School & District Management Commentary

A Culture of Questions

By John G. Ramsay — October 04, 2000 11 min read
A culture of questions is often shadowy, hard to define, difficult to create, and challenging to justify—but necessary.

School boards are known, feared, and criticized for the decisions they make. Boards are sites of contention because of the divisive issues they are elected to address. They establish district goals, make policy, hire and fire leadership, negotiate contracts, set referendums, and approve budgets. Boards use insufficient data to make tough calls about poorly structured problems. This much I knew when I first ran for our local school board in 1995.And I had been enough of a student of school governance to know how boards got themselves and their districts into trouble. What I did not understand was why board dysfunction was so common and seemingly intractable. That’s why I have found Eugene R. Smoley’s model of board failure so compelling. Mr. Smoley argues, in his 1999 book Effective School Boards, that boards cripple their capacity to govern by making six common and avoidable mistakes: (1) making political decisions; (2) functioning without ground rules; (3) responding to coercion; (4) not connecting with the community; (5) neglecting self-improvement; and (6) taking fragmented actions.

I would argue that there is is a seventh common and avoidable mistake boards make: failure to cultivate a culture of questions about the community’s schools. When school boards fail to tend to how questions get asked and answered, they undermine their own legitimacy. And, more importantly, they feed the cynicism that judges school districts to be impossibly bureaucratic and unaccountable to their communities.

Situated as intermediaries between the public and district professionals, boards play a critical role in shaping each of the three pieces of a district’s culture of questions:

  • With the public, board questions should aim at framing problems, translating family stories into issues that district professionals can either investigate or reasonably explain.

  • With professionals, boards need to define a set of questions that they want clear, well-documented answers to on a regular basis. Board questions should not be a game of “gotcha.” A supportive work environment for professionals needs to be disciplined by a thoughtful set of carefully developed questions, not an impromptu barrage of quibbles.

  • Boards need strategies for assessing the vital signs of their districts’ culture of questions. As stewards of the community conversation about schools, boards need regular feedback on how well they’re executing this role.

School districts, I’m aware, do not enjoy reputations as governing bodies that are especially effective at promoting thoughtful and civil discussion. The popular image of district deliberations runs in the opposite direction. The book-banning scene from the movie “Field of Dreams” captures the assumption that shouting matches are more common than a culture of questions.

During a heated exchange in the film, Annie Kinsella is goaded by her antagonist: “Oh yeah—your husband plowed under his corn to build a baseball field, the weirdo.” Annie responds: “At least he’s not a book burner, you Nazi cow.” Public meetings about schools, we’re asked to believe, are not much more than a carnival of accusations.

A culture of questions is often shadowy, hard to define, difficult to create, and challenging to justify. Like many elusive concepts, it is easier to say what a culture of questions is not, than to articulate a compelling vision of what it is and how it works. But for starters, it is worth noting that a culture of questions is not fully described by the insular “consideration and discussion of the reasons for and against a measure by a number of councilors” that political theorists offer as one form of democratic deliberation.

“Reasoning among the councilors” is only a brief moment in the life cycle of any decision. If board members understand only what the other councilors think about a measure, they have not effectively engaged the families and taxpayers they represent. A culture of questions cannot work where deal-making, favor-granting, and rubber-stamping are board norms. This is not to deny the political character of board decisionmaking. But in a community with a strong culture of questions, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat are tempered by considerations about how searching and honest the discussions were. And how fair the process felt—to insiders and outsiders alike.

Finally, a culture of questions will be weak in a district where a board has retreated to a safe policy-governance perch beside its consultant. Policy-governance types have appealing slogans to teach. Boards, they tell us, should stay focused on “ends, not means,” on “steering, not rowing.” They urge boards to stay above the implementation fray by focusing on the big picture, setting the guiding goals, and empowering executives and middle managers. One of the problems with this strategy of “uncoupling” the ends and the implementation is that it cuts boards off from the family stories that bind them to their communities.

A culture of questions is rooted in parents’ confusion about district policies and practices. Elaborate communication strategies notwithstanding, parents are often baffled by what they know—or think they know—about their children’s schools. Why can’t my son get any time on the computer? Is this a district policy, or just the way they do it at my child’s school? Am I allowed to have input on this kind of an issue? Why do I always feel like no one is listening to me? Parental puzzlement emerges when board members ask the simple question: “How are your kids doing in school?”

In many ways, “How are your kids doing in school?” is the question at the heart of a district’s culture of questions. This is the question parents are asking and answering in any community’s coffee shops, parking lots, bleachers, and playgrounds. When board members join that conversation, they’re living the message: “We’re here to puzzle this through with you; to listen and learn. We’re poised to follow up.”

“Follow up” does not imply solving problems through the micromanagement of solutions. It means contributing to the definition and framing of problems.

School board members have to listen beyond individual stories for patterns in district attitudes, programs, and processes.

Board members have to listen beyond individual stories for patterns in district attitudes, programs, and processes.

Distinctions need to be drawn between a bad day and chronic behavior; a slip-up and a slipshod procedure; a slump in performance and resistance to a districtwide goal. These distinctions can be made only if boards use questions from parents to frame larger issues about the quality of service.

With district professionals, a culture of questions serves a different purpose than it does with parents. With the public, the purpose is to frame problems. With professionals, the purpose is to gauge their understanding of the full range of district problems, and to assess the resources and strategies they’re employing as solutions.

A culture of questions provides boards with the opportunity to share their mental picture albums about what is going well and poorly in the schools. With district professionals, boards have the responsibility to say: “These are the worrisome pictures we’re getting. Are our pictures dated, blurry, and misleading? Or, do we have a real problem here, and if so, what are we doing about it?”

Public questioning is, in my view, one of the distinguishing features of what school boards do and should do. Boards are elected to represent the children, families, and taxpayers of their communities. They are elected to bring the educational concerns of their communities into an open forum. Without such a forum, the present and future state of the schools cannot be debated, and, if necessary, redirected.

Boards are elected to ask questions, and deliberate about the quality of the answers to those questions. Questions trigger the process by which a community can come to understand its schools. Absent the questions, the data, the reasoning, and the consideration, a district becomes so many factions of disgruntled taxpayers, rather than a community of informed citizens.

Close questioning ensures that data, reasoning, and plans are available for community consideration. If the level of distrust between a board and district professionals is so high that public questioning is heard as an inquisition, then the community has a serious problem. Then the board has failed at the critical task of making public education public. The challenge is to ask the tough questions, while at the same time conveying the clear message to district professionals: Our kids can’t succeed unless you succeed—what will it take?

To be good stewards of a district’s culture of questions, boards need to be attentive to the patterns in their own questions and the depth and thoroughness of the answers they’re receiving. They need to create and maintain the feedback tools and moments for reflection about their core questions. The following are 10 sets of concerns that, if checked regularly, can allow boards to guard, strengthen, and change their districts’ culture of questions:

  • Questions about purpose. Are our questions generating good discussion about our district’s mission, and how well that mission is understood and implemented throughout the district?
  • Questions about learning and achievement. Do our questions get at the educational rationales for the proposals under consideration? Or are we in a spin cycle of conversation about finances and organizational needs?
  • Questions about information and jargon. Are we getting information that will help us with decisions? Or are we just getting more graphs and charts of the available data? Are we insisting that answers are clear to families, and not obscured by educational jargon?
  • Questions about resources. When we ask about resources, do we just ask about money? Or do we have a broader view of the time, energy, and morale costs that are at stake in any proposal?
  • Questions about vulnerable children and families. Have we institutionalized the collection of data about our most vulnerable kids and families? Do our questions promote thorough discussions about the kind and size of the achievement gaps in our schools? Are advocates for our most vulnerable families regular participants in our formal and informal deliberations?
  • Questions about changing opportunity structures. Do we have good sources of information about how and why the educational and occupational opportunities available to our kids and families are changing? What are we doing as a board to re-educate ourselves about the changing shape of the economy’s opportunity structure?
  • Questions about staff development. Are our questions discerning enough to distinguish between what is effective and ineffective in our professional-development programs? Are we eliciting testimony from our teachers about what it will take for them to reinvent their professional identities and work teams over the course of their careers?
  • Questions about parental and community satisfaction with programs. Do we have protocols— focus groups and exit interviews, for example—that help us learn what families value in our schools? And what kinds of dissatisfactions would lead them to leave our district?
  • Questions about priorities. Do our work processes permit us to distinguish between the important and the urgent? Are we allowing ourselves enough time to discuss a core set of issues? Or do we find ourselves muddling through one set of emergency deliberations after another?
  • Questions about blind spots. Do we know what kinds of questions we regularly do not ask? Do we have some insight into our collective blind spots? Are we cultivating the participation of community members who have a gift for asking the right question at the right moment?
A culture of questions is a community tool for drawing adults into common conversation about their collective responsibility to their children.

You can make a case for cultivating a culture of questions on several different grounds. You could adopt the public relations model of board activity and argue that expedience requires that boards “solicit input” and “target opinion leaders.” Or you could make the case, as I believe Mr. Smoley would, that a questioning ethic is what boards need to advance their own development and to enhance the performance of their districts. One could even argue, I suppose, from the wistful assumption that a culture of questions could restore a district’s sense of local control.But I would make the case this way: A culture of questions is a form of ongoing adult education, a community tool for drawing adults into common conversation about their collective responsibility to their children. And it provides a model for one kind of civic education that young people need to fulfill their roles as citizens. As elected community representatives, boards are in a unique position to distinguish the purposes of public education from those of its private rivals. Through a viable culture of questions, public education engages the public in the explicit mission of recreating and revitalizing itself.

During school board campaigns this and every November, candidates will be courting votes by telling us about their grand plans to improve the schools. We’ll hear why certain single issues are all-important. We’ll hear a lot about “research based” solutions. We’ll hear heartfelt testimony about “doing what’s best for kids.” We’ll hear about the need for paradigm shifts.

But if you want my vote, tell me about the questions you’re skilled at asking, and how you judge the adequacy of answers. Tell me what you’re going to do to strengthen our community protocols for thinking through district problems. Tell me what you plan to do to shape and change our district’s culture of questions.

John G. Ramsay is the Hollis Caswell professor of educational studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and the treasurer of the Northfield school board.

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