Redesign the whole thing, from scratch

Former school-board member
Dee Selvaggi

This post is part of a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?

Guest blogger Dee Selvaggi served on the Matawan-Aberdeen (NJ) Regional School District board from 1990--1991, attended board meetings in the Holmdel (NJ) Township School District from 1991-1998 (as a parent), coordinating over 200 volunteers for the district’s Operation Get Out the Vote initiative and serving on multi-year district committees. She also coordinated a statewide (NJ) information network for board members and parents and engaged in advocacy as an individual at state board of education meetings and legislative hearings. She also served on the Monmouth Academy Board of Trustees, Howell, NJ, from 2005-2008.

What’s it like, trying to improve schools from the inside?

Perplexing, frustrating, and exhausting. Yes, I’ve taken on issues, but the idea of “winning” seems elusive—you’re defeated either by blatant digging-in-of-heels by opponents or by quiet subterfuge.  Thus, I’m inclined to pass on an analogy made by a former board colleague, who said it was like walking on a beach and leaving footprints which are then washed away by the waves.

What’s it like, trying to improve schools from the inside? Perplexing, frustrating, and exhausting.

My school board experiences were primarily in the Jersey suburbs, although for nearly five years I focused on statewide policy. I have attended school board meetings somewhere for nearly 20 years —hometowns, other towns, Trenton (as well as some legislative hearings). And, contrary to the broad strokes painted about boards by “determined skeptics,” I never saw a board taken over by employee unions.

I did see a political party winning a majority, one or two educators elected to a local board, micro-focused parents, and a senior citizen being disruptive. I also saw some showdowns, but saw a lot more congeniality and rubber-stamping of administrative agenda items. I believe what I saw was a best-case scenario for board composition because many volunteers possessed desirable skill sets for serving (e.g. telecommunications or Wall Street-manager types). Even so, I don’t believe suburban boards ever realized their “fullest potential.” 

Much of that has to do with the craziness and lack of leadership that comes from the state board of education and, at times, the state legislature. There was a long stretch when state policy became more scripted and, through mandates, increased its edu-bureaucracy due to special-interest influence. (See the chart I created after studying the state/local ed bureaucracy.) I hope Chris Cerf can make some changes, but when I left New Jersey in 2008 this massive system was suffering from extreme malorganization which included:

  • Federal, state, local board and administrator levels and roles were confused and confusing;
  • Local policymakers were trained to “get along,” played a passive role, often worked out of context, and failed to leverage policy to make things like increased transparency routine;
  • District organization missions were idealistic or impossible to achieve;
  • There was no reasonable human resources foundation for a performance-based system;
  • Management authority was being usurped, in some instances, with decisions made by committee.
footprints-in-the-sand
Serving on a school board is like walking on a beach and leaving footprints which are then washed away by the waves.
Photo by Suzi Rosenberg.

Weary of various band-aid initiatives, I’ve come around to believing that school boards could be eliminated tomorrow and the malorganization would remain. The entire arrangement needs to be redesigned from scratch, including the federal and state levels. I’m quite open to considering just about anything so long as it’s in a Rick Hess “unbinding” sort of manner and the local level is redesigned first, with attention paid to which state and federal actions and mandates help and hinder. Key policy areas that need to be addressed are: 

  • Governance oversight (by some entity);
  • foundational documents: Focus on defining oversight and organization missions and responsibilities, as well as core values (applicable to everyone, not just students), before working on board bylaws and policies;
  • disciplined, routine annual cycle to generate more meaningful data and information and increase transparency;
  • revamped human resource practices with particular focus on management quality, authority, and responsibility.

Policy is not enough, however. Governing bodies would need new training, not just about what to do, but why, in what context, and how.  They need support for the tough times (so one is no longer compelled to bust into administrator meetings) and they need new communication sources that do not synthesize and circulate research and information, which merely sustains the status quo. I recognize this is radical, but agree with people like Peter Drucker and Jack Welch, who emphasize the importance of getting to the root causes of inconsistency in performance.

I do see three positive external influences in the last two decades: the American Diploma Project to improve graduation requirements; the Common Core Standards, which provide a consistent explanation of what students need to know and what the entire system is trying to accomplish; and the increased data and information transparency brought by NCLB. Otherwise, I believe a policy here or initiative there is insufficient for evolving into a contemporary education system.

 Chart:  NJ State-mandated Management Structure, 2009*

NJ Org Chart
*Source: the author, based on reading New Jersey state laws.

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