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Leading Edge Blog

Sorry Mark Twain, Rod Paige Was Right


In 1897 Mark Twain wrote "God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards."

Over 100 years late, in an article in the Atlantic entitled, "First Kill All the School Boards" policy analyst Matt Miller (2008) echoed that same sentiment when he argued that local control and local school boards are the basic cause of poor student performance. He wrote, "What of school boards? In an ideal world, we would scrap them. Of course, the chances of eliminating school boards anytime soon are nil. But at least we can limit their role." (p.95).

In contrast, former U.S Secretary of Education and former superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Rod Paige, spoke these words in 2002, "The effectiveness of school board governance is the single most important determinant of school district success or failure." In support of that notion, education reform author Don McAdams (2000) wrote, "If school systems improve, it will be because boards make them improve. No one else can."

It is interesting to contemplate that the educational literature provides convincing evidence that some teachers generate higher student achievement than others (Brophy and Good, 1986), that some schools generate higher achievement than others (Brookover et al., 1996; Mortimore et al., 1998), and that, some curricula and instructional methods generate higher achievement than others (Bloom, 1994; Slavin et al., 1996; Wang et al., (1993). However, a key question left unanswered in the literature is whether or not some school boards and their leadership practices create district conditions that generate higher student achievement than others. Until now.

There is, in fact, a growing body of research that suggests that what school boards believe, know, and do can create the conditions for effective classroom instruction and higher levels of student achievement (Delagardelli, Johnson). According to educational reform researchers Goodman and Fulbright (1997), in districts that increased student achievement, complimentary leadership roles defined the relationship between the board and the superintendent. As they observed, "Strong, collaborative leadership by local school boards and school superintendents is a key cornerstone of the foundation for high student achievement" and "Effective districts support a high degree of collaboration between each school board and superintendent, who together view themselves as the school district governance team for higher student achievement."

While a governance culture characterized by a high degree of shared leadership between superintendent and board is characteristic of effective boards, research also suggests that effective boards engage in 12 specific shared leadership practices that are associated with improved student achievement (Johnson).

1. Creating a Vision

Effective school boards are actively involved with other district leaders and the community in creating a clear, long term, shared vision for the district based in the belief that students are capable learners and that district staff has the capacity to impact student achievement.

Goodman (1997) observed that effective school boards establish a long-term vision and direction for the district and "Work with the community to develop a shared vision for the schools that provides all students with the opportunity to attain their maximum potentials". Goodman is careful to point out that while the vision can become the catalyst to awaken interest in the community and bring input from the community "The board must expand the communities horizons by ensuring that citizens have information about the skills students will need".

What do you want your district to look like in five years? What is the "Vision" of your district? How was it developed?

2. Using Data

Effective school boards use data to set goals, establish accountability for themselves and others, monitor progress, apply pressure, provide support, and inform decision-making regarding the conditions that affect student learning.

Lamont and Delagardelle (2009) observed that with effective boards "Data was at the heart of the conversation about progress. Boards learned together about the data that would give them a clear picture of progress and needed adjustments" and these boards "Worked with district leadership to determine what data would be collected and how it would be used by the board and district leadership in making decisions."

How does your board use data to monitor progress?How does your board use data to provide support?How does your board use data to inform decision-making regarding the conditions that affect student learning?

3. Setting Goals

Effective school boards set a few reasonable, specific, collaboratively developed, non-negotiable goals for student achievement and instruction and then allow district staff to be responsible, within established parameters, for the methods to accomplish those goals. Successful districts tend to adopt a few broad goals and work at them over along period of time.

Marzano and Waters reported that effective district leaders "Ensure that the collaborative goal setting process results in non-negotiable goals (goals that all staff members must act on) in at least two areas: (1) student achievement and (2) classroom instruction." They sum up their work by proclaiming, "Student achievement is the ultimate and superordinate end product of district reform. Everything else is in the service of this outcome."

How many goals does your district have?How many goals does you board have for itself?To what degree does your board allow staff, including administrators, to be responsible for the methods to accomplishthose goals?

4. Monitoring Progress and Taking Corrective Action

Effective school boards monitor, in collaboration with district leadership, progress toward the achievement of district goals and take corrective action when progress is not evident.

According to Goodman (2000), effective boards accomplish this, in part, by "Holding periodic retreats with the superintendent to evaluate their work as a policy board, to assess the effectiveness of the board-superintendent team in improving student achievement, and to plan for the continuing education of their governance team."

How does your board monitor progress?How does your board they take corrective action?How does your board celebrate success?

5. Creating Awareness and Urgency

Effective school boards create a sense of urgency about the gap between student achievement data and the vision by actively advocating for change that will result in how the district confronts the barriers to student achievement and improved instruction.

Goodman (2000) makes the claim that "The most important task for every board/superintendent team is to lead the community to face the problems and confront the barriers that are blocking the potential of its children."

How does your board created a sense of urgency about the gap between the data and the vision? How does your board actively advocate for change that will result in improved student achievement and improved instruction? How does your board confront the barriers to student achievement and improved instruction?

6. Engaging the Community

Effective school boards actively engage the community in pursuit of the district' shared vision and goals.

Goodman (1997) found that "Effective superintendent/board teams established partnerships throughout the community and ensured effective communications with students, teachers, other employees, media and the community-at-large. This approach ensures progress toward the vision through feedback from students, staff, parents and the community- at-large."

What partnerships has your district created to ensure effective communications with the community? What specific groups does your district target? How does your district use the feedback from these groups?

7. Connecting with District Leadership

Effective school boards actively connect with district leadership in pursuit of the district' vision and goals in ways that compliment the superintendent' implementation efforts.

According to Delagardelle (2008) in effective districts "The relationship between the board and superintendent was extended to the district leadership team (usually consisting of central office administrators, principals, and teacher leaders in each building) to guide and protect improvement efforts, monitor progress, and make mid-course corrections to accelerate progress." While, LaRocque and Colman (1993) found that these boards "Visited schools regularly. They meet with department heads on specific program matters. They obtained information about programs in different ways and from different sources, and sought opportunities to interact directly with administrators and teachers."

How often does the board visit schools and dialogue with staff about student achievement? 2. How does your board connect with district leadership in ways that compliment the superintendent's implementationefforts? How does your board connect with district leadership in ways that don't compliment the superintendent's implementation efforts?

8. Creating Climate

Effective school boards provide leadership in creating a district climate characterized by participatory decision making, shared leadership, a focus on the needs of people, and a commitment to high quality teaching and learning.

LaRocque and Coleman (1993) found that "School boards can, without usurping the superintendent's administrative prerogatives, engage in activities that help to create and sustain a productive district culture" while Delagardelle (2009) observed that in effective districts the "Culture focused on student learning was characterized by (1) restructuring of time to allow for collective study as part of the work day, (2) school staff organized into small study groups/teams, (3) shared decision-making rather than mechanically mandating that things happen, and (4) collective efforts to improve because it's the right thing to do for kids - not because it's a mandate."

To what extent has your district restructured time to allow for collective study? To what extent has your district organized into teacher-based teams? To what extent has your district, including the board, engage in shared leadership practices?

9. Providing Staff Development

Effective school boards understand, support, and allocate resources for quality professional development that is focused on improving instruction.

Delagardelle (2008) noted that effective boards "Realized that improving student achievement would be directly related to their support for quality professional development focused on the improvement of instruction".

How does your district support and provide quality professional development that is focused on improving instruction? What data does your district use data to determine what professional development to invest in? What strategies does your district employ to attract, employ, develop, and retain effective teachers?

10. Developing Deliberative Policy

Effective school boards focus on policy issues that impact student achievement and classroom instruction.

LaRocque and Coleman (1993) observed that effective boards "Promoted their policies in ways that complemented the superintendent' implementation efforts, without over- stepping the boundaries into the administrative domain. They established a mandate for their initiatives among the professionals in the district, and exercised leadership not only in the community but in the school system."

What policy issues has your board dealt with recently that impacted student achievement and instruction? How has your board promoted policies that compliment the superintendent' implementation efforts? How has your board exercised leadership in the community and within the district regarding its policies that impact student achievement and classroom instruction?

11. Demonstrating Commitment

Effective school boards demonstrate commitment to the district' vision by ensuring that district resources support district goals and that school board members spend time together learning about district programs, initiatives and issues.

"Effective boards of education found it necessary to create time to learn together as a board team and engage in extensive dialogue with each other in order to establish consensus about what was most important to accomplish, to understand what it would take to succeed, and to determine at what cost they were willing to pursue it." Delagardelle, 2008.

How has your board allocated district resources (staff, time, money, programs) in support of district goals? In what ways do board members spend time together learning about district programs, initiatives and issues?

12. Focusing on Unified Governance

Effective school boards practice unified governance in which the board and superintendent have complementary roles in policy development and implementation that lead toward achieving the districts vision and goals.

"The board and superintendent built a different kind of relationship than is typical in many school districts. Positive, trusting relationships existed between the boards and their superintendents. In these districts the board members and superintendents made substantial efforts to engage with each other as leadership partners without discounting the diverse perspectives and unique responsibilities each position brings to the team. There was no sense of one dominating the other or encroaching on each other' domain, but rather of the two working in a complementary fashion toward shared goals," Delagardelle, M.L. (2008).

How would you describe the relationship between the board and superintendent in your district? What efforts do the board and superintendent make to engage each other as leadership partners? Which of the 12 board leadership practices does you board effectively engage in?