The 90,000 people in the United States who serve on school boards are asked to be all things to all people. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) reports that two-thirds of school board members see an urgent need to improve student achievement. At the same time, 90% of school board members fear an overly narrow focus on achievement. When they’re overwhelmed with the details of school affairs, it is easy for boards to lose their focus on any such overriding goal whatsoever. School board meetings can be assessed by whether their processes and outcomes reflect eight characteristics that the NSBA has linked to great school boards.
Most school boards think that they hold such a vision, but the minutes of a meeting may suggest otherwise. Every district faces obstacles and frustrations – some more than others.
Both the content and the tone of board meetings should reflect a refusal to surrender altogether in the face of overwhelming challenges impeding student achievement. Are obstacles analyzed and confronted with creative plans aiming at incremental progress? (“If we arrange after-school coaching for the tenth grader in the state spelling bee, she could stand a chance at the title.”) Or is the tone defeatist? (“We all know Edison will never be an academic leader in the state, so we’re wasting our time sending students to competitions.”)
Again, our words and actions may belie our self-understanding. Does your board actually respect its teachers and its students? Does the board perceive the learning communities as dynamic organisms capable of change (a so-called growth mind-set)? Or do past failings carry such a daunting weight that future learning feels impossible? Do school board members who are not educators subconsciously look down on teachers because of their low earnings? Discussion of every topic at a school board meeting – from oversight of the curriculum to the direction of collective bargaining agreements – should reflect the conviction that teachers are expected to master their professional skills and that students can learn at high levels.
The school board of Ontario, Canada, makes it a goal that its policies will tell parents what they can expect from the district. The meetings of an accountable school board will show a welcoming attitude toward all sunshine law requirements. Strong relationships with stakeholders throughout the community will be reflected in the discussion and in the attendance at the meetings. Indeed, a strong school board will strive to document its progress in the spirit of transparency. Some school boards are using public portals on which the school board and the superintendent translate daily tasks into measured progress toward prioritized annual goals. Anyone can log on and instantly see a dashboard charting the degree to which certain goals have been reached.
Who attends the meetings? Are community members notified of the place and time of open meetings through an aggressive information campaign? Before the meeting, has the board solicited public input online, in town meetings and through informal conversations? Does the tone of the meeting suggest that some part of the community is regarded as an enemy or a nuisance?
Does the staff have an established protocol by which it conveys input to the board? Does the superintendent hold staff meetings to solicit topics for him to take to the board? As important as the actions are the attitudes of staff interactions. If a board member speaks of someone as “just a teacher” or “just a janitor,” it doesn’t matter how many focus groups the board may hold with staff; there will never be mutual trust and respect. Listen in a school board meeting to ascertain any such undercurrents of contempt.
State legislatures and accrediting agencies will demand copious data, as well they should. Numbers can soon come to feel like the enemy. If board members are intimidated by statistics, that effect will be all the stronger. As school board members are elected for a wide range of strengths, it is possible that some will lack basic numeracy. If that is the case, interpretation of data should be included in board training materials – even if it is redundant for other members.
Looking back at a concluded school board meeting, telltale signs will indicate if the board is swayed by an aversion to data. In a school board meeting, has a single story been taken as convincing evidence that a general principle will hold true in all cases? By contrast, a data-savvy board knows when statistics are required to make a persuasive case. It would change a policy if statistical evidence pointed to a more promising course of action.
Distractions can be the death knell of a sound budget. Does the board’s allocation of time and money indicate a non-negotiable commitment to basic literacy before it invests in bells and whistles? If a powerful personality on the board is sold on a purchase that is extraneous to the top priorities of the board, does the dubious investment get funded? Or does the process in the meeting carry reasonable objections into the foreground, regardless of personalities? Posting the priorities of the district prominently can provide the cue to get back on track when the Music Man comes to River City with shiny brass instruments and uniforms with “a stripe up the leg.”
Traditionally, school boards have dictated policies and superintendents have implemented them. If there has been communication and transparency throughout the process of setting policies, there is less likely to be resistance when the board passes the baton to the superintendent to make it all happen. If the superintendent holds strong objections to a policy, they should be addressed. A board relying on heavy-handed orders and threats may get short-term compliance from a superintendent, but they may sow the seeds for further division and resistance down the line.
School board members are often doers: They operate households, run small businesses and coach baseball teams. However, it is possible to have a school board with a strong work ethic and no team spirit. Each member may be able and willing to do it all by herself, at least on some projects. The board, however, is a group that must produce policies drawing on multiple perspectives. It will venture into projects for which some members have great strengths and others must take the role of follower. If reliance on others is new and scary, boards should offer their members explicit instruction and practice in low-stakes scenarios. If some on the board wish to lead by fiat and intimidation, they should be schooled in persuasive tactics. A school board must function as a team, and most school boards have some members for whom that will take some training. Envision your teamwork skills in a developmental context with goals and deadlines. Get outside coaching, if needed. Don’t assume that a room full of strong, self-reliant citizens will operate smoothly as a team.
A successful school board meeting does not merely get through all of the agenda items or avert blow-ups over sensitive issues. It both reflects and fosters the attitudes and capacities that characterize school boards with outstanding long-term results. Tone of voice, power dynamics and responses to skill deficits all tell a story. If the school board meeting was a success, it tells the story of patiently building specific abilities, such as numeracy and teamwork; genuine respect for all stakeholders in the process, whose voices are invited into the process; and consistent focus on priorities, which are measured and advertised for all to see.