School & District Management

Survey Detects Shifting Priorities of School Boards

By Christina A. Samuels — February 08, 2011 5 min read

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

But today’s school board members appear not to be as interested in issues that many policy observers deem to be on the cutting edge of school reform. Board members 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 last week, were compared with those in a similar report Mr. Hess conducted 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 introduction stressed that school boards “remain the critical connection between the school administration and the community at large.”

‘An Anachronism?’

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.

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

But board members’ reluctance to embrace certain types of reform prescriptions 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 prepare students for 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.

But 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 with

the wishes of parents, who also say they want their children to lead 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 and 49 percent wanted more training in student achievement.

The study also offered a snapshot of school board demographics. Overall, school boards have become a little more racially diverse, and more gender balanced compared to survey results from 2002.

The new survey found 56 percent of board members are male and 44 percent female. In 2002, board members were 61 percent male and 39 percent female.

Nationally, close to 81 percent of respondents are white, 12 percent are African-American, and 3 percent are Hispanic. In 2002 those percentages were 85.5 percent white, about 8 percent black and about 4 percent Hispanic. The greatest diversity was seen in school boards that serve large districts.

Compared to the 17 percent of families that have children ages 3 to 17 nationwide, 38 percent of board members have children in school. In 2002, about 49 percent reported having children currently in school.

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. In 2002, for example, school board members said that the three most critical

areas to evaluate district leaders on 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 nearly 90 percent of the school board members surveyed also said that student success needs to be broadened to include more factors than academic achievement.

“While members seem to accord more importance to achievement today than they did a decade ago, they still wrestle with competing pressures,” the study said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Survey Detects Shifting Priorities of School Boards

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