School & District Management

School Board Members’ Focus Shifting, Survey Says

By Christina A. Samuels — February 03, 2011 4 min read

The results of a nationwide survey of school board members show a shift in focus toward student achievement and away from the nitty-gritty district management issues known as the “killer B’s:” buses, buildings, books, budgets, bonds, and similar issues.

But today’s school board members appear not to be as interested in issues many policy observers deem to be on the cutting edge of school reform. They consider charter schools, performance pay for teachers, and year-round school not as important to student achievement as strong leadership and professional development, according to the survey results.

“School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in an Accountability Era,” was written by Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, and Olivia Meeks, an AEI researcher.

The survey gathered responses from 900 school board members and 120 superintendents in more than 500 school districts. The results, released Thursday, were compared to a similar report on the state of school boards that was conducted by Mr. Hess in 2002.

The study also included contributions by the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.; the Iowa School Boards Association, based in Des Moines; and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington. Each organization wrote a foreword to the report, picking out different elements of the results to praise or criticize.

The NSBA instruction stressed that school boards “remain the critical connection between the school administration and the community at large.”

Survey Results

How important do you think each approach is for improving student learning?(individual board members only)

20schoolboard C1s

SOURCE: “School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era”

In sharp contrast, Fordham’s introduction to the study drew attention to the fact that Fordham’s president, Chester E. Finn Jr., has called elected school boards “an anachronism and an outrage” and an impediment to bold change.

In a press conference to discuss the survey results, Amber Winkler, the Fordham Institute’s research director, said that school board members are conscientious, well-intentioned, and hard-working.

But board members’ reluctance to embrace certain types of reform was troubling, Ms. Winkler said. Forty percent of the school board members surveyed attached little or no importance to recruiting nontraditional teachers, and more than 50 percent felt that way about increasing within-district school choice. The report also found that 60 percent said the same about a year-round school calendar, and more than 80 percent put little stock in the creation of new charter schools to promote student achievement.

“If we are serious about improving education, we’d be wise not to rely on what we’ve always done in the past. That was a little jarring to us,” Ms. Winkler said.

She also criticized the response to a survey question that asked school board members to gauge what they consider the most important goals of education. Out of six choices that the school board members were asked to rank, the top response was “help students fulfill their potential.” The second most-popular choice was “preparing students for a satisfying and productive life.” Only 8 percent of the school board respondents said that the most important goal of education was to prepare students for college or the workforce..

The idea that board members place such importance on broad and difficult-to-measure goals should prompt a discussion about just how school boards hold themselves accountable, Ms. Winkler said.

Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the NSBA, saw the same results as a positive for school boards. Board members may be cool to some reform efforts, but she said that reflects a belief that student achievement is driven by proven programs.

“The research tells us that professional development and strong school leadership is what works. School board members are not dumb. They know these quick fixes are not the solution,” Ms. Bryant said in an interview.

As for the survey results relating to goals of education, the responses show that school board priorities are closely aligned to the wishes of parents, who also say they want their children to have productive lives. Preparing for college or work fits under the umbrella of “fulfilled potential,” Ms. Bryant said.

School board members are seeing the importance of improving their own knowledge, Ms. Bryant noted. About 44 percent of the board members said they wanted additional training in funding and budgeting, 49 percent wanted more training in student achievement, and close to 42 percent were looking for more information about legal and policy issues.

Mr. Hess of the AEI, who also writes a blog for Education Week’s website, said one notable difference between this report and the survey he conducted in 2002 was a shift in the expectations of school board members.

“Our expectation of district governance was very different,” he said.

In 2002, for example, school board members said that the three most critical areas to evaluate district leaders were employee morale, student safety, and the board-superintendent working relationship. In the 2010 survey, student achievement and financial management were considered to be the most critical factors by far, with more than 90 percent of survey takers considering those issues extremely or very important.

But while boards are more focused now on student achievement than they were in the 2002 survey, nearly 90 percent of the school board members surveyed said that success needs to be broadened to include more factors than student achievement.

“How board members ultimately decide to resolve that tension, and whether they decide to err on the side of measurable achievement or of promoting softer skills, will do much to shape instruction and accountability in a given community,” the study said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as School Board Members’ Focus Shifting, Survey Says

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