While school boards seldom initiate innovations, researchers who have studied school change have found, they are crucial to ensuring that they are carried out.
However, observers also point out that there have been few systematic studies of the role of boards in school change.
“I have to fault the academic community for a remarkable disinterest in that,’' says Luvern L. Cunningham, a professor emeritus of educational administration at Ohio State University. “To my knowledge, that hasn’t been researched extensively.’'
Mr. Cunningham and others note that a host of studies has shown that power has been shifting away from local school boards and toward education professionals and larger units of government.
In the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Educational Research, William L. Boyd, a professor of education at Pennsylvania State University, writes that researchers as early as the 1960’s had begun documenting this trend.
In part, he notes, the shift reflects the fact that part-time lay school-board members were increasingly reliant on the professionals to keep up with the growing complexity of large districts.
In addition, he notes, the federal government and, particularly in the early 1980’s, states took the lead on education policy precisely because of the perceived shortcomings of local boards.
But researchers have found that, contrary to their expectations, local school boards played a significant role in implementing state reforms of the 1980’s.
In a study of 59 schools in six states, researchers from the Center for Policy Research in Education said they expected that some districts would refuse to comply with state policies, and that most would “adapt’’ them to local agendas.
In fact, they found that “local response was remarkably uniform, with little apparent local resistance,’' and that the local response was substantive, not merely symbolic.
In some instances, according to Richard F. Elmore, a professor of education at Harvard University, local districts picked up on state reform efforts and moved beyond them. State policymaking around student standards, for example, resulted in a surge of local activity.
Such moves were especially true in already high-performing districts, which raised their own standards to exceed the new state requirements and to maintain their position relative to other school systems.
According to Mr. Cunningham, superintendents, rather than board members, have taken the initiative in most locally generated reforms.
But, he says, many chiefs keep an eye on their boards as a guide for policy direction.
“For the most part, smart superintendents involve boards in those kinds of changes,’' he says. “They look for shared leadership, especially when there’s extra funding involved.’'
Michael Fullan, the dean of the faculty of education at the University of Toronto, notes that board approval is also critical to the success of school-based management, in which boards are expected to set general goals and allow local schools a great deal of authority in developing ways to meet them.
“Individual schools can become highly innovative for short periods of time without the district,’' Mr. Fullan writes in The New Meaning of Educational Change, “but they cannot stay innovative without district action to establish the conditions for continuous and long-term improvement.’'
Mr. Boyd points out that experiments in school-based management could enhance lay local control over education by involving parents and members of the community--at the school level--in educational decisions.
But he cautions that the research base supporting such experiments is limited. One review of the sparse literature, he notes, found “little evidence’’ that the practice developed effective schools.
“Although the case for school-based management is built on more than faith,’' he writes, “there clearly is a need for more systematic research.’'
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: In Promoting Change, Board Support Is Essential