School boards have a difficult task. They are expected to oversee a vast number of details for their districts: handle business operations, decide which e-tablets to buy, keep constituents happy, and spend hundreds of hours dealing with such mundane issues as choosing between paper towels and hand dryers for school restrooms. It’s no wonder school boards find it hard to focus on what really matters.
I spent 14 years serving on the Houston Independent School District’s board of education. I cared so much about improving educational outcomes for children and, yet, accomplished so little. As the current president and CEO of the Center for Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based organization that provides training programs for school board members and superintendents, I work with individuals across the United States to improve their ability to govern. Regardless of the size, geographic location, and student demographics of the district, very few school boards believe their districts are improving fast enough.
These feelings cause friction between boards and superintendents, among the individual trustees, and across communities. Because board members typically are not education experts, their actions often don’t translate into gains in education. Many board members blame the district’s superintendent (who works for the school board) for the confusion and lack of progress. And, as most of us know, this is a decades-old story.
More and more, school board members feel as if they’re running on hamster wheels. They must jump from subject to subject and are expected to either contribute an educated opinion or just trust the administration’s recommendations. School boards get that they may make decisions without fully understanding the issues; they spend huge amounts of time talking about what they know or can easily grasp, such as how long a student’s suspension should be. But the difficult discussions—how to reduce the dropout rate or implement meaningful professional development—get short shrift.
Average board members devote 10 to 20 hours each week to school district business, often without pay. Board meetings might cover 20 to 50 business and discussion items and can last between two and eight hours, as members flit from topic to topic. There is little time to develop a deep understanding of any problem before the group must shift to the next agenda item. This frantic scrambling can be addictive for the members, who grow to expect that they must offer solutions for every issue and critique all actions for the district they help govern. And they can easily feel that the superintendent is either autocratic or patronizing when he or she insists on a direction for an issue.
We have charged school boards with an overwhelming responsibility, and, consequently, they cannot make real progress for their districts.
More and more, school board members feel as if they're running on hamster wheels."
Most states have laws that require their school boards to accomplish specific actions, such as hiring and terminating employees, approving the budget, and setting the tax rate. But according to former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who was superintendent of the Houston district from 1994 to 2001, only about half the items on a board-meeting agenda actually required board action.
What if board members and superintendents could work together to dispense with unnecessary activity and instead spent an entire year focused on one subject? What if the team could study an issue deeply, gather expertise and input, explore solutions, and carefully consider policies to address a single concern? Instead of spending 80 percent of the board’s time on routine matters and 20 percent on important ones, what would happen if school boards flipped those percentages to focus on demands worth their time and attention?
If school boards took a year to learn about teacher improvement and empowerment or the effects of poverty on learning and student outcomes, imagine the thoughtful and transparent decisions that would have the opportunity to germinate. Imagine the research that could be studied, the debates had, and the options explored. At best, boards now ram a pilot solution through, rush the results, and, all too often, watch the effort go down in flames.
Imagine if the school board and the superintendent spent a year focused on accountability—and not just of students and teachers—so that the entire district, including the board, could benefit. Perhaps there would be time to discuss how the community, parents, and students could work together to develop their ownership of K-12 learning.
What if school boards could dedicate a year to talking and learning about student achievement? Most board members have little or no knowledge of how to improve student learning, so we need to equip boards with the tools and time to fully grasp the implications of their decisions.
Our governance processes for school districts are doomed to conflict, frustration, and failure unless we make changes. Board members must give up their reliance on activities that masquerade as meaningful work. Superintendents must lessen the workload by bringing forward only critical issues, including those required by law for board consideration. By making a commitment to focus the time and energy of the governance team, boards and superintendents can be more effective with improving schools for their students.