Do school boards matter?

 Does School Board Leadership Matter? asks a Fordham paper.

Districts that are “beating the odds” academically tend to have board members focused on improving academics, as opposed to  developing the “whole child.”

Which comes first? asks Rick Hess. Do high-functioning districts attract focused, coherent board members or do the board members create high-functioning districts? Or is it just that “educated, engaged communities have high-performing schools and elect academically focused boards?”

“Political moderates tend to be more informed than liberals and conservatives and that former educators are less informed about their district than are their counterparts,” according to the researchers. 

Do educators make good school board members? asks National Journal’s Education Insiders.

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  1. Well kudos to Fordham for discovering the existence of the heretofore suspected but never proven “school district”.

    An elusive creature that inhabits the political landscape, escaping detection by its ubiquity. Where ever you look there’s a school district resulting in the assumption that school districts are a natural feature of the environment rather then the frisky and interesting members of the political genus they actually are.

    But enough in the way of compliments to the worthies at Fordham for being too perceptive to be fooled by the school district’s “camouflage of commonness”. On to a couple of their bullet points.

    * Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts when it comes to finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size.

    Do tell.

    A political organization in which the concerns of the most powerful constituency are deemed important.

    It’s a sad commentary on the state of meaningless awards that there’s no Nobel Prize for Belaboring the Obvious to go along with the Nobel Peace Prize.

    * A district’s success in “beating the odds” academically is related to board members’ focus on the improvement of academics.

    Do tell.

    A political organization in which the concerns of the least powerful constituency are deemed unimportant. I am awe-struck by the brilliance required to illuminate that deeply-hidden mystery.

    Not to say the entire piece is a restatement of the obvious. Here and there analysis deeper then a coat of paint shows up.

    For instance, the information that “Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts that “beat the odds” is worth delving into although there’s not much “delving into” in the part of the report devoted to that finding.

    It makes sense though in that school board elections are notorious for their thin attendance thereby magnifying the importance of otherwise inconsequentially tiny but highly-motivated constituencies. Both at-large seats and on-cycle elections would serve to swamp the effects of special interests which would bias elections against candidates captured by those special interests.

    But that just encourages those special interests to try harder and spend more – the prize is still pretty juicy.

    But that’s about as far as Fordham is willing to go, mincing up to the acknowledgment that the school district inevitably politicizes education but no further. But it’s that politicization of education that’s the underlying shortcoming of public education and while charters put parents in direct juxtaposition to those who wish to use the public education system for their own purposes, selfish or ideological, the possibility of recapturing public education will motivate efforts to do so as long as the possibility exists.

    But it is nice that Fordham’s noticed the existence of school districts and has exerted some effort to understand them. But I doubt that’ll change Fordham’s preference for centralizing even further the public education system.

  2. palisadesk says:

    In my experience, school boards are most effective when they are close to their communities; this means the district cannot be too large in terms of numbers, or too dispersed geographically.

    The first district I worked in served many small communities that were spread over a wide area; hence, elected members mostly came from the larger towns, had (often) no knowledge of some of the smaller ones or their needs, and the board was completely removed from everyday issues and not available for community support. Trying to get anything done required jumping through endless voice mails and bureaucratic hoops, IF you could even find the right person to deal with the issue.

    Next I worked for a modest-sized urban district with strong community roots, and the elected board members did pretty much represent their constituents ; of course some were merely trying to get their foot in the door for future political careers, but I always found ones that were willing to intervene on local issues or investigate ways to improve service delivery and student learning. You would run into your board members at the grocery store and the car wash. Parents found them responsive and helpful with a variety of problems.

    It was far from perfect of course but the school board served a useful purpose and did function as a liaison with the community at large and parents in particular.

    After that, I worked for a very large urban district, where it appears the elected board members merely rubber-stamp whatever the bureaucrats want. They don’t have access to background information, they don’t have a staff to help them research or consult on issues, nor any to foster communication with parents and the community. There’s an endless change of personnel within the organization and you never know who to contact about anything — the person in charge last week has moved on and the new person is nowhere to be found. IOW, bureaucratic runarounds at their finest. It took 4 years, for instance, for them to correct the spelling of my name on district documents, despite repeated attempts by school administration and my submission of copies of my qualifications, etc. Anything substantive gets lost in limbo forever.

    There is such a thing as “diseconomies of scale,” and I think the value of school boards is inversely related to the size of the district. While some board members had educational experience of one kind or another, and others did not, I never found this to be an important factor: what mattered was whether the individual was committed, knowledgeable and actively sought out information and expertise to improve schools and services.

  3. The comment that on-cycle, at-large school board elections are likely to be associated with better-than-expected academic outcomes is interesting. The city in which I currently live has off-cycle, stand-alone school board elections with incredibly low turnout; 4-6% the last one. If that wasn’t bad enough, “regular people” have to vote at “super-precincts” (larger areas) than their normal precincts but school department employees can vote at their schools or at the admin building. It makes for an incredibly unrepresentative slice of the total population.