0313 successful school boards

0313 successful school boards

Culture counts for school boards, too

Culture counts for school boards, too

By Jennifer Wohlleb
Staff Writer

When it comes to creating a high-achieving school district, school boards have a role to play  – for better or worse. It all goes back to culture, according to a preconference presenter at KSBA's annual conference.

Lisa Bartusek, the National School Boards Association's associate executive director led a session focusing on student achievement through the eight characteristics of effective school boards.

"Your culture as a board, the way you think, the way you do things, the way you approach your work can have an impact on the culture of the district which impacts the culture of teaching and learning," she said. "It's the tone at the top. What you do as a board has an impact, both positive and negative. Keep that in mind because what we're really after is a highly effective culture in the district and your actions as a board are a part of that."

Bartusek referenced different research studies about effective school boards that had been conducted throughout the years and how what was once the prevailing attitude is no longer the case.

"In the early '90s, school boards were told, hands off student achievement, that's the staffs' job," she said. "That has changed. The New Work of School Boards (done by NSBA) came from school board members saying, 'Don't we need to have a role in this?' This was somewhat controversial at the time.

"The New Work of School Boards turned into the Key Work of School Boards and it is NSBA's message that that is absolutely your role."

She said the research backs up common sense. NSBA created the Center for Public Education, which researched and came up with the eight characteristics of highly effective board members (listed below).

"What it says is that boards in high-achieving districts have a culture of beliefs and attitudes that are markedly different than boards in low-achieving districts," she said.

Bartusek illustrated the difference between school boards in low- and high-achieving school districts by having attendees read contrasting statements they might make. For example, in the low-achieving district, a board member might say, “You can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink. This applies to both students and staff. You just can't reach all kids.” In the high-achieving district, a board member would express this type of attitude: “This is a place for all kids to excel. No one feels left out. I believe we haven't reached the limits of any of the kids in our system.”

"Boards in low-achieving districts were more likely to talk about external pressures as their reasons for failing to improve," Bartusek said. "What does your board do to create that culture of high expectations and if you're not on that path already, what can you do?"

Effective boards also excel in using data, goal setting, focusing, aligning resources and monitoring results.

"Savvy boards look at data and use that to continuously drive improvement," she said. "Boards in high-achieving districts can tell you step-by-step, very specifically, exactly where they were, what are their current levels of performance, how the kids are doing in reading, how the kids are doing in math, elementary, high school. They could answer those questions, they knew in detail exactly how the kids in their district were performing."

Bartusek said board members need to use data as a flashlight, not a hammer.

"Data and test scores are a baseline to know how you're doing, it's a way to tell where you are today," she said. "If you have a student participating in track, (your data is equivalent to) how fast they're running right now. It doesn't mean much more than that. The baseline we have now is just to guide us to what to do next: (for example) Do we have more challenges at the middle school level than elementary, then maybe that's where we need to put our resources. The data just helps illuminate decision making and goal setting."

The data should be used for goal setting to help allocate resources and align programs to meet the biggest needs of kids, she said.

Finally, research shows high-achieving districts have board members who work together.

"A study found that when individual board members had individual agendas and their own personal goals that were distracting from the district goals, not only were they not contributing, they were actually doing damage," Bartusek said. "So what we've known for years, the single-agenda board member fragmenting the team, can actually be detrimental. Does that mean you shouldn't have an issue that you're personally passionate about? No. I think all of us come to the table with something we really care about, but how do you make that work and keep those district practices front and center?"

– Additional information about the research mentioned in this article can be found at the following websites:


Eight characteristics of effective school boards: At a glance

What makes an effective school board – one that positively impacts student achievement? From a research perspective, it’s a complex question. It involves evaluating virtually all functions of a board, from internal governance and policy formulation to communication with teachers, building administrators, and the public.
But the research that exists is clear: boards in high-achieving districts exhibit habits and characteristics that are markedly different from boards in low-achieving districts. So what do these boards do? Here are eight characteristics:

1. Effective school boards commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction and define clear goals toward that vision. Effective boards make sure these goals remain the district’s top priorities and that nothing else detracts from them. In contrast, low-achieving boards “were only vaguely aware of school improvement initiatives” (Lighthouse I). “There was little evidence of a pervasive focus on school renewal at any level when it was not present at the board level,” researchers said. (Lighthouse I)

2. Effective school boards have strong shared beliefs and values about what is possible for students and their ability to learn, and of the system and its ability to teach all children at high levels. In high-achieving districts, poverty, lack of parental involvement and other factors were described as challenges to be overcome, not as excuses. Board members expected to see improvements in student achievement quickly as a result of initiatives. In low-achieving districts, board members frequently referred to external pressures as the main reasons for lack of student success. (Lighthouse I)

3. Effective school boards are accountability driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement. In interviews with hundreds of board members and staff across districts, researchers Goodman, Fulbright, and Zimmerman found that high-performing boards focused on establishing a vision supported by policies that targeted student achievement. Poor governance was characterized by factors such as micro-management by the board.

4. Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals. In high-achieving districts, school board members could provide specific examples of how they connected and listened to the community, and school board members received information from many different sources, including the superintendent, curriculum director, principals and teachers. Findings and research were shared among all board members. (Lighthouse I; Waters and Marzano) By comparison, school boards in low-achieving districts were likely to cite communication and outreach barriers. Staff members from low-achieving districts often said they didn’t know the board members at all.

5. Effective school boards are data savvy: they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement. The Lighthouse I study showed that board members in high-achieving districts identified specific student needs through data, and justified decisions based on that data. Board members regularly sought such data and were not shy about discussing it, even if it was negative. By comparison, board members in low-achieving districts tended to greet data with a “blaming” perspective, describing teachers, students and families as major causes for low performance. In these districts, board members frequently discussed their decisions through anecdotes and personal experiences rather than by citing data. They left it to the superintendent to interpret the data and recommend solutions.

6. Effective school boards align and sustain resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals. According to researchers LaRocque and Coleman, effective boards saw a responsibility to maintain high standards even in the midst of budget challenges. “To this end, the successful boards supported extensive professional development programs for administrators and teachers, even during times of [fiscal] restraint.” In low-achieving districts, however, board members said teachers made their own decisions on staff development based on perceived needs in the classroom or for certification.

7. Effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust. In successful districts, boards defined an initial vision for the district and sought a superintendent who matched this vision. In contrast, in stagnant districts, boards were slow to define a vision and often recruited a superintendent with his or her own ideas and platform, leading the board and superintendent to not be in alignment. (MDRC/Council of Great City Schools)

8. Effective school boards take part in team development and training, sometimes with their superintendents, to build shared knowledge, values and commitments for their improvement efforts. High-achieving districts had formal, deliberate training for new board members. They also often gathered to discuss specific topics. Low-achieving districts had board members who said they did not learn together except when the superintendent or other staff members made presentations of data. (Lighthouse I; LFA; LaRocque and Coleman)

Though the research on school board effectiveness is in the beginning stages, the studies included in this report make it clear that school boards in high-achieving districts have attitudes, knowledge and approaches that separate them from their counterparts in lower-achieving districts. In this era of fiscal constraints and a national environment focused on accountability, boards in high-performing districts can provide an important blueprint for success. In the process, they can offer a road map for school districts nationwide.

– From the Center for Public Education

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