Report: U.S. school boards focused on student achievement can have a greater impact on learning, but knowledge levels differ

From multiple online reports

Are the nation’s 90,000-plus school board members critical players in student learning or are they harmless bystanders? A study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, offers some questions and answers in “Does School Board Leadership Matter?”

Some conclusions in the report are:

· 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.

· But such knowledge is not uniformly distributed. 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 academic improvement. Not all board members have this focus.

· Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts that “beat the odds” than those chosen by voters off-cycle or by ward. In some localities, how board members are elected may deter the best and brightest from taking on these key roles.

“A lot of folks will say, you know, 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 folks who are overseeing school systems do matter,” said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the Fordham Institute.

This study looked at how well school board members know their districts. The study found that board members who are knowledgeable about their district finances, teacher pay, collective bargaining and class size don't always know enough about the academic standards.

“And if they are more focused on raising student achievement they tend to get higher student achievement. Now that might seem like common sense, but the problem is there are many school board members who have other things they are focused on,” Petrilli said.

And Petrilli noted that focus is often on politics when an individual is seeking a school board seat.

“Getting jobs for people they know, building a political resume because they want to run for higher office,” noted Petrilli. “So we have to make sure, first and foremost, that we get people elected to these boards who are focused on doing right by kids.”

NSBA reaction

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) issued a commentary on the Fordham Institute report the day of its release:

A new report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute concludes that school districts whose school board members are focused on student achievement are more likely than others to “beat the odds” academically — that is, to perform better than the demographics and financial conditions of their students would suggest.

The report, “Does School Board Leadership Matter?” is a follow-up to the 2010 report “School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era,” a joint project of Fordham Institute, the National School Boards Association (NSBA), and the Iowa Association of School Boards. As with the earlier report, NSBA says that while the new study makes a valuable contribution to the field of school board research, some of its findings are based on questionable assumptions.

The report, released March 26 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., affirms the fact that local school boards matter and that their actions can positively impact student achievement. The study sheds additional light on what makes a quality school board, and adds further support to a January 2011 research review issued by NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE) on the “Eight Characteristics of Effective Boards.”

As such, the new Fordham Institute report makes a valuable contribution to the field of school board research, especially when viewed alongside other research, such as the CPE report, that also shows a relationship between school board behaviors and higher student achievement. We appreciate the transparency with which Fordham Institute indicates the limitations of its findings, which were based in part on a prior Fordham Institute-NSBA-Iowa Association of School Boards national survey of school boards, “School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era.”

As with all correlational studies, reviewers of the Fordham Institute report should use caution when interpreting findings, some of which are based on questionable assumptions. For example, in determining the accuracy of school board members’ knowledge of district funding, the authors conflate relative per-pupil dollars with school board members’ perceptions about how sufficient those dollars are — two entirely different things.

Nonetheless, NSBA appreciates the Fordham Institute focus on providing greater insight around effective local school board governance, recognizing that school boards need the support of key influencers such as parents, teachers, principals and others who help to create positive teaching and learning environments. We look forward to continuing our collaboration on this important issue.

The full report may be viewed online here: http://www.edexcellencemedia.net/publications/2014/Does-School-Board-Leadership-Matter/Does-School-Board-Leadership-Matter-EMBARGOED.pdf

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