Leadership Matters

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Are big-city school boards out of touch with their constituents? Over the past year, I have been wrestling with this question through a project of the National School Boards Foundation that listened to hundreds of urban residents and urban school board members voice their strong opinions about their public schools. The findings from this extensive public opinion research amount to an urgent wake-up call to urban school board members: Take up the people's agenda for schools. Focus on what matters most--improving the academic achievement of students. And do it now.

In the eyes of the urban public, school boards need to do better--today. For example, only 37 percent of urban residents nationwide believe their schools are doing a good or excellent job preparing students for college, according to the research report, "Leadership Matters: Transforming Urban School Boards." ("Survey Finds Gap Between Public, Board Members on Urban Schools," March 17, 1999.)

At a time when college is ever more essential to personal and professional success, this public perception alone signals the need for sweeping change in leadership from school boards.

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Copies of "Leadership Matters: Transforming Urban School Boards" are available by calling (800) 706-6722 (order #10-001), or online at

But there's more. On a troubling number of issues, urban board members seem to have priorities different from urban residents'. For example, school board members gave relatively low priority to strategies to make schools safer and provide more materials and supplies; the public ranked these strategies much higher.

Urban board members also gave themselves much higher performance ratings than their constituencies did. For example, fewer than half (49 percent) of residents believe schools do a good or excellent job teaching reading, writing, and math, compared with 69 percent of school board members. Just 39 percent of residents believe schools do a good or excellent job involving parents in education, compared with 51 percent of school board members. Forty-one percent of residents believe schools do a good or excellent job hiring and keeping high-quality teachers, compared with 68 percent of board members. And only 33 percent of residents believe schools do a good or excellent job keeping violence and drugs out of schools, compared with 82 percent of board members.

As the president of the Seattle board of education and the chairman of the Council of Urban Boards of Education, I know firsthand how challenging these findings are. It is some consolation that the disconnects between boards and the public--on priorities for school improvement and performance ratings for urban school systems--are hardly unique. Opinion research by Public Agenda and other organizations in the past decade has revealed similar gaps between school "insiders," such as teachers and principals, and school "outsiders," such as parents, employers, and the general public. And many of my colleagues and I are already working to address these issues.

At the same time, we can't ignore this research, especially in light of growing calls for vouchers and other proposals that threaten urban public education. Quibbling over the gaps is less productive than moving rapidly to close them. And that is what the National School Boards Foundation project aims to do, first by sharing its key findings and recommendations for closing the gaps.

The good news is that there is much we board members can do--and are doing--to strengthen our ties to our communities, build public support for our schools, and, most important, improve student achievement.

Lesson 1: Listen to Your Community. We're urging all urban school systems to consider replicating this national research. Do similar gaps exist in your communities? One way to find out is to ask people in your community what they need to see to be convinced that schools are improving. What are their priorities? What matters most? Do their priorities match yours?

Parents and community members are our customers. We need to know what they value and expect from their schools and students. This isn't to say we need to march blindly in lock step behind public opinion. In many communities, for example, safety and discipline are top public concerns. Installing metal detectors may be a good short-term solution, but it shouldn't be the only way we respond to the public. Over the long term, improving the academic program is another effective way of engaging students in productive activities. But if we don't even know what our community thinks--and if our agenda bears no relationship to their priorities--we're flying blind and asking for trouble.

Lesson 2: Focus, Focus, Focus. The daily crises of urban life continually divert our attention from our primary mission: leading schools and students toward academic excellence.

A fellow project participant uses this analogy to describe our challenge: "All too often, school board members are like firefighters on the ground, battling the flames, when they should be in a helicopter above the fire, able to see how extensive the blaze is, which way the wind is blowing, and where the resources need to be deployed."

Our work over the past year suggests a focused agenda that will help urban boards everywhere rise above the flames and address the big picture. This national study identifies four areas of great potential for improving urban schools:

  • Higher academic expectations, more resources, and stronger accountability. High expectations for academic achievement for all students must be clearly articulated and must be backed by resources, systemwide authority, and accountability to meet those expectations.
  • Active parent and public involvement. Parents and other members of the public must be actively involved as partners and allies in the process of public education. This means boards have to work more like team leaders, with the courage to invite others to the table and the skills to involve them constructively.
  • Quality teachers. Top-quality education depends on high-quality teachers--and urban school boards must focus on attracting and keeping teachers who know their subject matter and how to teach it. Moreover, boards should recognize that we must do more to treat teachers as professionals and key partners in improving schools.
  • Safe learning environments. Boards must make sure that all students attend schools that are safe and orderly and places where diversity is respected and valued. This is the area of the largest gap between public and board members' perceptions. The survey suggests that many board members have checked this off their to-do list, that this problem has been solved. Maybe so, but we have not sufficiently communicated this success to the public.

These four broad priorities emerged from what parents and community members told us. Then, during a two-day roundtable, about 50 urban board members, superintendents, principals, parent activists, union leaders, community and business leaders, and researchers developed specific recommendations on actions that can be taken in each area. Not surprisingly, this four-point improvement agenda mirrors recommendations from many other national organizations, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Alliance of Business, and the Education Trust.

The public expects us to act on their priorities. They expect and deserve to be at the table as partners.

The common agenda suggests growing agreement in the field on what's most important. The challenge for us as urban board members is to stop fighting flames on the ground and start making strategic decisions to battle the forest fire. We need to transform ourselves from reactionary to visionary leaders. In essence, we need to encourage and support the ground troops while we plan ahead for positive end-results.

For many, this will not be an easy transition. Like teachers, principals, and administrators, school board members need training to make dramatic and effective changes in leadership styles. As we work to carry out the recommendations from this project, we will be producing the kind of tools and supports that will help them do that.

The public expects us to act on their priorities. They expect and deserve to be at the table as partners. And they want visible results, starting now. Urban board members who deliver will have the public understanding and support they need to transform their schools.

Michael Preston is a school board member in Seattle. He also chairs the National School Boards Association's Council of Urban Boards of Education.

Vol. 18, Issue 33, Pages 34, 52

Published in Print: April 28, 1999, as Leadership Matters
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