The improvement buck stops with the board of ed

Senior fellow at Teachers College
Gene Maeroff

This is the inaugural post in 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?

Gene I. Maeroff has adapted this excerpt from his book School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy. He is president of the board in Edison, N.J. and is serving his second term as a member. He is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. His biographical and contact information are available at www.genemaeroff.com.

America’s school boards are too easily diverted from larger purposes. They may get bogged down in issues better left to staff. Some school board members want to meddle and they get more involved in administrative matters than they should. Boards sometimes invest precious hours in matters of little consequence. In other words, school boards too readily waste time and effort.

School boards too readily waste time and effort.

Ultimately, a school board should be held accountable for ensuring that the district makes needed improvements. Instructional success should be the members' paramount concern. They ought to look in the mirror when they seek to affix blame for the district's failures.

The school board should specify objectives and then leave it largely to the professionals to decide which programs and what use of human resources will attain those ends. A timetable can help set parameters for judging the school system’s progress toward goals: What should the district achieve by what dates? This means that a school board can be spare and succinct in its actions. This way the board has a yardstick for measuring and evaluating its superintendent, who really is the only person that the school board can hold directly accountable for achieving results.

Are the means that the administration uses in reaching the desired ends beyond the scope of the school board’s concerns? Of course not. The methods should be fair and ethical. They should be affordable. They should be gauged against the best interests of students, taxpayers, and staff. A school board that turns its back on questionable practices that lead to desired results is derelict in its duty.

Ends do not justify means. An example of such a failure, drawn from higher education, was seen in the behavior of the board at Rutgers University in New Jersey after some members decided that they wanted Rutgers to become a big-time football power. They looked away as the athletic department spent millions of dollars without their authorization and paid the coach out of hidden accounts. The university abolished several minor varsity sports to enrich the football budget. Finally, the situation grew so egregious that the board and the university president were called to task for, in effect, allowing Rutgers’s football fortunes to soar regardless of cost or ethics.

Sammenligning av tommestokker
A clear timetable gives a district a yardstick for measuring and evaluating its superintendent.
Photo by tmorkemo.

Planning can help a school board operate more effectively. I joined a board that had a strategic plan created at least two years before I arrived and which extended five years into the future. Until I mentioned the strategic plan at a public meeting halfway through my first term, none of my board colleagues had ever referred to it—despite the elaborate process and countless hours that went into producing it. The plan might as well have been placed in a bottle and thrown into the nearby Atlantic.

Leaders of any organization can devote too much attention to planning and end up neglecting more immediate tasks. On the other hand, given the arc of time and the nature of formal education, which unfolds as a result of actions taken over a period of years, an educational enterprise and the students in its classrooms can benefit from conscientious planning by those responsible for the outcomes.

A good plan for acquiring and using technology as an adjunct to learning, for instance, offsets the dangers of piecemeal adoption of technology. A mathematics curriculum designed to reflect in secondary schools the impact of foundation-building in the primary grades has a better chance of succeeding than a math curriculum that fails to give sufficient attention to students’ year-by-year accumulation of knowledge.

Citizens ought to ask about the beliefs and values of their school board members. Such inquiries do not happen enough and the few members of the public who ordinarily seek such information from their boards are viewed as gadflies. Democracy should demand more of school boards in terms of planning and other responsibilities. There is no use having a board if it only goes through the motions of governance.

Citizens ought to ask about the beliefs and values of their school board members.

My district had neglected to plan for an expanding enrollment. By 2009, most of the system’s eleven elementary schools had gyms too small for serious physical activities. Many of the schools had to convert their art and music rooms into regular classrooms and art and music teachers, like itinerant peddlers, wheeled carts full of supplies from room to room to teach the subjects. In some schools, children had to eat lunch at their desks and in another school the only space available for preparing meals had previously been a large closet. School libraries had been partitioned into teaching spaces and special education students had their pull-out sessions in what had been small windowless storage rooms. There were not enough labs at the high schools to offer all of the Advanced Placement science courses for which students clamored.

A lack of foresight and inadequate planning had resulted in the construction of no new schools in almost forty years, a failure to acquire land parcels for prospective schools, and the disposal of four perfectly good school buildings on the notion that the district wouldn’t need them in the future. Admittedly, no school board has a crystal ball, but proper planning can lead to better results than a district like mine had. The board has taken steps in more recent years to address some of the problems of overcrowding, but the situation continues to fester.

The instructional programs of school districts across the country suffer from compromises forced on them by school boards that have inadequately planned. I served on a board that presided over a system in which students on one side of town achieved to a greater extent than those on the other side of town. The portion of youngsters scoring at advanced proficiency levels, for example, was much greater at some schools than in others. Any attempt to deal with such disparities requires planning, but I seldom heard discussions of this phenomenon by board members or central administrators during most of my first term on the board.

As a matter of fact, during a candidates’ debate, when I first ran for the board, I raised the issue only to have an incumbent candidate chide me for not considering demographics. Such excuses can be barriers to improvement. Donald R. McAdams, president of the Center for Reform of School Systems, did not want to let school boards off the hook in instances such as these. “When a school district fails to improve,” he wrote, “it is not the district’s workforce that fails; it is the board that fails.”

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