All over North America, students are facing increased expectations in terms of testing and performance while school districts are facing increased expectations in terms of accountability for the results of this testing. Interestingly, students are performing at higher levels and graduating in record numbers despite the negative perception of the general public, often fueled by political discourse. However, there remains an unacceptably high disparity in student achievement across school districts, indicating a need for change in educational processes.
Historically, boards were thought to have little bearing on student achievement. Rather, as they held more of an oversight role, they tended to leave student matters to the administration and focused on duties such as the budget, policy, and community relations. No one really knew how—or if—board actions affected student achievement. Up to the turn of the 21st century, most board research had come in the form of anecdotal evidence and war stories. Among educational researchers, critics argued that school boards were irrelevant to improving student performance. It was, in fact, easier to prove the converse—to find where bad board behavior had a negative impact on student achievement.
The role of governance in any organization can easily be taken for granted. After all, employees are the ones handling the daily business of an organization, while managers are the ones directly responsible for overseeing those employees. When an organization fails to produce results, it is the employees or management that most often face blame. Boards usually only receive attention in cases of malfeasance, not cases of underperformance. The same holds true for school boards. While most boards are not ready to throw out traditional governance structures, evidence is mounting that demonstrates the impact boards can have on student achievement.
From Intention to Impact
When individuals run for the board, most candidates report a benevolent reason for seeking a board seat from the outset—they want to help students. They come to the board with good intentions, but no real idea of how to significantly impact student outcomes or even what their role on the board is, much less a sense of what success looks like. If a list of what boards ought to be doing existed, well-intentioned board members would pursue those activities. Then, they would also have a clearer idea of whether they were successful (e.g., a board with a clear and balanced budget could be deemed successful, and a board without one, unsuccessful). In part because of its quantitative nature, most boards focus on fiduciary responsibilities. However, no correlation to producing successful students is tied to a board attending to their fiduciary responsibilities. True boardsmanship goes much deeper than this. Research demonstrates that it takes much more than good intentions to be an effective school board member who can have a positive impact on student learning.
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