By Jennifer Wohlleb
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: