Making the Grade: School Board Members Navigate Education Challenges

by Lesley Dahlkemper
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XVII, Number 2, Leadership for Learning

George McShan remembers well his early days serving on the Harlingen, Texas, school board. Back then, he says, the board’s main focus was to protect taxpayer dollars—or, as others have put it, budgets, buses, and buildings.

“We did not focus on student achievement,” recalls McShan, who has served on the board for 17 years now. “Some 25 percent of students went on to college and the others didn’t, and that was OK.”

Photo of a group of adults at a meeting.

McShan and his colleagues were not alone. Historically, board members have not seen themselves as change agents, according to Don McAdams, head of the Center for Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based group that promotes reform-minded school board leadership.

“Districts early on were modeled after the factory system and not designed to educate all children,” says McAdams. “High schools were designed in effect to sort children. We didn’t need everyone to get a high school diploma.”

All that has changed as the demand for a knowledge-based work force in today’s global economy has increased. The standards and assessment movement in the early 1990s and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have focused national attention on school improvement. The expectations of parents and community members have also changed. And the implications for locally elected school boards are great.

“The local public looks at their schools in terms of how well students are achieving, and they are looking to elected officials for answers,” says McShan, past president of the National School Boards Association (NSBA). “You can no longer just sit on a board. You have to bring a vision.”

LillieMae Ortiz, who is the president-elect of the New Mexico School Boards Association, says the community is more interested, involved, and educated about what schools can do for their children. “It keeps us on our toes,” she says.

Ortiz says in years past, school boards were more focused on local issues and reacting to state-issued guidelines. “Now [as state and federal governments have grown increasingly involved in public education], boards are beginning to play a more proactive role in advocating on behalf of legislative initiatives focusing on education,” Ortiz says.

The jury is still out on whether this more proactive role is taking hold.

A survey conducted by the Center for Reform of School Systems shows less than 25 percent of the nation’s largest school districts were implementing anything that wasn’t purely reactive

“Most districts viewed their role as maintaining the system or changing it [only] as the state dictates,” says McAdams, a former Houston school board member. “There is a big opportunity for school boards to lead. NCLB has put a lot of requirements on districts, and they could go well beyond NCLB by setting higher targets and measuring performance in different ways.”

In a new environment of high-stakes accountability, school board members are reexamining their role.

As schools wrestle with closing the achievement gap and operating in a new environment of high-stakes accountability, school board members are reexamining their role and seeking more targeted help along the way.

“We have to redesign school districts, and that requires the active leadership of the board,” says McAdams. “School boards have to get deeply involved in policy leadership ranging from a focus on managing instruction more effectively to measuring performance accountability, and this work must have deep community roots.”

The Changing Role of Today’s School Boards

As the world of public education has grown more complex, so too has the role of locally elected school board members. Many come to the board with little background in education. Often new board members find themselves thrown into a highly public and complicated arena for which they may have little or no training. Some run for the board as single-issue candidates and later find themselves working in teams on multiple issues for the first time. Others may struggle to understand data-driven decision making or to grasp intricate district budgets.

A 2002 survey of board members in 2,000 districts commissioned by NSBA shows that student achievement and funding for public education are universal concerns among boards—urban and rural, large and small. The study found that the emphasis on student achievement increased significantly during the 1990s.

“When you look at the number of children in our public school system, the demographics are bringing us more challenging children, not less challenging children,” says NSBA executive director Anne Bryant. “The big question is, how do we raise student achievement for all kids?”

Staying on top of cutting-edge trends and research is challenging, says Ortiz, who serves on the Pojoaque Valley School Board of Education in New Mexico. “I find myself reading a lot, asking lots of questions, and visiting other school districts. I bring that information back to our local community. It’s a continual learning and educational process to be as informed as I can.”

NSBA launched The Key Work of School Boards to help boards better understand their role in improving student achievement. Key Work addresses several issues, including visioning, standards, assessments, accountability, alignment, and continuous improvement. (Go to http://www.nsba. org for a copy of the publication.)

Key to this effort is using data—instead of guesswork, emotion, or speculation—to drive decision making. Bryant points to Aldine, Texas, as an exemplary district using data to improve student achievement. “The school board was really the driving force in all of this. It was a group of clearheaded, thoughtful citizens who said, ‘We want to improve achievement in our district.’” The Education Trust in Washington, D.C., has recognized Aldine with its “Dispelling the Myth” award for narrowing gaps in student achievement.

Another critical role for boards is engaging their communities. Public dialogues with parents, community members, students, and others can result in a common vision and shared responsibility for how to improve schools, attract high-quality teachers, or close the achievement gap. Local school board members’ decisions are often better informed because they are shaped by public input.

NSBA developed a community engagement initiative called “What Counts?” to learn more about what indicators of student performance matter most to stakeholders in local communities. The community feedback influences state testing and accountability policies. State school board associations in Maryland, Colorado, Connecticut, and Minnesota are piloting the program.

Similar community engagement initiatives are under way elsewhere. The Arkansas School Board Association (ASBA) facilitates a series of study circles to better understand what local communities want from their schools. This work began in the late 1990s when ASBA collaborated with SEDL to conduct study circles in seven communities. “We saw major changes in two of those seven districts after the community conversations,” says ASBA executive director Don Farley.

The study circles became a model for a statewide event in 2002 when 6,000 people in more than 90 locations turned out for “Speak Out Arkansas.” Participants were asked one question: What do we want Arkansas schools to look like to educate our children? The conversations informed the work of the Arkansas Blue Ribbon Commission on Public Education. Farley says the state legislature acted upon many of the commission’s recommendations, which drew from the community conversations.

In some cases, school board members in Arkansas help facilitate community conversations, participate in them, or encourage others to attend. “It’s more and more apparent to me that if we don’t get communities involved, all of our efforts will be for naught,” says Farley. “Boards must use their role as conveners of the community to create conversations so they can get public support to do good work.”

Others who work closely with school boards echo Farley’s sentiments.

“Real dialogue between the board and targeted public groups can achieve a greater degree of understanding about the work of the board and district,” says Aspen Group International president Linda Dawson, who works with school boards across the country, including boards in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. “It is a constructive opportunity for the community to communicate its needs and expectations to the local board.”

Providing School Boards With Better Training

Today’s board members face a steep learning curve: multimillion-dollar budgets, curriculum and instructional programs, complex student achievement data disaggregated by subgroups, and other facets that make up the workings of a school district. Helping school boards navigate these challenging issues to make good policy decisions for their communities requires more sophisticated training.

States are recognizing this need, and some have mandated school board training. According to an issue brief published in 2003 by the New York State School Boards Association, about 17 states require training. Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas—states in the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory region—mandate school board training, according to data compiled by NSBA. The training in these states focuses on topics such as the roles and responsibilities of school board members, school finance, ethics, legal concepts, policies and procedures, and team building.

In Arkansas, the legislature passed a mandatory school board training bill this year. New board members must undergo 9 hours of training in the first 15 months and 6 hours of training each year after that as long as they serve on the board. Under the law, each district must publish the names of board members who achieved their training goals and those who did not in its annual report. The Arkansas Department of Education must approve the training.

Increasingly, state associations representing school board members are stepping up the quality of their training. ASBA began a 2.5-day comprehensive leadership institute for teams of school board members in 2001 that was 2 years in the making.

The institute, modeled on the NSBA’s The Key Work of School Boards, helps boards set a vision about who and what participants want their board and district to be. Participants also deepen their understanding about standards, assessments, accountability, and community engagement. Key to this work is understanding data’s role in making policy decisions.

“It’s more important than ever that boards read data, make decisions based on the data they have, and collaborate with the community,” says Farley. “If boards and districts aren’t performing, they could see themselves taken out of existence. It’s a matter of survival for districts that they improve the results of their work.”

Others who provide leadership training for school boards hold similar views, especially as state governments and the federal government grow increasingly involved in what some would argue was once the work of the local school board. “[Boards] will be legislated out of existence as had been done in Detroit or as is being done in states like New Hampshire [if they don’t improve],” says Dawson.

Are Local Boards in Jeopardy?

Increased efforts to provide board members with higher quality training and leadership development come too late for some who question the value and relevancy of local school boards in today’s educational environment. Some critics maintain school boards are the biggest barriers to school improvement. They point to state policymakers and local voters who are replacing locally elected school boards with appointed boards in some large urban districts as proof that the local board’s time has come.

In the 2004 issue of Education Next, Chester Finn, Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and Lisa Graham Keegan, the former chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council, point to three trends that they argue “obviate” the need for school boards: state centralization of funding, statewide accountability systems, and expansion of choice.

Finn and Keegan note that once states issued annual data reports on schools’ academic progress, safety, and teacher qualifications, families were able to make their own decisions about where to send their children. The authors argue, “This kind of information and consumer power means there is no need for a locally elected board to advocate for better curriculum or more money at the municipal level.”

Advocates of locally elected school boards disagree, saying their role is more relevant now than ever before.

“I can’t tell you what’s going on in Chicago or other cities, but I can tell you what’s going on in Harlingen, Texas,” says McShan. “The local school board has the best interests of the community at heart.”

Farley agrees. “Take boards away from the community and [citizens] have no voice left in decisions schools or the district might make. I don’t think boards are passé. There is simply a greater and different role for them. They are still the embodiment of representative democracy in America.”

Lesley Dahlkemper is the president of Denver-based Schoolhouse Communications (, a firm specializing in strategic communications, public engagement, and editorial services in the K–16 arena.

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