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Davis Campbell

Does your school board have a governance mindset?

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2019

By Davis Campbell
Co-author of “The Governance Core”

School district governance is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated functions in education. How school boards and superintendents work together, or not, is one of those issues that almost everyone thinks about but few actually know what to do about it.

In “The Governance Core,” Michael Fullan and I spell out the fundamental, non-negotiable elements of highly effective governance systems in school districts and why they work. The premise is simple. Our vision is of a dynamic, powerful governance system, school board and superintendent working together as a cohesive, unified team with a common unity of purpose driven by a shared moral imperative.  

You’re probably wondering how to do that? 

Based upon 40 years of work with high-performing, and some not so great, boards and superintendents and the lessons of Fullan’s work on coherence, moral imperative and system change, we begin by focusing on why some school board trustees (called board members in Kentucky) and their superintendents are highly effective and many others are not.  

What we have found in working with hundreds of high performing, effective school board trustees and superintendents is that in every case, they govern with a profound commitment to quality education for all, combined with a deep understanding, sometimes learned sometimes intuitive, of what governance is all about. 

We call this understanding a governance mindset. 

The big difference involves understanding the difference between politics and governance. Politics is what happens around elections – and in the case of ineffective school boards continues to happen on a daily basis, often favoring narrow groups. Governance consists of setting direction and the ongoing oversight of the district between elections and is intended to serve the needs of the whole community. Shifting from campaigning to governing is what the governance mindset is all about. 

What do we mean by governance mindset? It’s not so dissimilar in concept to what we expect teachers to have in classrooms: a strong, well-defined instructional, pedagogical mindset. Or what we expect managers to have: a strong, well-defined administrative mindset. So, since governance is a totally different organizational function, it is not unreasonable to expect that trustees should have a strong, well-defined governance mindset. 

Our book provides the essence of what this work looks like in practice and corresponding ideas and strategies for getting better at it. Governance has its own unique responsibilities in the education system. Many unsuccessful boards are the result of a failure of trustees to understand the difference between the unique functions of governance and the ongoing work of administration and curriculum and instruction. There are four ways that Fullan and I offer to break that cycle through a governance mindset. 

Four ways to have a governance mindset are:

1. Systems Thinking –Trustees with a governance mindset understand that governance is a systems job, and that means ensuring that the school district, as one of the most complex organizational systems in most communities, is as effective as it can be. Actions by the board cannot be taken in isolation.  

Every decision taken by the board has an effect, often unanticipated, on something else in the district. An effective trustee, either elected or appointed, connects the dots; they understand how all the pieces in the district fit together.

2. Strategic Focus – Trustees with a governance mindset understand that governance is a strategic job, not an administrative or tactical job. The secret sauce to effective governance is the strategic progression, in a coherent way, through the steps of defining and reaching agreement on the moral imperative, creating a unity of purpose, and adopting strategic goals. The operational focuses of the board and superintendent have to be on raising the bar and closing the gap for all students in the district. That is the essence of the governance job. 

3. Deep Learning – Trustees with a governance mindset realize their governance power through their knowledge and deep understanding of the issues surrounding the moral imperative and the actions and programs necessary to achieve it. It is not possible to make quality governance decisions without a deep understanding of the programs upon which the board is making decisions. Purposeful superintendents understand that the quality, accuracy and truthfulness of information provided to the board are directly related to the ability of the board to govern effectively.  

4. Public Manner –This is one of the most important and often least appreciated traits of highly effective trustees. Trustees with a governance mindset always mind their manner. Such trustees model civic behavior and understand that how they govern as an individual is often more critical than what they say or do. Above all, they are very conscious of modeling the behavior they want the children in the district to emulate.

It is not only trustees that need a governance mindset. Superintendents also need to have a fundamental understanding of the principles of governance. The most successful superintendents with high-performing districts are purposeful in their engagement with the board. They support a governance culture based on collaboration and trust, leading to a high level of coherence. Most importantly, they share a moral imperative with the board. But having effective individuals on a board is not enough. It is the total group that must work well together. 

So how is it that some boards are consistently highly effective and others are not?  

The answer can be found in the collective awareness and culture of the board as a team, board and superintendent working together. The dominant characteristic of most dysfunctional boards is their inability to find common ground. At the core of this lack of coherence is a lack of understanding and agreement about the nature and purpose of the work of the district. 

Virtually every highly effective board governs with a unity of purpose driven by a shared moral imperative. These boards are highly engaged in supporting the work of the district. They are, in Michael Fullan's terms, coherence makers. ... Because coherence is subjective, lack of coherence, like a string of dominoes, leads to a breakdown in collaboration and trust. In turn, this leads to a toxic governance culture, thereby making developing a shared moral imperative and subsequent commitment to strategic goals virtually impossible.

The key to creating the dynamics leading to a well-developed governance system is in taking purposeful action to create the infrastructure that provides the framework within which trustees and the superintendent can work together.

Davis Campbell, retired executive director of the California School Boards Association and senior fellow, University of California, Davis, Center for Applied Policy in Education.
”The Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together“ (First Edition) by Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan ©2019 by Corwin (A SAGE Company) ISBN: 9781544344331 
Board members: Book study beneficial 
Throughout the summer, nearly 70 school board members, superintendents and education leaders took part in KSBA’s interactive book study of “The Governance Core.” Through weekly reflections, poll questions and a live online discussion. 

Topics ranged from shared moral imperative, good governance, strategic focus, governance style and stewardship. In addition to the valuable lessons learned, participants earned 2.5 hours of elective board credit. KSBA has already begun integrating the book into training topics, some of which will be available at this month’s Winter Symposium and February’s Annual Conference. 

Here’s what a few members learned by participating in the  book study:

“While reading ‘The Governance Core’ I frequently found myself nodding in agreement with various statements and thinking of my own board, superintendent and other administrative staff to see if I think we measure up; happily, I think we're doing many things well. I appreciated learning more about the importance of having a governance mindset, maintaining strategic focus and creating and supporting a positive organizational culture in the district. My favorite quote from the book is found in the introduction: ‘Education cannot be expected to solve everything, but it is increasingly clear that it is the one social institution that has the potential to make a major difference for humanity in a troubled world.’ I want to be part of making that difference."
Melissa Decker, vice chairwoman, Owensboro Public Schools

“It is imperative, in today’s fast-paced and complicated world for each and every board member to read this book. Creating a mindset that leads to a culture of governance for the board is ensuring a functional board. Developing a document that gives a road map to our efforts and a real guiding light ensures we are a system of strategic thinkers who are driven by deep learning before all decisions. The process needs to ensure we are reviewing our plan on an interval in tune with changes from the inside and outside that influence our decisions. Decisions must be driven by all student engagement and improvement. It must ensure a smooth evolution in mindset and culture when and where any players change over time. We need coherence in the process of a student’s education over the 12 to 14 years in our district. We are the ones who mirror our districts to the community at all times.”
Carl Wicklund, chairman, Kenton County Schools

“Of all the books I have read about the responsibilities of school boards and superintendents, this one is absolutely the best. It defines the different roles for each and brings the team concept full circle. It is a must read for all board members and superintendents, whether new or a veteran in that position. ‘The Governance Core’ should be a required read for anyone considering school board service.”
Kerry Young, chairman, Warren County Schools

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