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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

How to Build a More Effective School Board

A celebrated board-member-turned-coach explains why boards fail and how they can be effective
By Rick Hess — March 16, 2023 5 min read
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AJ Crabill has been training school board members since 2016 with the Texas Education Agency and the Council of the Great City Schools. He’s now out with a new book, Great on Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective. Winner of the Education Commission of the States’ James Bryant Conant Award, AJ has been widely recognized for his work helping boards focus on student learning. With school boards much in the news, it seemed a good time to chat with AJ about the state of school boards, the challenges they encounter, and how they can succeed.
—Rick

Rick: You’ve got a new book out, titled Great on Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective. Can you tell me a little about it?

AJ: My intention is to accelerate the transition of our nation’s school boards from being focused on adult inputs to student outcomes. At large, board members are well-intentioned and believe in what’s possible for our students. But school board members have been misled and mis-trained into focusing on what works for adults rather than whether students’ knowledge and competence is actually improving.

Rick: What prompted you to write this volume?

AJ: When I was first elected to my school board, I had no idea what I was doing. A lot of school board members are like me—we mean well but aren’t clear about how to translate that intention into impact. So we sit in board meetings month after month frustrated. I wish someone had handed me a framework for school board improvement based on our best evidence about which behaviors in the boardroom are most likely to create the context for improvements in student outcomes.

Rick: School boards have been getting a ton of attention lately. Why is that?

AJ: The pandemic inspired many families and community leaders to notice the impact that school boards can have on the school systems they serve.

Rick: Is this burst of attention as unusual as it seems?

AJ: No. It’s common that when parents get frustrated, they get involved. It’s one of the great checks and balances built into the system. What’s unusual is the national scale that was brought about by the pandemic.

Rick: There’s been a lot of talk about problematic board behaviors. How do you think about that?

AJ: You have to distinguish between professional behavior and effective behavior. Professional behavior simply means that the school board is behaving in a manner that allows it to efficiently conduct business. Effective behavior means that the school board is behaving in a manner that is focused on improving student outcomes. It is incredibly common for school boards to conduct themselves in a professionally, ineffective manner. So while many people are talking about behaviors that seem unprofessional, my focus is on helping school boards be effective. For the work I do, when school boards are intensely focused on improving student outcomes, other behaviors are secondary. I’m suspicious of any actions that decrease role clarity for school boards. So if a board is being politicized, political parties tend to be heavily focused on adult inputs: who gets which jobs or contracts and whether a book or building name is politically correct. It’s not that these adult inputs are unimportant, but if these are the only things that receive focus, student outcomes no longer do.

Rick: What are one or two eye-opening examples of what an ineffective or unprofessional board looks like?

AJ: Since the function of a school board is to create the conditions for improved student outcomes by representing the vision and values of the community, all nonaligned tasks are by definition dysfunctional. Conversations on the COVID shutdowns were the most common and appalling dysfunction I’ve observed. Currently, I’m seeing many boards pursue one of two inappropriate extremes. The unprofessional school boards that are so intimidated by community voices that they allow school board meetings to devolve into chaos, failing to attend to the business of educating children. And the ineffective school boards that are so frustrated by community voices that they tune them out and make decisions without listening to the community. Both of these adaptations are destructive.

Rick: So, I guess the big question is how can boards be most effective?

AJ: Five continuous improvement behaviors done over and over. First, adopt a mindset focused on improving student outcomes by changing adult behaviors—starting with your own. Second, clarify the priorities by adopting goals about student outcomes, describing what students should know or be able to do. Third, spend 50 percent of board meetings each month monitoring those goals to see whether students are making progress. Fourth, aggressively align the district’s resources to those goals. And, fifth, communicate the results regarding the goals—the good, the bad, the ugly—to the community at regular, predefined intervals.

Rick: What one or two pieces of advice do you have for those who’d like to help boards lead more effectively?

AJ: Across the nation, my findings are that the average school board is spending between 0 percent and 5 percent of its time each month actually focused on monitoring whether student outcomes are improving, and for most school boards, that’s really 0 percent. Sure, they conduct much of the business of a school system, but do they have goals? Are those goals focused on student outcomes? Are they actually monitoring student performance each month to see if students are gaining or losing ground relative to the goals? When you watch and code hundreds of school board meetings for this specific behavior, it’s rare to find the school board that’s spending more than 1 percent of its time per month behaving this way. Adopting a student-outcomes focus sounds nice, but it’s so rare because basically everything else in the system works against a school board achieving and maintaining that focus. Two strategies that seem to help school boards move from 0 percent to at least 50 percent focused on student outcomes are to get a school board coach that is certified in a student-outcomes-focused approach and then track the percentage of minutes (anyone can do this) each month that the school board invests in monitoring progress toward its student-outcome goals.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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