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School & District Management Opinion

Do School Boards Actually Matter?

By Rick Hess — March 28, 2014 4 min read
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School boards have long fascinated me. I’m always intrigued by anything that everyone denounces and yet which keeps on keeping on. Critiques of school boards are plentiful; there’s no need to rehash them here. But, the thing is, outside of colorful accounts of urban school boards, our understanding of what school boards do and how much they matter is actually rather limited.

On that score, it’s worth checking out a provocative new Fordham Institute report. The report, “Does School Board Leadership Matter?,” is the handiwork of two talented young political scientists, Arnold Shober, a professor at Lawrence University, and Mike Hartney, a doctoral student at Notre Dame (full disclosure: I served as an advisor on their report and it draws on a national survey I led a few years ago for the National School Boards Association and Fordham. If you’re interested, you can find that survey here) Shober and Hartney use the 900 board member responses from that 2009 survey, covering 49 states and all major urban districts, to explore how much school boards actually, well, matter.

The study has inevitable, substantial limitations. The data is drawn from a single survey, making it hard to get after any causal questions. But the information on board member knowledge, demographics, attitudes, electoral situation, and such, when combined with other data sets, is enough to let Shober and Hartney flag some interesting correlations and generate food for thought.

They find that student academic performance is better in districts where school board members express a focus on academics. This makes intuitive sense, but there are interesting questions of cause and effect. Do you get focused, coherent boards in districts that are already taking care of business? Is it a spurious relationship, where what you’re really picking up is the fact that educated, engaged communities have high-performing schools and elect academically focused boards?

They also find that school boards are substantially more likely to “beat the odds” if a larger percentage of members are elected at-large and in on-cycle elections. (By “beat the odds” they mean that these districts do better than expected, given demographic and financial conditions.) This makes intuitive sense, since at-large and on-cycle elections are ways to tamp down the influence of particular interest groups or neighborhoods and make it more likely that elected members will be responsive to the broader concerns of the whole community.

When they compare what board members say to measures of the situation on the ground, Shober and Hartney find that just over half of board members have reasonably accurate knowledge of on-the-ground conditions in their districts. Now, it’s tough to say if that’s high or low. I’d be curious to see how it compares for city councilors or such. And it’s worth keeping in mind that most board members are amateurs--62% receive no salary and 57% devote fewer than 4 days a month to board affairs.

They report that political moderates tend to be more informed than liberals and conservatives and that former educators are less informed about their district than are their counterparts. For instance, they write that board members who were “current or former professional educators are 6.4 percent more likely than other members to claim that funding is a major barrier to improving district academic achievement, regardless of the actual level of funding in the district.” Now, whether these relationships show that some people are less informed, or how folks with different assumptions and beliefs process the same information, is an open question.

They conclude, “School board members and their attitudes do matter--so it’s important to take seriously who gets elected and how. Even as we strive to bring about structural reforms and governance innovations in the education system, we should also be working to get better results from the structures in place.”

I agree with that sensible conclusion. But I also continue to think that a lot of the angst directed at school boards mistakes symptom for disease. I think board governance is so fraught not because boards are necessarily a terrible idea, but because the districts these boards seek to govern are overwhelmed in seeking to meet every need of every learner in a given geography (if you’re interested, I discuss this at much greater length in The Same Thing Over and Over). In many communities, districts are compact enough, expectations high enough and common enough, and there’s moderate enough variability in student circumstance, that these systems are relatively governable. In many others, however, there is enough variation in all these areas, and enough disagreement about academic priorities, instructional approaches, discipline, and much else, that driving and sustaining a coherent vision of excellence is almost prohibitive--whether governed by a school board or a mayor.

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