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Published in Print: July 10, 2002, as Training Sessions Help Urban School Boards Lead Change

Training Sessions Help Urban School Boards Lead Change

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In explaining his vision of effective urban school board leadership, Donald R. McAdams fittingly uses a football analogy. It's essential, he tells a group of local board members from Texas, a state that's fanatical about the sport, that players learn how to tackle, run the ball, and protect their quarterback. But those skills alone aren't enough.

"A team that doesn't know the fundamentals can't win," says Mr. McAdams, a former president of the Houston school board. "But a team that just practices the fundamentals, but doesn't have a game plan, is going to have a hard time winning, too."

Through his Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Mr. McAdams is trying to get school boards to look beyond their districts' immediate concerns and see a bigger picture. Sure, he says, boards play an important role in providing oversight. But he also believes their primary job is to use their political skills to keep their districts on a long-term course toward school improvement.

Around that premise, his center organized a pair of intensive training sessions for newly elected school board members from urban systems. A group of 35 local education leaders from Texas met here June 14-17; a similar event to be held in Colorado Springs, Colo., late this month is expected to draw some 23 novice board members from around the country.

Change Agents

A group of Texas philanthropies, the AT&T Foundation, and the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation have covered expenses, including travel for participants.

Those "institutes," as the center calls them, contrast sharply with more typical board training, which deals with such nuts and bolts as how to follow regulations and how to implement specific educational programs. Using the Harvard Business School case-study model, institute participants here analyzed the real experiences of four Texas school boards in candid discussions led by seasoned district leaders.

The scenarios taught important lessons about getting community "buy-in" when making major changes, about anticipating challenges down the road, and about having clear and agreed-upon expectations when making key decisions, such as hiring a superintendent. Each case demonstrated the need to take the initiative and to weigh all options based on how they affect student learning..

"We all come to the table wanting different color paint on the walls, or we'd like to see the custodial services look a different way," said Arthur Griffin Jr., a "faculty" member of both of the center's institutes who also chairs the school board in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. "But we need to also focus those particular agenda items on the ultimate mission of the local school system, which is improving student achievement."

The new training effort comes at a time when many urban school boards are on the defensive, and some are on the way out. Last month, New York joined a growing list of cities where boards have been stripped of much of their authority in favor of mayoral or state control. ("N.Y.C. Mayor Gains Control Over Schools," June 19, 2002.)

A common complaint is that boards micromanage and become paralyzed by infighting.

But Mr. McAdams believes urban school boards should be more assertive, not less. With expectations for student improvement at an all-time high, he says, they can ill afford to surrender their leadership roles. "They must see themselves not as presiders over the status quo, but as change agents," he said.

The Right Role

The Aldine, Texas, public schools are a case in point. One of the districts studied at the institute here, Aldine had long enjoyed great stability and collegiality among its leaders, but student performance there tanked in the early 1990s. Rather than point fingers, the board and its veteran superintendent agreed on a plan to better focus the district's curriculum on the skills measured by the state's tests.

The efforts began to pay off in a couple of years, but Aldine didn't stop there. District leaders employed measures of student performance other than the state assessment to gauge interim progress, and they greatly honed staff development. As a result, the achievement gap between minority and white students there has been cut in half. The system as a whole has achieved the second-highest rating in the state's school accountability system six years in a row.

"What it shows is that if you have stable leadership that is focused, you can do big reform," Mr. McAdams said, who wrote about his own experience as a board member in Fighting to Save Public Schools ... and Winning! Lessons From Houston, published in 2000 by Teachers College Press. ("Tell-All Book Offers Insight Into Board Politics," Oct. 4, 2000.)

In contrast, many experienced district leaders at last month's institute said, boards often get into trouble when they try to direct district operations, while superintendents try to carry all the burden of planning a long-range school improvement strategy—the reverse of the way it should be..

David Converse, a new school board member from the 33,000-student Spring Branch, Texas, school system, agreed it's easy to get sidetracked.

"There are a lot of things that require attention on a fairly regular basis, and they can, if you let them, eat your whole lunch," said Mr. Converse.

He added: "I'm not saying that we don't do a good job now, but we can become better, and I think that's what the emphasis of this course is. It's to establish some key parameters."

Vol. 21, Issue 42, Page 11

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