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Essential School Board Book Summary

Editor’s note: The Essential School Board Book — Better Governance in the Age of Accountability by Nancy Walser. The National School Boards Association recommends this book for its well-researched, practical strategies to improve student achievement through good governance. School Leader News featured the following brief chapter summaries to encourage local discussions.  You can purchase the book from OSBA's publications area.

Chapter One: Board practices that make a difference for children

Examining research on effective board practices and recognizing the differences between “good” and “bad” board behavior is a first step toward school improvement, says Walser. Toward that end, her first chapter examines three landmark studies that attempted to define and analyze positive board behavior.

The Iowa Association of School Boards released its Lighthouse Study in 2000, analyzing attitudes and practices of high-achieving school districts as compared to low-achieving districts. The study identified key differences in board behaviors and beliefs. Most notably, boards in high-achieving districts shared a strong belief that all students were capable of learning at high levels and a vision for how to improve schools. They understood their role and could connect their goals to specific efforts being implemented at the classroom level. The study also investigated whether student achievement could improve in low-achieving districts if boards learned to understand achievement data and changed their beliefs about how children learn.

The New England School Development Council and the Educational Research Service published a study in 1997 and issued recommendations based on that study in 2000. The resulting report identified these hallmarks of boards in high-achieving districts: stable board; short regular meetings coupled with annual or biannual goal-setting retreats; referring complaints to district administrators; lack of separate subcommittees; discussing problems with the superintendent as a governance team; a communicative board chair; focus on student achievement in policies, budget, facilities and other decisions; and ability to work collaboratively.

The Panasonic Foundation worked with a number of urban districts to “create new systems of equity and quality in which all students are educated to high levels.” The board, superintendent, central administrators and union leaders all participated. The findings reported in 2009: Effective boards work together to establish a vision and a set of values. They create conditions for achieving good results though policy, effective use of resources, community engagement, collaborative relations with the superintendent and union negotiations.

Walser concludes that high-functioning boards know the difference between effective and ineffective board practices, believe what they do makes a big difference in student success and believe their constituents will support them in advocating for the success of every student.

Chapter Two: Building a foundation for student success

Schools – and by extension, their boards – are being held accountable for the performance of all students more than ever before. This has expanded the role of the board from overseer to real partner, working with the superintendent to ensure student success.

Joe Villani, coauthor of NSBA’s The Key Work of School Boards, sums it up as “governance, not management.” The board shares the responsibility for creating the conditions within schools that enable students to meet high standards. The board’s role is not to be a passive reviewer judging the work of others.

Trust and collaboration among board members and between the board and superintendent are important in well-governed districts. High-functioning boards stress the need to let go of personal egos and agendas to stay focused on achievement. Bringing together a group of individuals to govern requires mutual respect and the recognition that everyone brings the ability to connect the dots in a different way.

The superintendent is key to keeping a district moving forward. The board’s highest responsibility is hiring the right chief executive. Having a clear, compelling vision for the district lays the foundation for a productive relationship with a superintendent.  The 2009 Panasonic Foundation report says, “[R]eal school improvement occurs when the school board and superintendent are attracted to each other because both are unwavering in their vision of a better district….”

In searching for the right superintendent, Eliza Holcomb of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, coaches boards to create a leadership profile summarizing what the district is looking for based on interviews with administrators, staff, teachers, parents and others. Then, use that profile to help identify a candidate with the right mix of experiences and cultural fit. A thorough search takes time and boards have to do their homework. Holcomb’s final bit of advice – don’t settle on any candidate you have doubts about; continue searching until you have the right candidate.

The board and superintendent play distinct roles in a successful district. Mary Delagardelle, executive director of the Iowa School Boards Foundation, says the board focuses on the outcomes and what it wants to accomplish while the superintendent determines how to meet those expectations. Board members must lead in the work of school improvement and be committed to the changes they want to see. They empower the superintendent.

Chapter Three: Staying Focused on Achievement

School boards need to know enough about the work of educators to be able to assess their efforts, support them and communicate about them. Board members need enough information to make good decisions without being overwhelmed or dictating what should be done.   

It is a challenge to stay focused on student achievement because there is so much regular business mandated or laid out in state law, as well as policy, budgets, superintendent evaluations and listening to the public.  

If boards are serious about student achievement, board meetings need to reflect that commitment. The school board in Berlin, Connecticut begins every board meeting with their district mission statement. The board reworked its meeting format and put regular business meeting items on one consent agenda which means a number of routine matters can be dispensed with one vote. This increased time available for presentations by the administration related to teaching and learning and short reports from all board members on what they’ve been doing since the last meeting. Everyone, including the public, gets a better idea of all the work that is being done.   

The board in Norfolk, Virginia, diversified its meeting to include an informational meeting before the formal meeting begins.  (Oregon public meeting law requires all meetings be announced in advance and open to the public and press.) Board members highlight their annual goal-setting retreat as their most important meeting of the year. Goals are the way high-functioning boards raise expectations for learning in their communities and build a collaborative foundation with superintendents.   

For a board to function well, the chair needs to be fully involved in facilitating collaboration. A good chair will anticipate and manage conflict between board members and superintendents and moderate the flow of information so that the board has enough information to make reasoned decisions but is not bogged down in too much detail.  

Some boards are using a “policy governance” model to stay on track. The board develops the vision and goals (or “end policies”) and charges the superintendent with putting them into practice. Boards remain the means for the community to say what it wants for its schools and children, and the daily decision making is in the hands of professionals.  

Using data is another important component in the work of high-functioning boards. Good data is needed for accountability and monitoring student achievement, but it also lets boards evaluate programs and initiatives in the district. Districts of all sizes have access to achievement data and need to use it to support their decisions.

Chapter Four:  Avoiding Pitfalls

In 2003, the Georgia legislature––urged by a coalition of community groups––fundamentally changed Atlanta school board operations. After years of superintendent turnovers and open conflict between the board and administration, the legislature reduced the number of board members from 15 to nine, banned board members from interfering with the selection of principals and limited subcommittees to budget oversight, accountability and superintendent evaluation.

Atlanta was an extreme case but it points out that, in the age of accountability, boards must work collaboratively with superintendents and look beyond electoral and constituent politics. The mandated changes and a number of policy changes helped the board and superintendent focus on teaching, learning and other reforms.

After several years and many changes, Atlanta schools reported that the percentages of fourth graders meeting or exceeding state standards climbed from 47 percent to 86 percent; every elementary school made AYP in 2006-07; and graduation rates were climbing.

One tool for this transformation was developing norms and values aimed at building consensus on the board and with the superintendent.

The Tukwila, Washington, school board developed operating principles to help establish trust between board members and between the board and community. Key elements include following the chain of command, not blindsiding people and providing mutual support.

In addition to establishing protocols, high-functioning boards work to guide new board members so they understand the responsibilities and limits of office, and they police each other. Some boards ask administrators for anonymous evaluations of board performance to keep on track.

Micromanaging staff is a pervasive problem according to the Panasonic Foundation board report. The report recommends boards define very explicit roles for board members and the superintendent. Role confusion undercuts the board’s ability to hold the superintendent accountable and can tie the district and board in knots.

The Panasonic Foundation advises boards to adopt a code of conduct, including a summary of board best practices they call board “rights and wrongs.” These tools help manage conflict so the exchange of ideas can be productive and lead to good policies and actions.

Chapter Five: When Things Go Right

Nationally, only about 10 percent of voters cast ballots in local school board elections, but this does not mean that school boards are irrelevant or are failing their communities. Survey data suggest that low turnover on boards and low turnout for elections actually means that most people are satisfied with the job school boards are doing – even while they say they are dissatisfied with public education in general. This ambivalence in the general public makes it more urgent for boards to practice good governance, be accountable and engage the public.

Focus on professional development –High-functioning school boards work continuously to develop leadership skills. In 20 states, training for school board members is mandated by the legislature. Beyond knowing the basic roles and responsibilities and changing laws, board members need to know how to analyze data, how to be critical thinkers and have a vision that student achievement is possible.

Challenge the status quo – Self-examination and monitoring progress toward goals help to keep boards on track. The one-size-fits-all approach will not work in education. Board members need to think beyond single issues and small picture concerns to focus on student achievement.

Communicate with communities – Public engagement is the key to fulfilling the board’s role as advocate for the needs of the district. Effective boards speak with one voice but listen with many ears. Focus groups, surveys and community advisory groups can help involve stakeholders in meeting the goals set by the board.

Chapter Six: Looking Ahead

Establishing partnerships with groups that share concerns and visions for education within the community helps build support and makes change much less stressful because shared leadership gives everyone a stake in the outcome.

Shared leadership encourages the transparent and open exchange of information but does not change the board’s authority, responsibility and accountability for decisions. Forming links with community groups is part of the process of continually assessing the board’s goals and forming ideas for the future.

High-functioning boards also give serious thought to continuity and stability in leadership by encouraging involved community members to run for the school board.

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