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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

School Boards in the “Accountability Era”

By Rick Hess — February 09, 2011 3 min read
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Last week, my colleague Olivia Meeks and I issued a new study examining the state of America’s school boards. (For a terrific take, check out Christina Samuels’ Ed Week story here). Partnering with the NSBA, the Iowa School Boards Association, and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, we surveyed more than 900 school board members and 120 superintendents in over 500 school districts. The results update those in a study I authored back in 2002, also with the NSBA. Given that those results came at a time when NCLB was just being enacted, and now we’re a decade into the “accountability era,” we had a hunch that things might have changed along the way.

Three big takeaways stand out for me.

First, school board members appear to have developed a healthy new taste for focusing on student achievement. Three out of four board members reported that their board spent more time focusing on student achievement than had been the case at the beginning of their tenure (though it’s also worth noting that 15 percent said their board spent less time focusing on student achievement than it used to). Nearly two-thirds of members report that it is “extremely important” for them to understand what impacts learning and half said they wanted more training in student achievement...a huge jump from the 22 percent who wanted more training when it came to achievement a decade ago.

Second, while two-thirds of board members think current levels of student achievement are unacceptable, those views are coupled with doubts about the fervent emphasis on reading and math scores. Nationally, 90 percent of board members say it’s important to broaden notions of success to include more than math and reading scores. Depending on where you stand, this is either heartening or worrisome. As someone who worries about what too often seems a monomaniacal focus on reading and math scores, I think that board members’ stance here is sensible--even though there is reason to fear that such a view, wielded carelessly, can be distorted into an unhealthy dismissal of achievement results.

Third, board members show themselves skeptical of “reformist” approaches to retooling districts. Forty percent of the school board members surveyed attached little or no importance to recruiting nontraditional teachers, more than 50 percent are dismissive of within-district school choice and year-round school calendars, and more than 80 percent have little faith in the value of charter schools. Far more popular school improvement strategies among board members were the more traditional methods like professional development, data-based governance, and higher quality leadership--all of which have long ruled the agendas of districts across the country but with little to show for their efforts.

Meanwhile, board members regard the most pressing barrier to school improvement as a dearth of funds--a complaint that is unlikely to be addressed to their satisfaction anytime soon. As someone who has said many times that today’s systems are poorly designed for what we’re asking them to do, I find this view of reform and improvement to be more than a little troubling.

The results can tell us much about who boards are (more educated, older, wealthier, and more likely to be white), where they come from (28 percent have an education background; 18 percent of former and current teachers serving on boards have been a member of a teachers union), and who funds their runs for office (mostly themselves, though the business community and teachers unions are also top donors).

A picture emerges of board members who are striving to help their students succeed while also struggling against a grim fiscal climate and their own doubts about potentially transformative reforms. If districts have to grapple with tough budgets, questions of governance and oversight will become ever more critical, as will efforts to ensure that spending is delivering the biggest possible bang for the buck. And if Washington’s educational footprint is about to shrink after a decade of outsized impact, the result will mean that improvement efforts will rest even more heavily on local boards. Here’s hoping they’re up for the challenge.

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