A good school board, say the authors of a new study, may be able to make the difference between a school that underperforms and one that beats the odds.
Building on a survey of 900 school board members from 417 school districts conducted in 2009, two researchers from Notre Dame and Lawrence University added controls for demographic and funding differences.
They found that some schools outperform others. These differences, it turned out, correlated to different types of school board members. The most significant factor, the study claims, is that higher performing schools have board members who hold a laser focus on student achievement.
A district in which board members prioritize student achievement tends to do better than those where members adopt a “plural focus” that may include “developing the whole child” or avoiding “unreasonable expectations for student achievement.”
“I certainly wouldn’t say that this report portrays school boards as a panacea,” said Michael Hartney, a researcher at Notre Dame University and one of the coauthors of the study, which was released earlier this month. But, on the margins, he said, there is solid evidence that school boards can make a difference.
Some of the findings were quite surprising. It matters, for example, when elections are held. Holding elections at the same time as state and national-level elections, the authors found, correlates to standardized student proficiency test scores 2.4 points higher than a comparable district that has off-cycle elections.
The likely explanation, said Hartney, is that “off cycle” elections pull in fewer voters, and can often be swung by the intense commitment of a small number of people. This lends itself to ideological extremists on both the right and the left, who then squeeze out moderates in the middle.
But it is moderates on school boards who are more likely to focus on student achievement and to have a better understanding of the district’s real needs. “When you ask a board member what the biggest priority in the district is,” Hartney said, “we found that political moderates were more likely to provide an answer that reflected real conditions on the ground.”
Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Institute, which sponsored the study, thinks the moderates may be more effective because hardline liberals on school boards tend to want to solve every problem with more money, while hardline conservatives blame everything on the teachers’ unions.
“Moderates may be less inclined to view matters through a pre-ground ideological lens,” Finn said.
Kill the boards
School boards viewed by many education policy analysts as anachronisms that exert little impact on how children learn, are easily politicized, and often get in the way of reform. Often they are viewed as stepping-stones on the ladder of local politics, rather than ends in themselves.
“Kill all the school boards,” argued Matt Miller from the liberal Center for American Progress in 2008. He calls localized educational decision-making a “relic from our colonial past.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the right of center American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been widely accused of wanting to kill school boards by privatizing education, placing control in the hands of parents.
“The ALEC goal to eliminate school districts and school boards is a bit shocking,” writes Julie Underwood at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, “but the idea is to make every school, public and private, independent through vouchers for all students. By providing all funding to parents rather than school districts, there is no need for local coördination, control or oversight.”
“School boards are an obsolete and archaic form of governance,” says Fordham’s Chester Finn, who would prefer to see schools absorbed into city government, democratically accountable through the mayor and city council. New York City currently functions on this model, and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was able to aggressively drive school issues there.
But Finn doesn’t have a problem exploring how to more effectively choose school boards. “We need a governance overhaul in public education,” Finn said, “but until that glorious day comes, we have elected local school boards. And this study shows that it matters who is on them.”
How and why?
If school boards do make a difference, how exactly do they do it? The researchers are not really sure, Hartney acknowledges, whether they are looking at cause or effect. They know that board members in high performing districts focus on student achievement.
The report also found that when board members were professionalized, underwent professional training and in some cases even earned a salary, students performed better. But a community that is already focused on student achievement may be more likely to elect like-minded board members.
Hartney acknowledges that a board member’s academic focus and the board’s professionalization may not cause educational outcomes. Instead, they could both reflect the makeup of a community focused on results.
“We didn’t study the inner workings of the boards,” Finn said. “All we did was to see if the characteristics of the people on the board could be aligned with district achievement. And the answer was ‘yes.’”
School boards do have far less control today than they did a generation or two ago, notes Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association.
Barth notes a steady expansion of state and federal budgeting and education policy control. Firing or even reassigning teachers protected by unions can be a daunting matter, and federal funding tied to programs like No Child Left Behind and the new common core program all push decision-making up the ladder.
But Barth does see significant remaining influence that can shape how a school performs. They hire and fire superintendents, she says, they have a strong role to play in implementing state and federal standards effectively through budgeting choices, and some school boards add their own graduation requirements to state standards.
“There are a lot of things they can do that directly affect student learning,” Barth said.