School & District Management

Governance Report Calls For Overhaul

By Karla Scoon Reid — September 20, 2000 5 min read

State laws should be changed to define more clearly the roles and responsibilities of superintendents and school board members, a report released last week argues.

Without strong collaborative leadership, it says, districts are unlikely to raise student achievement. But while improvement efforts have tackled almost every aspect of schools—from teachers to testing—they have left governance virtually untouched, according to the authors.

The study, “Thinking Differently: Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership, Governance, and Teamwork for High Student Achievement,” was published by the Educational Research Service and the New England School Development Council.

Rather than simply call for increased teamwork, the report advocates changing state laws to limit school board work to policymaking and long-term planning, clearing the way for superintendents to manage day-to- day operations.

For More Information

“Thinking Differently: Recommendations for 21st Century School Board/Superintendent Leadership, Governance, and Teamwork for High Student Achievement” is available from the New England School Development Council.

It also favors amending states’ open-meeting laws to allow boards and superintendents to evaluate their work in private, a practice that would allow them to focus on becoming effective partners, the authors believe.

“Our challenge is to solve what we think is an urgent need to get superintendents and school boards to work together as a team,” said Richard H. Goodman, the project director at the council. He conducted the study with William G. Zimmerman, Jr., a senior associate.

The report suggests mandating professional development for board members and superintendents; setting national standards for superintendents and new certification requirements; and retooling graduate education programs to fit the contemporary superintendency.

It also calls for the creation of a National Center for Board/Superintendent Leadership to support the effort with research and other resources.

The study is based on the results of a survey of the executive directors of every state’s school board and administrator associations, along with advice from a 36-member national advisory committee.

“Some reformers made an egregious error by just bypassing the district,” said Michael D. Usdan, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership and a member of the advisory committee. “The district is the linchpin between the school building and the state. We have to be part of the solution.”

Largely Ignored

Although leaders of the National School Boards Association and the American Association of School Administrators were involved in crafting the study, there is no organized effort to see that its recommendations become law.

Mr. Goodman, a former superintendent who served simultaneously as the executive director of the New Hampshire school boards’ and superintendents’ associations, said he would meet with governors, legislators, state superintendents, and university and business leaders to try to spark interest in reform.

In addition, the Educational Research Service, an Arlington, Va.- based independent, nonprofit research foundation sponsored by seven school- management associations, will mail the study to all local board presidents and superintendents.

The study continues work done on school governance in the 1997 report “Getting There From Here,” also published by the ERS and conducted by the New England School Development Council, a nonprofit organization based in Marlborough, Mass. that works with districts to foster high-performing schools.

Mobilizing support for the recommendations could prove difficult, observers suggest, since states’ education improvement plans have largely ignored local superintendents and school boards in establishing systems of standards, assessment, and accountability.

“If you trusted the school board and superintendent to set high curriculum standards and testing, you wouldn’t need state laws,” said Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University and a member of the study’s advisory committee.

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the NSBA, said state laws often unintentionally invite boards to micromanage school systems, while parents beg board members to solve their problems. As a result, board members aren’t sure where their responsibilities end, she said, and superintendents often view boards as enemies rather than teammates.

“Conflict develops when there’s an absence of accountability,” added Charles W. Fowler, the superintendent of the Hewlett-Woodmere schools in Woodmere, N.Y., and another advisory committee member. “The whole concept of a far clearer demarcation of accountability goes a long way with joint planning.”

Need for Training

Some states have taken steps to assure that board members and superintendents have separate roles.

Massachusetts’ 1993 education reform law included provisions that left almost all personnel decisions to superintendents and principals. The state’s school committees, as local school boards are called there, were modeled after a corporate structure.

So far, only a few states, including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas, require professional development for board members, as the report recommends. It also calls for joint training for a district’s board and superintendent to learn to function as a team.

Superintendents also need better guidance to succeed at their jobs, the report says. Intensive internships, along with coursework in curriculum, instruction, and teambuilding, are vital preparation that too few district leaders receive, it says.

But Mr. Kirst cautioned that few aspiring superintendents have the time or money to enroll in programs that offer intensive training.

The report is the latest to underscore the problems in school leadership and governance. Last year, a national panel convened by the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based nonpartisan policy clearinghouse, called for new approaches, including decentralizing authority to the school level. (“ECS Report Tackles K-12 Governance,” Nov. 10, 1999.)

The ECS has established a National Center on Governance to start rethinking and redesigning school leadership from the statehouse to the school.

Joseph Cirasuolo, the superintendent of the Wallingford, Conn., schools and an advisory-team member, predicted: “I don’t think we’ll ever meet learning standards for our young people if we don’t deal with governance.”

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