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What Makes an Effective School Board?

5 strategies to improve school board practices that yield better student performance

by Phil Gore, PhD, Division Director at Texas Association of School Boards

Board improvement strategies

Research over the past 20 years clearly links the beliefs and actions of school boards with student outcomes. Tom Alsbury, a university professor and former school administrator, found that politically motivated turnover on school boards corresponds with decreased student achievement.

Mary Delagardelle, a former school board member and principal, picked up on Tom’s research and asked, “If school boards have the potential to harm student performance, couldn’t they also do good?” That question birthed what became known as the Iowa Lighthouse Research Project, which revealed that the beliefs, actions, and relationships of school board members influence student learning in the classroom.

When student performance is affected by the strength and stability of their school board, then it’s more important than ever that school boards, rather than just focus outwardly on district and student goals and performance, also turn inwardly to ensure board stability and effective governance.

Here are five strategies that would not just help improve the school board, but ultimately yield positive outcomes for the students as well:

1. Embracing the role as trustee

A trustee is selected to exercise sound judgement and act in the best interest of those they serve. Research shows that, when school board members think of themselves as trustees, the board displays better teamwork within the board, more cooperation with the superintendent, and a stronger focus on student achievement.

A trustee mindset is very important when it comes to effective school governance. School boards are entrusted with a community’s two most precious resources—its children and its money.

Public school governance is not exceptional when decisions are made based on majority public opinion. Majority public opinion rarely represents the best interest of all children; it tends to relate more to our past than our children’s future, and usually serves some students, but doesn’t account for all.

School board members committed to the best outcomes for each and every child recognize the path to fulfilling that vision requires a commitment to a trustee mindset, decisions, and actions. This is not groupthink or unanimity on every decision. It is okay to disagree in the boardroom.

When operating effectively in trustee mode, board members contribute their individual thinking while maintaining a radical commitment to the goals of the whole board.

In 2013, I surveyed school board members in Washington state, and my research suggested that board members who think of themselves as trustees are not only more likely to support recommendations of superintendents but also more likely to hold the superintendent accountable for student achievement. Exceptional school boards function as trustees, at least most of the time.

2. Being focused and intentional

It takes a team of intentional trustees working with a focused superintendent and effective instructional team to improve student learning in a district. Teachers can’t do it alone. Administrators can’t do it alone. And, school boards can’t do it alone. Everyone in the continuum, from the boardroom to the classroom, has to be focused and intentional when it comes to improving student learning.

“Focused” means our eyes and thoughts are on the goal. A brief search for “focused good governance” brings up a number of helpful sites, including one that states, “Good governance focuses on intended beneficiaries.” We believe the primary beneficiaries of public education are foremost the students, so no matter what comes up as a trustee, we should never lose sight of what is best for them.

“Intentional” means that we are strategically taking steps toward the goal and desired outcome. “Intentional” also emphasizes that our steps are appropriately measured. We are pushing forward at the right pace for long-term success. We are following a roadmap, with our best understanding of the direction to go. We are concentrating and measuring the health of our team and the progress we are making.

A stream of water can cut through steel or water the lawn; the difference is in the focus and intentionality. The fact is that focused and intentional school districts are improving student learning. Setting student learning as the priority in the board’s work requires developing a board culture and structure that support this focus.

3. Prioritize board stability

It takes time for new trustees to learn their role and contribute positively to the governance team. How important is it to define an effective onboarding approach for new trustees? Low-achieving school districts tend to be more carefree in their approach to transitioning new board members. High-achieving school districts tend to have intentional practices for preparing citizens to serve as school trustees. Thorough and comprehensive onboarding processes are crucial for bringing new trustees on board and maintaining board stability during the transition.

A citizen’s academy for learning about the school district and governance priorities seems to be helpful for improving continuity in the school district. Voter education about the role of a school board can help stabilize the community’s understanding and expectations of school board members. Keeping the community informed and creating positive relationships with the community can contribute to board stability.

A consistent course of action over time is the key to improvement. Whenever there is a change of course, it can take a while for a school district to recover and start anew. Although turnover of school board members is inevitable, anything the board and district can do to keep things on a steady path will likely improve the long-term success of its students. School boards working with trained facilitators to help clarify and focus their work can help keep the governance team on a path to improved student performance.

4. Self-assessment

Board self-assessment can guide the board of trustees through an introspective look at board practices related to improved student learning.

Participating in the assessment provides an opportunity for each trustee and the board as a whole to examine how they are performing their work.  Results from board self-assessment can confirm governance team strengths and inform the board of potential areas for improvement.

Both the strengths and areas for improvement can help the board set goals for its learning and development. When the board models this type of self-reflection, they establish an environment that encourages and expects introspection, growth, and continuous improvement throughout the system.

5. Learning together

Board goals are not district goals. They are not superintendent goals. They are goals for how the board is going to improve its work, and there needs to be a clear and focused strategy for improvement. That begins with self-assessment, and then it continues with an actionable plan to focus the board’s work on improving student outcomes.

One priority action to consider is learning together as a board team. It’s not enough for individual trustees or the superintendent to learn about effective governance through reading books, attending conference sessions, and studying.

Governance teams improve when the team learns together and applies that learning to their work. Specific examples of improvement for most governance teams include agendas focused on student outcomes, times on the agenda that help keep meetings on track, regular reviews of student learning data, and workshops that help the boards understand and monitor for improvement in student learning.

Continuous improvement

As school boards focus on their continuous improvement—learning together and applying that learning as a board team, assessing their progress, and measuring performance—they set the example and course of action for continuous improvement throughout the school system. This means administrators are improving, operations are increasing efficiency, teaching is becoming more effective, and students are learning more in the classroom.

Ultimately, the students will benefit—isn’t that why we’re all in this together in the first place?

For more information on leadership and school board governance, visit the Leadership Team Services Resources on the TASB web page.