Opinion
School & District Management Opinion

School Boards Must Narrow Their Focus

By Cathy Mincberg — June 07, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

BRIC ARCHIVE

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.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.
A version of this article appeared in the June 08, 2016 edition of Education Week as Narrowing the Focus for School Boards

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Q&A School Libraries and Controversial Books: Tips From the Front Lines
A top school librarian explains how districts can prepare for possible challenges to student reading materials and build trust with parents.
6 min read
Image of library shelves of books.
mikdam/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Opinion ‘This Is Not What We Signed Up For’: A Principal’s Plea for More Support
School leaders are playing the role of health-care experts, social workers, mask enforcers, and more. It’s taking a serious toll.
Kristen St. Germain
3 min read
Illustration of a professional woman walking a tightrope.
Laura Baker/Education Week and uzenzen/iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Educators Must Look to History When They Advocate for Changes
Educators and policymakers must be aware of the history of ideas when making changes in education, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty
School & District Management Letter to the Editor Reconsidering Causes of Principal Burnout
The state and federal governments are asking us to implement policies that often go against our beliefs, says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
iStock/Getty