Does school board leadership matter?

Anyone concerned with improving the achievement, efficiency, operations, or other performance of school districts inevitably asks: Shouldn’t the board be responsible for doing this right? How much do school boards matter, anyway?

In the past, school boards have been characterized both as key partners in improving education and as foes of reforms that would benefit children. More recently, they’ve also been depicted as beside-the-point, structural relics of early-twentieth-century organizational arrangements that have little effect on what actually happens in classrooms or on what kids learn.

So which is it? When it comes to the elected leaders of most of the 14,000 school districts in the U.S., are board members critical actors in enhancing student learning, protectors of the status quo, or simply harmless bystanders? If they are critical, are they well suited to delivering the best results for students? And if they are indeed capable and willing to focus on student learning, do such qualities at the board level bear any relationship to academic results in their districts?

Until now, nobody had much evidence one way or the other. So, building on a large-scale survey (done in collaboration with the NSBA and ISBF), we set out to see whether school board members’ characteristics, knowledge, and priorities could be linked to district performance. To explore these questions, we enlisted Arnold F. Shober, associate professor of government at Lawrence University, and Michael T. Hartney, researcher in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Both have conducted significant previous research into the politics and policy surrounding the sometimes-confounding world of education governance.

The present study is, to our knowledge, the first large-scale effort to gauge the capacity of board members to lead school districts effectively. The authors started with the aforementioned survey data (published in 2010) and combined it with detailed demographic and pupil-achievement data. They probed four big questions:

  1. Do school board members have the capacity—accurate knowledge, academic focus (i.e., the belief that improving student learning is important), and work practices—to govern effectively?
  2. Do districts with higher-capacity board members do better academically than otherwise-similar districts?
  3. What characteristics of board members are associated with greater capacity?
  4. Is a district’s method of selecting its board members associated with its ability to beat the odds?

What did we learn?

1. Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts and adopt work practices that are generally similar across districts. Yet there’s little consensus about goals and priorities.

U.S. school board members are fairly knowledgeable about district conditions. They demonstrate accurate knowledge in four of the five areas that we examined (school finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size). They’re less knowledgeable, however, about the rigor (or lack thereof) of academic standards in their respective states. Board members turn out to be quite divided in the priorities that they hold for their districts with little consensus that improving student learning is paramount.

2. Districts that are more successful academically have board members who assign top priority to improving student learning.

School boards with more academically inclined members are, all else being equal, likelier to govern districts that “beat the odds”—i.e., to have pupils who perform better academically than one would expect, given their demographic and financial characteristics. (We also find that members who devote more hours to board service are likelier to oversee districts that beat the odds – although the survey data do not reveal exactly what that time-on-task entails.)

3. Political moderates tend to be more informed than liberals and conservatives when it comes to money matters; educators and former educators are less informed.

Whether board members self-identify as a conservative, moderate, or liberal is linked to whether they have accurate knowledge of their districts. Members who describe themselves as conservatives are less likely than liberals to say that funding is a barrier to academic achievement, regardless of actual spending in the district. Conversely, liberals are likelier than conservatives to say that collective bargaining is not a barrier to achievement, regardless of actual collective-bargaining conditions. Political moderates are most likely to have accurate knowledge regarding school funding and class sizes in the district.

Board members’ backgrounds also shape their capacity. Rather surprisingly, those with a professional background in public education (e.g., former teachers or other school-system employees) are less knowledgeable about true district conditions than those who are not former educators, particularly with regard to finance, teacher pay, and other areas.

4. At-large, on-cycle elections are associated with districts that beat the odds.

Districts that elect a larger percentage of board members at large (from the entire district rather than from subdistricts or wards) and in on-cycle elections (held the same day as major state or national elections) are substantially likelier to beat the odds. Merely holding board elections concurrently with state or national elections is associated with a student proficiency rate about 2.4 points higher than in comparable districts with off-cycle elections.

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Though these are exploratory analyses that cannot support ironclad policy recommendations—this truly is a realm where more research is needed—we offer four reflections.

First, board members as a group are not ignorant of what is going on in their districts. They have a reasonably clear understanding of school finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size.

It’s disquieting, though, to see that members who were never educators themselves are more accurately informed than their peers who once were (or still are) educators. Likewise, political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than their liberal or conservative counterparts. This is worrying not because ideology or experience shapes board members’ opinions—that’s unavoidable—but because voters in today’s polarized climate might favor strong conservatives or liberals over moderates (“At least they have an opinion!”) and former educators over system outsiders (“They know what it’s really like!”). Voters need to be aware of these tendencies and respond accordingly. (So far—in what we take to be a good sign—school board members as a group are more “moderate” than the U.S. population as a whole.)

Second, the data suggest that a district’s success in “beating the odds” academically is related to board members’ focus on improving student learning. Yet not all board members have this focus. Some prefer developing the “whole child,” not placing unreasonable academic expectations on schools, and celebrating the work of educators in the face of external accountability pressures. Nothing is wrong with those other priorities, but they ought not displace the primary goal of presidents, governors, employers, myriad education reformers, and a great many parents in twenty-first-century America: boosting children’s learning.

Third, how we elect many board members may affect whether the best and brightest take on these key roles. Off-cycle elections have a noble intent: to isolate board elections from partisan politics. So do ward elections: attracting board members who reflect the demographics of the electorate. But given the import of recruiting board members who give top billing to student learning, maybe communities should rethink how elections for those roles are structured.

Finally, we find that training, compensation, and time spent on board business are related to beating the odds. Our data are unable to show the quality of board-member training,  how they actually spend their time, and other important questions, so we’re not able to offer concrete guidance about how best to maximize board time and service. Still, we can offer commonsense board-level advice: (1) hire well; (2) hold senior managers accountable for running the system effectively and efficiently, in accord with board-set priorities; and (3) provide responsible oversight without micromanaging.

More than anything, what we take from this study is that school board members and their attitudes do matter—and therefore, it’s important to take seriously who gets elected and how that’s done. Most board members are neither ill informed nor incapable of leadership. Regrettably, however, that’s not true of all. As U.S. public education continues to debate structural reforms and governance innovations, we should also be working to get the best results that we can from the structures that most communities have today, which means getting the very best people elected to school boards.

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