Do school boards even matter? Yes, but…

Sarah Rosenberg

When it comes to education reform, school boards are often the redheaded stepchildren. Over the last two decades, mayors have taken over nearly twenty major urban school systems. “School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole,” said Fordham’s own Checker Finn. “Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery.” Even school board members themselves admit that they “throw temper-tantrums, use off-color language, throw things, [and] threaten or insult board members, the superintendent, staff, or the public.” The bigger question then is: Do school boards even matter? Should we even have them? Two researchers tried to answer that question.

In Does School Board Leadership Matter?, Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney matched school-board-member survey data from 2009 with data about each participant’s district. The goal of their analysis was to determine whether school board members’ characteristics and opinions correlated with their districts’ student achievement and whether their districts “beat the odds” and outperformed what their student demographics predicted. What they found was promising: school board members who believe that improving student learning is their most important priority were more likely to serve in districts that beat the odds.

Considering school boards control the vast majority of the nation’s 14,000 school districts, this is good news. But the research does require a few caveats. First, the survey did not interview entire school boards; instead, they interviewed 900 school board members from 417 school districts. School boards can—and often do—have members with very different educational priorities and political beliefs. Connecting individual school-board-member characteristics and opinions to district-wide performance is problematic. Also, as the National School Boards Association points out, the researchers sometimes reached a bit too far, especially when interpreting findings around school board members’ knowledge of district funding. Most importantly, connecting school board members’ opinions about increasing student achievement to beating the odds does not give school boards or reform advocates guidance about how to proceed. As the authors write in their conclusion, more research into school boards is needed to determine how their work impacts their districts’ achievement.

Governance of school districts is not flashy. Typical school board meetings are filled with mundane necessities such as approving retirements and promotions, reading superintendent and committee reports, and hearing community comments. But as to the question posed in the report’s title? The answer is a tentative yes. School boards may be part of the answer, but what other research makes clear is that we need far more than school boards to beat the odds.

Sarah Rosenberg is a policy analyst on the education-policy team at the Center for American Progress. Prior to joining CAP, Sarah worked as a policy analyst at the education-policy think tank Education Sector, where her work focused primarily on teacher and leader quality, union-district collaboration, and pension reform.

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