‘Minimal’ Training May Not Fit Boards’ Needs

By Peter Schmidt — April 29, 1992 7 min read

A growing number of states have begun requiring school-board members to undergo formal training in an effort to improve local education governance.

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But experts disagree sharply over what form the training should take and whether most programs are effective in improving school boards’ performance.

Jacqueline P. Danzberger, the director of governance programs at the Institute for Educational Leadership, says most state mandates are “very, very minimal,’' requiring board members to spend a certain number of hours passively receiving information on such matters as school law, communications, and finance.

“There has been nothing to support board members in new behaviors,’' she says.

The 12 states that mandate training for board members vary widely in the amount of training required and in the sanctions imposed on those who refuse to participate.

School-boards associations in more than a dozen other states also offer voluntary training for their members, in part to pre-empt state mandates.

In West Virginia, board members are required to undergo seven hours of training that stresses how to govern effectively without meddling in administration.

Jeanne Grimm, the program officer for training for the West Virginia State School Boards Association, says the sessions appear to be “making a big difference in terms of raising the awareness of school-board members.’'

Many board members in her state also appear to be getting “way above the minimum’’ amount of training required, says Ms. Grimm, who is also the vice president of the Monongalia County school board.

‘Elitism and Arrogance’

Although the National School Boards Association endorses the idea of board-member training, it argues that participation in such programs should be voluntary.

State requirements, it asserts, sometimes hinder board members from seeking training that meets their individual needs.

In a report issued in January, Thomas A. Shannon, the executive director of the N.S.B.A., writes that calls for mandated training are based on a “statement of elitism and arrogance’’ that holds that education issues are too complex for ordinary people to handle.

A far better solution than mandatory training, he says, is to encourage outstanding people to run for election to the board.

“Then,’' Mr. Shannon writes, “after good people are elected, let the competitive marketplace--including school-boards associations--provide the training school-board members themselves decide they need from the in-service education programs they select based on the quality of what is offered.’'

The N.S.B.A. also offers instructional clinics for its members at its annual conventions.

Lack of Team Focus

Experts in school governance contend, however, that most training programs are superficial, focus primarily on state requirements for school boards, and do not help board members change their behavior to become more effective.

The training mandates also are flawed, Ms. Danzberger maintains, because they focus on individual board members, rather than on school boards as a group.

The chief problem facing many boards is their collective behavior and their inability to handle conflict--something that is best remedied through group training, Ms. Danzberger says.

“It is very difficult for training for individual board members to have an impact on the full board,’' she says, because those who attend training sessions often have difficulty relaying what they have learned to the board as a whole.

In Texas, according to state officials, one of the biggest problems plaguing the 20 school boards working with special monitors is the inability of board members to work together.

Effective training for school boards would operate in “a very different mode from the way training and development now takes place,’' Ms. Danzberger asserts.

Such training would involve more than one session, take place over a longer period of time, and encourage board members to assess their own skills while learning how to interact.

The governing boards of many corporations, philanthropies, and institutions of higher education have undertaken such training programs in recent years, she notes, but the idea has yet to catch on in public elementary and secondary education.

Learning on the Job

Studies of how board members learn their jobs also cast doubt on the effectiveness of most current training.

Both board members and superintendents agree that board members often are unprepared for their role, Marilyn Tallerico, an assistant professor of educational administration at Syracuse University, writes in a study to be published in the journal Planning and Changing.

Both groups also think board members need continuing assistance over time, Ms. Tallerico found, based on extensive interviews with 11 superintendents and 38 board members from suburban and rural communities.

But the two groups diverge sharply on how board members learn their tasks.

Most board members said they learned about their job through making mistakes, examining their own actions, independently gathering information from other people, reading, or taking part in formal training programs sponsored by school-boards associations.

Association activities were mentioned least frequently by board members as a source of information.

The board members who were surveyed also said they relied little on the guidance of superintendents. And they disagreed sharply with superintendents--and the rationale of many state requirements--in their views of how board training should take place.

The superintendents surveyed tended to view board members as inexperienced lay people. They perceived themselves as having the central role of guiding board members toward approving certain policies.

Such a perspective, Ms. Tallerico says, tends to support the goal of giving board members more formal training, or of giving them more opportunity to interact with the superintendent.

Most board members, on the other hand, placed more value on their own prior experience, independent perspectives, and grasp of educational issues.

Such views, Ms. Tallerico says, tend to discount the effectiveness of formal, passive “training’’ programs and to lend support to a new model of preparation that would give board members a central role in their own learning process, such as learning from experience, self-assessment, and independent study.

New Training Models

To improve school-board training, the Institute for Educational Leadership has developed a self-assessment test for school boards and five training modules designed to address those aspects of board governance most often deemed in need of improvement: community involvement, relations with the superintendent, policy oversight, planning and goal-setting, and the establishment of norms and expectations for board members.

Ms. Danzberger says school boards in eight states have used the self-assessment mechanisms. Each training module takes from three hours to a full day to complete.

The Danforth Program for School Board Members, meanwhile, offers professional-growth activities designed to help school-board members function more effectively as a team. So far, the program, established by the Danforth Foundation in 1982, has worked with 48 school boards in eight states.

In 1989, the foundation began working with members of urban boards in Texas, helping them to become aware of the factors outside schools’ control--poverty, substance abuse, adolescent pregnancy--that inhibit children’s education.

The following year, the program continued with an emphasis on assisting boards to develop collaborative efforts with city officials, youth-service agencies, and state human-service departments.

In seven cities, board members and representatives of other groups have formed teams to develop community-action plans to address children’s needs.

State Mandates

Texas was the first state to mandate training for school-board members, according to the Education Commission of the States. A 1984 law requires board members to participate in an orientation session within 60 days of their election or appointment, and to get at least 20 hours of training during their first year in office.

Georgia soon afterward passed legislation requiring board members to undergo orientation and to get at least one hour of training annually.

Since 1988, 10 other states have required board training, and more states are considering it.

Most laws name the state departments of education or school-boards associations as responsible for conducting the training.

Few states have legislated significant penalties for board members who ignore the requirements.

In West Virginia, only 7 of the state’s 275 local board members failed to undergo the required training last year, Ms. Grimm notes. If board members do not comply, their failure to do so is released to their local newspaper.

“If you did not get the training,’' Ms. Grimm says, “everybody knows.’'

A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: ‘Minimal’ Training May Not Fit Boards’ Needs