School & District Management

Boards Must Lead With Unified Theory, Book Says

By Jeff Archer — January 31, 2006 5 min read
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What’s your theory of action for school improvement? If you’re a school board member and you don’t have one, your district could be in trouble.

So argues Donald R. McAdams, a Houston school board member turned prominent national school board trainer, in a new book, What School Boards Can Do: Reform Governance for Urban Schools.

Based largely on his work coaching new school board members through his Houston-based Center for Reform of School Systems, the book offers a road map for leading large-scale change in big-city districts.

While covering the basics of good governance—such as how to handle constituent complaints without micromanaging—the focus of the treatise is on driving an overall agenda aimed at improving student achievement.

Donald R. McAdams, President, Center for Reform of School Systems

A crucial element, Mr. McAdams writes, is a “theory of action”—a general statement about the kinds of levers a district plans to use to attain its goals. Too often, he says, boards push specific policies, such as performance-based pay for teachers, without first reaching such agreement.

“Then, when they don’t get results, they say it must have been a bad idea, and they stop it,” Mr. McAdams said in a recent interview. “But maybe it doesn’t work unless it’s aligned with another set of strategies.”

The book, released last month by Teachers College Press, comes as school boards—long a target of criticism in political and policy circles—continue to take heat. The mayor of Los Angeles is pressing to join his counterparts in Boston, Chicago, and New York City in wresting control of the local district from an elected board.

Charges of dysfunctional relations often lie behind such efforts. But Mr. McAdams’ book suggests that getting along isn’t the ultimate goal, said Dan Katzir, the managing director at the Broad Foundation.

“He’s added the school reform piece, and made it central to the equation,” Mr. Katzir said of Mr. McAdams. “Effective governance is meaningless, unless you dramatically change the system for better teaching and learning.”

Theory Into Practice

An early funder of Mr. McAdams’ training efforts for newly elected board members, the Los Angeles-based philanthropy has launched an ongoing, year-old effort to put his ideas into practice in four urban districts.

Mr. McAdams’ own big theory is that school boards are best suited to lead school improvement. Superintendents come and go, he notes. But boards set the public policies that give their districts direction.

The Governance Game

Effective school boards need a coherent “theory of action” to guide their work as they move through a series of steps, a new book argues.

*Click image to enlarge


SOURCE: Adapted from What School Boards Can Do

“If you’re going to redesign your district, the school board has to take responsibility, because no one else can do it,” said Mr. McAdams, who in 2000 published a book about his years on the board of the Houston Independent School District, which spanned from 1990 to 2002.

His new work distills much of the content of the weeklong institutes for new school board members organized by the Center for Reform of School Systems, which he founded in 2001.

In it, he outlines what he calls “reform governance.” It begins with a consensus on core beliefs, such as the conviction that schools can and should eliminate the achievement gaps between most minority students and their white peers.

Other steps include succession planning long before a superintendent leaves, and building “civic capacity” by cultivating the support of business, political, and other leaders whose clout can help a district stay the course.

The linchpin is the theory of action, akin to what corporations call a “value proposition.” For Southwest Airlines, it’s that less ground time means more profits, which drives its choice of planes, routes, and in-flight food.

Without favoring one, Mr. McAdams describes several theories of action for school districts. There’s “managed instruction,” the idea that the central office must tightly control what gets taught and how.

At the other end of the spectrum is “performance empowerment,” which posits that school sites need wide discretion in matters of instruction, while being held accountable for their results. Others are a blend of the two propositions.

Once a district settles on a theory, it becomes the basis for specific policies in such areas as resource allocation, professional development, and curriculum. What matters, Mr. McAdams said, is that the board “owns” the theory.

“Superintendents can, in fact, provide the intellectual power for this,” he said. “But it has to be board policy.”

Not that Mr. McAdams sees relationships as irrelevant. He stresses that while boards and superintendents must work together as a governance team, management decisions should be left to the superintendent.

Staying Out of Trouble

Board members can cause trouble, he writes, when they try to solve problems by working directly with district staff members, as when a parent calls with a concern. He suggests clear policies for referring such matters to the right people.

Although his book offers many examples from real districts, Mr. McAdams concedes that no school board he knows of has fully followed the framework he lays out.

“What I’m asking board members to do is redesign their districts,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone has asked board members to do that in the past, at least not in any systematic way.”

With additional support from the Broad Foundation, however, he’s getting a chance to test his ideas by coaching the boards and superintendents in four districts over two years.

The Reform Governance in Action initiative includes the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Christina, Del.; Denver; and Duval County, Fla., school districts. The Broad Foundation provides about $380,000 for each district to participate.

“It’s a very sophisticated approach to intentionally changing behavior, practices, and policies,” said Mr. Katzir of the foundation, which plans to pick four more districts for the project this year.

In the 19,000-student Christina system, the board adopted a theory of action that stresses decentralized decisionmaking, districtwide curricula, data-driven instruction, and staff training as levers for improvement.

Christina school board member John Mackenzie said that agreement helped his district as it sought a new superintendent, Lillian M. Lowrey, whom it hired last week. Candidates, he said, knew precisely what the board wanted.

He admits that there’s still occasional discord on his board. But by focusing on the big picture, he said, much of the debate centers on the right issues.

“It’s provided a huge amount of clarity as to what we’re up to, and where we’re going,” Mr. Mackenzie said. “Without that, it’s extremely hard to keep your eyes on the ball.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at


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