By Jennifer Wohlleb
Research shows there are five leadership roles school boards have in creating successful, high achieving districts. KSBA conference clinic presenter Bill Lovell, a 27-year veteran of the McLean County school board, unofficially added a sixth one: don’t make excuses for why students aren't achieving at high levels.
"The whole point of successful schools is to not have any excuses," he told a clinic audience of veteran and new school board members as well as superintendents. "I've used this excuse as I know many of you have: the problem is, there's no parent support for a lot of students. And we know that's true and certainly those homes that have good support for their students, they do significantly better than those who don't."
But Lovell cited a Harvard University study by Catherine Snow that showed two or more years of highly effective instruction can overcome low support in the home.
"With two or more years in a classroom with a highly effective teacher, a student can achieve academic success no matter what takes place in the home," he said. "She also found that even with high home support, two or more years with a low quality teacher produced students who were less successful.
"We probably ought to stop using the excuses for why our students aren't doing well when this study shows that if we have highly effective teachers, students are going to be successful. We really can't control what takes place at their homes, can we, as school board members? Our responsibility is the school itself."
He encouraged boards to support professional development.
"Your teachers are your most significant factors in increasing student achievement. How do we as school board members provide assurance for high quality instruction?" Lovell asked.
"Districts making significant gains and improvements in student achievement focus on teaching and learning," he said.
Lovell said to keep the focus where it needs to be, he tries to ask himself one question every time he casts a vote or makes a decision as a school board member.
"We need to be focused on students and sometimes as school board members we focus on things that have no bearing on student achievement," he said. "I believe that when I make a decision, I should ask myself a question: how is this going to affect student achievement on this particular question? I think that's my responsibility, if we're about students."
He said school boards can have a role in setting curriculum, even though that responsibility falls by statute to school councils.
"We can provide support through professional development opportunities, not only in the type but also the time that it takes," Lovell said. " We need consistent implementation. Adopting districtwide curriculum and instructional approaches rather than by school."
He said by supporting the superintendent and looking at best practices, there are ways for school boards to provide the best strategies for curriculum in our schools.
"I think if a school board team, which includes the superintendents, has high expectations for their students, I think there are ways to, not mandate, but lead the district and lead the schools in making the right decisions," he said. "There are times we need to bring in best practices and say, 'Look what's working here.'"
He said boards also should consistently and continuously look at and analyze data during their meetings.
Research has shown that school boards do make a difference in creating high achieving school districts. Lovell cited the 10-year Lighthouse Study done by the Iowa Association of School Boards, which defined the five leadership roles of school boards in successful districts:
• Setting clear expectations
• Creating conditions for success
• Holding the system accountable
• Creating the public will to succeed
• Learning as a board team
"In nearly every KSBA training you attend, these five leadership roles are going to be hammered because they have been shown to be successful and that's our goal," he said. "If you want to improve, focus on what matters most."
Click here for more information about the Lighthouse study.