How to Make Your School Board More Effective
Strong student achievement and strong, stable school boards are connected. These five strategies can improve your school board practices and help your board positively impact student outcomes.
Research over the past 20 years clearly links the beliefs and actions of school boards with student outcomes. Tom Alsbury, a university professor and former school administrator, found that politically motivated turnover on school boards corresponds with decreased student achievement.
Dr. Mary Delagardelle, a former school board member and principal, picked up on Alsbury’s research, asking, “If school boards have the potential to harm student performance, couldn’t they also do good?” She confirmed through her research that the beliefs, actions, and relationships of school board members influence student learning in the classroom.
Bottom line: The strength and stability of the school board affects student performance. It’s more important than ever that school boards not only focus on district and student goals and performance, but also turn inward to ensure board stability and effective governance.
Here are five strategies that can improve the effectiveness of your school board and lead to positive outcomes for the students:
1. Embrace the Role of Trustee
Trustees are elected to exercise sound judgment and act in the best interest of those they serve. Research shows that when school board members think of themselves as trustees, the board displays:
- Better teamwork within the board
- More cooperation with the superintendent
- A stronger focus on student achievement
A trustee mindset is important to achieving exceptional school governance. Research conducted by TASB Board Development Services Division Director Phil Gore, PhD, suggests that board members who think of themselves as trustees are not only more likely to support recommendations of superintendents but also more likely to hold the superintendent accountable for student achievement.
Public school governance is not exceptional when decisions are based on majority public opinion. Majority public opinion rarely represents the best interest of all children; it usually only serves some students. It also tends to relate more to the past than our children’s future.
School board members committed to the best outcomes for every child recognize that the path to fulfilling a vision requires a commitment to a trustee mindset in every decision and action the board takes. This doesn’t mean groupthink or unanimity on every decision. It is okay to disagree in the boardroom.
When operating effectively in trustee mode, board members contribute their individual thinking while maintaining a radical commitment to the goals of the entire board.
2. Be Focused and Intentional
It takes a team of intentional trustees working with a focused superintendent and effective instructional team to improve student learning in a district. Teachers can’t do it alone. Administrators can’t do it alone. And school boards can’t do it alone. Everyone — from the boardroom to the classroom — must be focused and intentional when it comes to improving student learning.
Being focused means:
- The board’s eyes and thoughts are always on the goal.
- The goals always center on the students.
- No matter what comes up, the board never loses sight of what is best for the students.
Being intentional means:
- Strategically taking steps toward the goal
- Pushing forward at the right pace for long-term success
- Measuring the health of the team and the progress being made
A stream of water can cut through steel or water the lawn — the difference is in the focus and intentionality. The fact is, focused and intentional school districts improve student learning. Setting student learning as the priority in the board’s work requires developing a board culture and structure that support this focus.
3. Prioritize Board Stability
It takes time for new trustees to learn their role and contribute positively to the governance team. An effective onboarding process helps new trustees hit the ground running. Low-achieving school districts tend to be more carefree in their approach to transitioning new board members. High-achieving school districts tend to have intentional practices for preparing citizens to serve as school trustees. Thorough and comprehensive onboarding processes are crucial for bringing new trustees on board and maintaining board stability during the transition.
Although turnover of school board members is inevitable, anything the board and district can do to keep things on a steady path will likely improve the long-term success of its students.
Here are a few things your board and district should consider:
- Hosting a citizens’ academy for learning about the school district and governance priorities
- Working with trained facilitators to help clarify and focus the board’s work
- Promoting voter education about the role of a school board to stabilize the community’s understanding and expectations of school board members
- Keeping the community informed and creating positive relationships with the community
A consistent course of action over time is the key to improvement. Whenever there is a change of course, it can take a while for a school district to recover and start anew.
If you have new members or a new superintendent, TASB consultants can work with your board president and superintendent to design a workshop or a complete consultation plan that meets the unique needs of your team.
4. Engage in Board Self-Assessment
Board self-assessment can guide the board through an introspective look at its practices related to improved student learning.
Participating in the assessment provides an opportunity for each trustee and the board as a whole to examine how they are performing. Results from board self-assessment can confirm governance team strengths and inform the board of potential areas for improvement.
Both the strengths and areas for improvement can help the board set goals for its learning and development. When the board models this type of self-reflection, it establishes an environment that encourages and expects introspection, growth, and continuous improvement throughout the system.
5. Learn Together
Board goals are not district goals. They are not superintendent goals. They are goals for how the board is going to improve its work, and there needs to be a clear and focused strategy for improvement. That begins with self-assessment. It continues with an actionable plan to focus the board’s work on improving student outcomes.
One priority action boards should consider is learning together as a team. It’s not enough for individual trustees or the superintendent to learn about effective governance through reading books, attending conference sessions, and studying.
Governance teams improve when the team learns together and applies that learning to their work.
Specific examples of improvement for most governance teams include:
- Agendas focused on student outcomes
- Time limits for agenda items that help keep meetings on track
- Regular reviews of student learning data
- Workshops that help the boards understand and monitor for improvement in student learning
As your school board focuses on continuous improvement—learning together and applying that learning as a board team, assessing progress, and measuring performance—you set the example and course of action for continuous improvement throughout the school system. This means:
- Administrators are improving
- Operations are increasing in efficiency
- Teaching is becoming more effective
- Students are learning more in the classroom
Ultimately, the students will benefit — and isn’t that why we’re all in this together in the first place?
If you have questions about your role as a trustee or about your board, contact Board Development Services at email@example.com or 800-580-8272, extension 2452. We’re here to help.