guidelines for negotiating contracts with teacher organizations.
  • Establish a strategic plan that includes long- and short-term goals, objectives, performance indicators, and public assessment systems. In large urban and suburban districts, the plan should include substantial operating and implementation discretion for individual schools, the report notes.
  • Approve curriculum frameworks in subject areas linked to the strategic plan. The result should be clear and coherent policies concerning what children should know and be able to do, the report says.
  • Establish staff-development policies designed to improve teachers' subject-matter knowledge and their teaching strategies.
  • Systematically link policies--such as categorical funding, accreditation, and instructional supplies--to student outcomes and curriculum frameworks. Boards should also remain concerned about the equitable distribution of resources among schools, the report says.
  • Serve members of local children's policy boards, encompassing public and private agencies serving children from birth to age 18.
  • Approve construction projects, but not all contracts and change orders.
  • In large local education agencies, formulate policies for more school-based management and school-site budget control.
  • Convene community forums on major educational policy issues.
  • Use ombudsmen to hear complaints and appeals and clearly explain procedures for citizens to follow.
  • Be authorized and encouraged to appoint citizen/consultant study groups to review particular issues.

State laws should also make it clear what school boards should not do, the report advocates. According to the authors, school boards should not:

  • Preside over student or employee grievances.
  • Approve all contracts and purchase orders that are bid competitively, or those involving small, noncompetitive bids.
  • Approve specific payments of expenditure items in approved budgets.
  • Approve all change orders in construction projects, unless they have a major impact on board policy.
  • Hire, fire, or promote specific personnel, except for the superintendent and a few top-level administrators.
  • Approve such detailed items as pupil field trips, interdistrict pupil transfers, specific staff-development activities, and bus routes.

Copies of the report are available for $15 each from the Institute for Educational Leadership, 1001 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 822-8405.

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