Dear School Board Member:
Among the many responsibilities that you have, overseeing the vision of a school district that seeks high achievement for all students is the most critical. You must engage the community and support your superintendent in improving the quality of teaching and learning—a goal that is directly correlated with how students perform on local, state, and national assessments. And it should be the core business of a school district. The community expects that you and your fellow school board colleagues will hold each other, the superintendent, the central office, and the school staff accountable for maintaining these standards.
I know, I know, I know, there are redistricting, school-closing, safety, technology, and a barrage of other issues that seem to be more pressing, particularly when the education reporter from the local newspaper comes calling. But given the difficulty of the new learning standards and students’ declining performance on assessments, will it matter if your schools are overcrowded? Or if you build new schools and the quality of the instruction is, at best, an afterthought?
Rare in my experience of serving on a superintendent’s executive team in a few of the country’s largest school districts has there been an agenda item, a discussion, or consistent attention paid to the quality and variability of classroom instruction. Often the response to low student performance is to blame the instrument (the way we blame the scale when we keep gaining weight) or the students who failed because of their exceptionality, parents’ race, or socioeconomic status.
Have you considered that what teachers teach and how they teach can maximize student learning? Whether or not you have, many of your constituents have. (Think about the parent who calls to ask for your support in order to lobby the school principal for a specific teacher for his or her child.) Informed parents know that the quality of their children’s education is directly related to the will and skill of their teachers.
What can you do? Quite a bit, actually. I have learned that issues are deemed high-priority when a school board member inquires about them, so I am asking you to use your political prowess to encourage the school board, the superintendent, and the district staff to focus on this: how our students are taught and what they are actually learning.
The following questions are worth considering as you and the school board govern your district:
• How many school visits has your superintendent made to observe classroom instruction?
• How often do principal- and teacher-support personnel observe instruction? Are they fully versed in instructional techniques? Is their coaching of principals intended to improve schools?
• How much time is spent discussing how principals can engage teachers as partners and provide ongoing feedback on their practice?
• How often, if at all, are teachers encouraged to reflect on and improve instruction, support student learning, and increase content knowledge?
• How many parent complaints have you received concerning the quality of instruction in a school?
• If school districts have purchased technology to support observations, what do the observation data reveal about the quality of teaching and learning in the district? Is there a plan to address what was observed?
• Once your district develops a strategic plan, how is it relevant to instruction? Are there improvements to be made?
You will notice that none of these questions mentioned test scores. I am assuming that the relevant issues concerning local and state assessments have received your full attention, including whether students are reading or comprehending on grade level, and whether they understand or have met the content-area benchmarks outlined in your strategic plan. You should also consider the percentage of students who have received failing grades on report cards.
These questions and concerns are focused on encouraging you and your board colleagues to give considerable forethought to how your policies, conversations, and actions support teaching and learning—from the classroom to the superintendent’s office. How well a student understands content will dictate how well that student demonstrates knowledge of that content, whether it is in a language arts, mathematics, or music classroom.
The health of our public education system is contingent upon your ability to focus on the district’s core business for the benefit of student learning. Falling short of this goal will doom the school system, jeopardize your chances for re-election, and ultimately fail the children and the community you vowed to serve.
I urge you to take these suggestions to heart and apply them immediately. Include at least one of the aforementioned questions in your school board agenda in order to govern more effectively and ensure that all students have access to high-quality instruction. May your school district’s vision become your students’ reality, not merely colorful words on your school district’s website.
Traci Elizabeth Teasley
A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Holding School Boards Accountable ... For Learning