Does your board engage in PD? Really? Depending on our definition of professional development, the honest answer for many of us might well be no. School boards must recognize and take responsibility for the flaws in our current PD practices and address those flaws if we are to reach our governing potential fully.
Professional development is a powerful way to maintain and enhance the effectiveness of governing boards. In his seventh habit, Stephen Covey advises us to “sharpen the saw” by focusing on ourselves, performing self-care to preserve and renew our individual capacity. Similarly, Doug Eadie’s second habit calls for developing our board’s collective capacity. In a 2010 article for this publication, I described board PD as a professional responsibility. Former board member Gary Brochu introduced the idea of a board handbook as a practical way to develop professional behavior. More recently, professors David Lee and James Fox advocated a systematic “behavior coaching and feedback” approach that helps make such professional learning stick.
The bottom-line reason for dedicating resources to board PD is that a more effective board contributes to student success. The advantages of (and the need for) board professional development are a common theme in all references cited above. But it seems to me that the call for board PD is too often brushed aside by an inclination to just “wing it.” Or, as is the case for other facets of our work, too many boards wait for the superintendent to take the lead.
If you believe (a) an effective board is necessary for district success; (b) the board should be more than passive/compliant observers or occasional critics of “the district”; (c) and developing a more effective board is the board’s responsibility, then you should step up to that responsibility, assess current practice for any shortcomings, and make the necessary improvements. Here are six ways we may fall short in board PD, with suggestions for what to do about it.
Six shortcomings in our conduct of board professional development
1. We don’t do PD at all. These boards rarely think about or do anything about their own PD:
- Boards that don’t consider PD to be the board’s responsibility. They don’t think about it unless their superintendent suggests it.
- Boards whose members are preoccupied with the superintendent’s work. They never take the time to self-reflect and self-assess.
- Boards that are satisfied with the way things are going. They see no need for PD.
- Once we learn a little about boardsmanship, perhaps after attending sessions offered by our state association, we are tempted to think we know governance.
- We think of PD as an expense to be cut rather than a necessary investment in student and school success.
2. Professional development opportunities are few and far between. Despite the complexity of board practice, only a small fraction of the training sessions offered to school boards can be categorized as boardsmanship (focus: individual board member performance), and an even smaller fraction teach governance (focus: whole board performance). This is due largely to the popularity of other subjects (e.g., “Flipping a Math Classroom”; “Educating the Whole Child”; “STEM Implementation”; “Full-Day Kindergarten”; etc.) that fill up most of conference programming. These competing sessions tend to address administrators’ program management interests, teachers’ instructional innovations, and other general education topics. Individual board members’ background knowledge in the field of education might benefit, but the scarcity of PD opportunities inhibits the board’s capacity for growth.
3. We too often learn as individuals. Formal learning opportunities, when offered, almost always target board members as individuals. If you review the agenda of the latest state or national school conference, you will note the rare appearance, if any can be found, of collective learning opportunities. When such opportunities for governance PD as a group learning activity do appear, a scan of attendees will reveal that it is individuals, not boards, who are learning “about” governance. Even when we focus on governance, which is a collective function, we typically read, and discuss, and listen to lectures about important governance concepts as individuals. We do not learn as a group, in a whole group setting, how to apply those concepts.
4. Time and money set aside for board development is limited, and sometimes are too late. Another limitation that is self-imposed is that with limited meeting time available to us, and with a long list of district programs and activities of interest, we allocate very little, if any, of the time in our meeting agendas (agendas over which we have control) for development as a board. This is predictable when a board cedes decision-making about agendas to the superintendent, limiting its own role to reviewing and approving a superintendent-prepared agenda rather than planning and programming the board’s own work. Similarly, budget-conscious boards are wary of spending money “away from the classroom,” ignoring the enormous cost of an ineffective or less effective leadership team at the top. Timing is a factor when the board has waited until it has become dysfunctional and then needs “fixing” rather than when things are going well.
5. Depth of training is shallow. With limited PD time at state or local training sessions, the depth of board training rarely proceeds beyond a basic level—usually stopping at introductory boardsmanship skills. In-depth PD is rare and is limited by the fact that participants are not ready to go deep in comprehending and applying concepts. Presenters teach to the lowest experience level in the audience, believing more complex discussions would go over their heads. This tendency contributes to the erroneous belief that there is nothing more to learn and limits attendance by more experienced board members.
6. The subject (our idea of board service) changes over time. Even conscientious board members who are aggressive about learning the job can spend years in office before thoroughly understanding the governance role. After a year on the job, I had a general and rather simplistic answer to the question, “What is a board for?” I had a more specific answer (focused on boardsmanship) after my first four-year term—just about the time when the average board member leaves office. I had an even more in-depth and nuanced idea (focused on governance) after eight years, when our board thoroughly redesigned its definition of the board’s role and our approach to governing. After twenty-plus years of board service and more than a dozen years as a board writer/consultant/trainer, I continue to learn more in this complex area of organizational behavior we call governance.
What we can do to recalibrate our understanding of and approach to PD.
1. Engage in a systematic process.
Try this three-step process:
- First, distinguish between our definition of boardsmanship (individual board member behavior) and that of governance (behavior of the full board “acting as one.”)
- Second, within the context of the board’s practice, decide what effective governance looks like in action, thus defining our expectations of the “effective board.”
- Third, routinely assess our performance against that standard of board effectiveness to update our understanding of the need for effective board PD.
2. Intentionally schedule time. For development as a board, we must decide if it is important enough to devote time for PD and to establish an environment for board learning with the same commitment that educators bring to establishing an environment for student learning.
Try this: Commit to the belief that board PD is an investment that benefits student learning.
Try this: Retreat-type settings are great because such an environment minimizes distractions.
Try this: Take advantage of conferences, regional meetings, etc., to focus on board PD.
Try this: Routinely set aside time in board meetings for board development.
3. Focus on the team and its governance role. Boardsmanship and governance are not the same. Boardsmanship can be developed by accumulating qualities (dispositions, knowledge, and skills) that we need as individual board members; governance is a “team sport” that benefits from group learning and practice. Boardsmanship is a collection of skills that good board members perform in support of board work. Governance is board work.
Try this: Commit to the belief that governance PD doesn’t exist unless it is experienced as an intact group learning and working together.
Try this: Focus on “the board” and its capacity for governing rather than onboard members or superintendents whose contribution to governance, while important, is performed in a supporting role.
4. Go deep and think cumulative. Recognize that “single dose” or “one and done” PD isn’t effective. For maximum benefit, plan a progressive series of learning sessions. Going deep is derived from what has been learned about effective teaching of students. Teaching approaches like mastery learning apply as well to adults. Going deep makes learning meaningful and can be accomplished in intensive sessions, or can be achieved in small and progressive doses (baby steps, if you will) via distributed practice, a technique employed to great effect by music teachers and math teachers, among others.
Try this: Plan a series of short sessions on a given subject, one at a time, each diving just a little deeper into the board’s governing responsibilities.
Try this: Schedule, as part of the normal board meeting, a short session whose purpose is enhancing one aspect of board performance. Over time the board can accumulate ever-increasing levels of effectiveness, one layer at a time.
5. Institutionalize the board and its PD. When we reflect on the questions “What makes an effective board?” and “Are we there yet?” we find that boards have an ongoing need for PD to increase and maintain their capacity to do the job. Institutionalizing board PD acknowledges this need with a never-ending cycle of self-assessment, improvement planning, and development activity.
Try this: Regularly repeat the three-step process mentioned above. Conduct a thorough annual assessment of the board’s governing effectiveness, identifying shortfalls, and setting growth objectives for the next year.
Try this: Institutionalize PD as a core board activity throughout the annual calendar, scheduling meetings, annual retreats, and other opportunities that intentionally target growth objectives.
Not just nice to do
Board professional development is not just nice to do; it is not a sideshow; and it cannot be delegated. It is the board’s principal means of improving its own capacity to assure—on behalf of constituents—a more effective school district.
Rick Maloney (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and a state school board trainer with more than twenty years of board service at the local and state association level. He is the author of two books on governance: “A Framework for School Governance” and “Putting Policy Governance to Work.”