Study Examines How School Boards Contribute to ‘Beat the Odds’ Districts

By Alyssa Morones — March 26, 2014 2 min read
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Most school board members are knowledgeable about their districts, but that doesn’t mean they know how to improve student performance, according to a new report.

The report, produced by the Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education research and advocacy group, looks at survey data from 900 school board members in 417 districts across the country to examine what board member characteristics and knowledge were associated with districts’ abilities to “beat the odds"—in other words,to produce higher-than-expected student achievement in light of their student demographics and funding levels.

While, for the most part, board members were found to possess accurate information about their districts, there was little consensus about which goals to prioritize.

According to the study, the most successful districts were those whose board members focused efforts on improving student learning. Those districts were found more likely to exceed academic expectations, given their demographics and finances, than districts whose board members devote more hours to their positions.

Board members’ political beliefs were also found to impact their knowledge of their districts. Political moderates were more likely to be informed about district money matters than liberals and conservatives. Self-described conservative members were less likely than liberal members to say funding is a barrier to academic achievement, regardless of district spending. Liberals, on the other hand, were more likely than conservatives to say that collective bargaining is not a barrier to achievement.

Perhaps surprisingly, former experience as educators was not an indicator of an informed board member. In fact, it was the opposite. Board members with a background in public education were less knowledgeable about district conditions. According to the study, they were also more likely to say that school finances are a major barrier to academic achievement and that higher teacher pay is an important factor in improving achievement, regardless of actual levels of funding or teacher pay in their districts.

It wasn’t just the characteristics of the board members themselves that proved important. The study also found that the type of board elections affected the quality of the board members. Districts with a larger percentage of board members elected in at-large elections—that is, elected by the entire district instead of by subdistricts, wards, or precincts—and during on-cycle elections—those held the same day as major state or national elections—were more likely to “beat the odds.” In fact, on-cycle elections corresponded with an increase in student proficiency of about 2.4 percentage points.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.