School & District Management

An Overlooked Institution Struggles to Remain Relevant

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 12, 2009 9 min read

They oversee millions of dollars in public money. They hire and fire superintendents, and decide which textbooks teachers will use in their classrooms. They can even dictate whether students go on a field trip.

Yet local school boards remain mostly overlooked in national discussions of K-12 policy, even as the quality of leadership in public education has become a priority among policymakers, philanthropists, and education researchers.

In a nation with more than 14,500 local school boards—most of them composed of unpaid members with widely varying levels of knowledge about education—such neglect has led to a governance system that is too often ineffective, if not dysfunctional, some scholars and other experts contend.

And it’s not a problem that has just surfaced, they say.

“We’ve had all these reform policies over the years, from standards to charter schools and choice, and in instituting those, state authority was strengthened and some attention was given to the administrative side of things,” says Lorraine M. McDonnell, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the immediate past president of the American Educational Research Association.

Wallace Report:
Leading for Learning
Overview: An Overlooked Institution Struggles to Remain Relevant
In Pittsburgh, Monitors Hold School Board Accountable
Governance Project Teaches Value of Policy Framework
At State Level, Power Over Schools a Contentious Issue
Education Secretary Leads Chorus Calling For Big City-Hall Role
Mayors Can Be ‘Prime Movers’ Of Urban School Improvement
Commentary: Meetings Are Just Tip of Iceberg
Commentary: Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture—From a Small Town
Commentary: For Better Schools and for Civic Life, Boards Must Assert Power

“But nobody who created these policies seemed to think about the implications for the school boards that must govern and deal with a much, much more complex system,” she says. “There are some real capacity issues, and no one has paid enough attention to that.”

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank, puts the state of school governance in even more dire terms: “It’s totally obsolete.”

“We’ve got this whole layer cake of schools and districts, the state, and the federal [levels], each of which ends up functioning as a veto over the others,” he says. “We need to reinvent it.”

Others argue that district school boards are a vital piece of the democratic process and help ensure a community voice in important decisions about educating children. The focus, they argue, should be on changing the way boards behave.

“School boards matter,” says Mary L. Delagardelle, the deputy executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards. “The policy-level leadership of a board is critical to district improvement if we want the change to not just be pockets of excellence, but systemic excellence. Our focus should be on electing the best people and training them on what their roles should be.”

Pressure continues to build on school districts to close achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates, and prepare more students for college and careers. Now, with unprecedented amounts of federal dollars flowing to schools to achieve those goals, governance has never been more important, but questions about school boards’ capacity to fulfill their roles are mounting.

Education Week’s sixth annual “Leading for Learning” report delves into governance issues at both the local and state levels to illuminate the challenges and the possible remedies.

It examines a citizens’ group in Pittsburgh that is striving to make the work of the elected school board more transparent, efficient, and accountable. It profiles a national program’s specialized training to teach urban school boards how to craft policies that increase student achievement.

The report explores political struggles between some governors and state education leaders over who should be in charge of K-12 education policy. And it includes a special focus on the growing interest of mayors in running, or involving themselves deeply in, their cities’ public schools.

The Editorial Projects in Education Research Center commissioned a “Research Perspective” from Kenneth K. Wong, the chairman of the education department at Brown University, and Francis X. Shen, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on mayoral control and its outcomes.

Finally, three current or former journalists who are now school board members in their communities share insights on what it’s like to serve on those panels.

‘Duties Without Limits’

Elected school boards began appearing across the United States more than a century ago. The idea was that lay governance would be a more democratic, effective way to oversee public education than leaving it to corruption-prone municipal governments.

As school boards took hold, states legislators wrote laws mandating their duties, which, some experts say, helped create the micromanaging tendencies that today plague so many boards.

“Basically, over time, school boards have been given duties without limits,” says Paul T. Hill, the director of the Center for Reinventing Public Education, at the University of Washington Bothell. “And that has continued up until now. Every time the legislature wants something done on education, the school board is delegated to do it.”

In Louisiana, school boards hire and fire all district employees, from superintendents to janitors and bus drivers. Coupled with a culture in which many board members have served for decades, the arrangement has made managing for results an impossibility, says Paul G. Pastorek, the state superintendent of education.

“I would argue that the rules we’ve created for our school boards to operate by are what cause the bad behaviors to repeat,” Pastorek says. “Once you intentionally inject school board members into the hiring and firing process, they begin to believe that they should somehow control the outcomes of all of this. If everybody is in the middle of hiring and firing, there’s no accountability in the system.”

As part of a broader effort to improve public school performance, Pastorek tried, but failed, to get state legislation passed this year that would have limited the tenure of board members and taken the hiring and firing of school personnel out of their hands.

‘Doing the Wrong Thing’

Too often, board members misunderstand the difference between policymaking and administration, says McDonnell, the UC-Santa Barbara political scientist.

“A lot of these boards are doing the wrong thing,” she says. “They spend time on whether Johnny should be suspended or not. So what looks like micromanagement to a superintendent or to those of us outside a district looks to school board members like constituent service or representation.”

At their worst, boards can wreak havoc on the districts they govern.

A cautionary tale is Clayton County, Ga., a suburban district near Atlanta that lost its accreditation more than a year ago from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools because of breaches of ethics rules and state laws. Board members there were investigated for violating open-meetings laws and voting to give spouses jobs and pay raises. The crisis in Clayton County sparked a move for state legislation that would allow the governor to oust school board members in districts on the verge of losing accreditation. The measure was not enacted into law, but the proposal could be revived early next year when the new legislative session begins. (Gov. Sonny Perdue removed the four board members who violated ethics rules, and in May, the district regained its accreditation on a probationary basis.)

When they are at their best, though, school boards set specific goals in partnership with the district’s leadership team and make policies that help steer the district toward them.

“In highly functioning districts, the board and the superintendent figure out who needs to do what to meet their goals; they look at the budget together to make sure it’s aligned with the goals,” says Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

Pinpointing why some boards perform well, while others don’t, has been a priority for the Iowa Association of School Boards for the past nine years. Delagardelle, the deputy executive director, has overseen several phases of an ongoing study, called the Lighthouse Project, that has sought to identify what characteristics and belief systems are present in both high- and low-achieving districts. In its first phase, using data from Georgia, the Lighthouse Project identified the 15 highest- and 15 lowest-performing districts in the state, and sent researchers there to gather more data and conduct interviews.

In the high-achieving districts, board members said that “they feel part of something bigger than themselves and have a connection to the improvement work” in their districts, Delagardelle says. That feeling trickled down through all levels of the school system. Those districts also had boards with a very “elevating” sense of belief about what was possible.

But in the low-achieving districts, the belief systems were starkly different.

“We heard excuse after excuse after excuse for kids’ not achieving at the levels they wanted,” says Delagardelle, “and they sounded like they were totally helpless to effect change.”

‘Reactive’ Roles

Even with positive belief systems and a firm grasp of their policymaking role, school boards must grapple with a crush of complex issues, many created by state and federal education mandates. The advent of charter schools, for example, brought a new set of responsibilities to school boards, which, in some cases, must review and approve or reject charters to run those largely autonomous public schools. Then the boards oversee the schools to make sure they are fiscally healthy and are operating within the law.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability requirements and sanctions for schools and districts not demonstrating improvement have further dictated local education policy, observers say. This year, the infusion of federal stimulus aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act comes with strings that are seen as further stretching some board members’ skills.

Wallace Report: Leading for Learning

The sixth annual Leading for Learning report, funded by The Wallace Foundation, examines the school board’s role in education leadership.
Click here to read the full report.

In such an environment, McDonnell says, board members are “basically reactive. This all lands in their laps, and all they can really do is react to it.”

“I think in many ways, our districts and school boards lack the capacity to do what’s expected of them,” she says, “and those who are designing these policies and putting them in place are not thinking about the need to pay attention to the institutional design as well.”

That’s why McDonnell, in her keynote speech to the AERA annual meeting in Washington last spring, called on her fellow scholars to conduct more research on school governance.

“Most of my colleagues are concerned with classrooms and teaching and learning,” she says. “They see these governance issues as stuff that gets in the way of teaching and learning, and I think it ought to be seen as the stuff that could be fixed to enhance teaching and learning.”

A special report funded by The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the October 14, 2009 edition of Education Week as An Overlooked Institution Struggles to Remain Relevant


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