Executive Insights

Executive Insights

Does school board leadership matter?

By David Baird
Interim Executive Director
 
Several years ago, KSBA joined the Iowa Association of School Boards in research called The Lighthouse Project to study the effectiveness of local school board governance. This study asked the question, “What is it that school boards do that impacts student achievement?”
 
In many ways, the study marked the dawning of a new era for school board members, who traditionally had been involved in management duties only around finance, facilities and construction. Rarely did we see a local school board or individual board members dive headfirst into student achievement, with assessment, curriculum and instruction on the board table.
 
Because of KSBA’s participation in The Lighthouse Project, we changed much of our board member training to reflect a stronger focus on student achievement as well as the traditional board roles. Today, I think it is indisputable that board members’ expanded role is showing positive results to move the student achievement needle in many districts.
 
In a recent KSBA Boardcast electronic newsletter, you may read of another research study, this one by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D. C.-based pro-school choice think tank. Titled, “Does School Board Leadership Matter?” the study found, among other things:
 
• Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts when it comes to finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining and class size. Whether they were knowledgeable from the outset or surround themselves with savvy staff and administrators, many are making decisions from an informed point of view.
 
• Surprisingly, members who were never educators themselves are more accurately informed than their peers who once were (or still are) educators. Political moderates appear to have more accurate knowledge than their liberal or conservative counterparts.
 
• A district’s success in “beating the odds” academically is related to board members’ focus on the improvement of academics.
 
Fordham Executive Vice President Michael Petrilli said, “A lot of folks will say the only thing that matters to teaching and learning is what happens inside the classroom, and that is certainly where the rubber meets the road, but it turns out that folks who are overseeing school systems do matter. And if they (board members) are more focused on raising student achievement they tend to get higher student achievement.”
 
This may seem like common sense, but the problem remains that there are many school board members who are focused on other things and student achievement may not be a top priority. Any “other things” should be secondary to the ultimate goal of well-educated students.
 
Smart, savvy school board members must recognize that governance does include student achievement, right along with finance, facilities and construction. When they gather the support of parents, teachers and administrators, school boards can foster a well-organized and academically successful school district.
 
In working with our members, I regularly see unquestionable evidence supporting a resounding “Yes” that school board leadership matters. It matters to effective district operations. It matters to efficient use of taxpayer dollars. And it certainly matters by ensuring the resources that help quality teachers and engaged students make the education connection.
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