I was a board member for 18 years in northwest Montana. Most board meetings were routine, long, and focused on issues that seemed important at the time. But now and then, there was a meeting that generated strong emotions and accomplished little, but clearly exposed sharp differences between board members and the public. It seemed everything was damaged. And so, I decided to do some research through the University of Montana to see how the most effective boards did business.

Events of the past several months have forced changes in every corner of society. Redesigning the new normal into something better than the old normal is the hope of everyone searching for the silver lining. Schools are no exception. This could be an opportunity.

Nobody knows what public schools will look like down the road or how public education will change in the decades to come. But now might be the time to start reimagining a better future. Now might be the time to challenge past assumptions about why schools are the way they are, what needs to be improved, and how to function more effectively so that all students can fully participate in the benefits of public education. The old public education has been leaving far too many students behind, and the public will no longer tolerate this inequity.

While teachers, principals, and superintendents have been busy planning for the reopening of schools, it must also be a relief for hesitant parent-tutors of the past to see students return to the classroom. A new way to deliver a student experience in public education is reimagining itself.

But what about the board? What should the board be doing at this time? This is the time for school boards to reimagine their role in public education. This is a time to enact changes in boardsmanship known to advantage students above all else. We must respond with improvements based not on our own experience, intuition, or political promises but on more than two decades of research and data describing how the most effective boards work.

Highly effective school boards have been the exception, and they must become the rule. The goal of every school board should be to govern a district with high achievement for every student, and not just the favored or easy ones. Every school board should govern a district that produces high graduation and low drop-out rates and launches graduates ready to own their future. The time is now to question business-as-usual and make the necessary changes to transform public education into a system that works best for every student. And it begins with the board.

We already know how effective and ineffective boards differ. There is more than 20 years of board research describing board actions that both help and harm students. These lessons need to be put into practice everywhere. School board members need to support each other in learning how effective boards operate and to work to emulate the strategies their more successful neighbors have been leveraging for years. School board members should not be allowed to behave in ways known to harm students and, above all else, learn to govern themselves.

Several fundamental issues take precedence. The first issue deals with HOW the board conducts business. Data tells us the most effective boards governing the highest performing districts conduct business in a fair, considerate, and professional manner. Everyone is always extended respect, and open and honest communication is commonplace. Boards of ineffective districts with the lowest student performance tend to cast blame publicly and openly criticize their own staff and other board members, which contributes to the dysfunction of the district. This can no longer be tolerated because it is known to be harmful to students.

Another basic difference is WHAT business the board chooses to address. The most effective districts spend time in pursuit of important issues deemed vital to a district focused on the education of all students—sometimes called the “crucial C’s . . . like connection, communication, collaboration, community building, child advocacy, and curricular choices” (Houston, 2001, p. 431). These are things only the board can do, and failing to address them often results in a district ill-equipped to promote student success. (NOTE: the valid and reliable specific Board Standards known to be associated with high student achievement scores can be found at: WashingtonSchoolBoardStandards.pdf (wssda.org)

By contrast, the least effective districts spend extensive board time debating urgent issues sometimes referred to as the “killer B’s—busses, buildings, books, budgets, bonds, and the like” (Houston, 2001, p. 431). Boards that have meeting agendas that jump from one distracting crisis to the next, debating a constant stream of urgent issues brought to their attention, are fraught with conflict, chaos, and disagreement. In short, they are in disarray. Board members who focus their attention here are appropriating the duties of the superintendent and ignoring the true work of the board.

To borrow an analogy from team sports, effective boards play offense, and ineffective boards play defense. Of course, every winning team uses both strategies. But, when a board’s agenda is filled with short-term, urgent issues, the board is playing defense. Urgent issues often generate conflict between board members. Perhaps most urgent issues are best delegated to the superintendent and administration, who are specialists at playing defense.

When the board plays offense by constructing an agenda focused on important issues with long-term implications, it is easier for board members to find common ground. Effective boards dedicate more time to important and strategic issues like governance, setting high expectations, addressing conditions for student and staff success, accountability, and community engagement. This is what commands the most time and attention of the most effective boards.

Perhaps the time has come to change our ways. Board agendas and meetings dominated with contentions and urgent issues reflect a board playing defense and come at the expense of student achievement. Board agendas and meetings designed to address important issues reflect a board playing offense and benefit student achievement.

Highly effective school boards govern highly achieving districts. Board members take an oath to serve as stewards of public education and thus are duty-bound to do thoughtful, hard, and good work on behalf of students. The goal of every school board and board meeting should be to govern the district with high achievement for every student in mind. This happens when boards begin operating not from intuition but from informed decision-making.

Task the administration with short-term, urgent issues and have them play defense. This gives the board space to play offense and strategically address the long-term, important issues of tomorrow.

Much is known about the relationship between boardsmanship and student achievement. During this time of forced change, perhaps it would benefit everyone—especially students—if boards were to mirror the actions of their more effective neighbors and become a governing body focused on board duties related to student success.

It is not that complex. Treat everyone with respect, focus on the right things, and keep everyone in the loop. Because at the end of the day, how we do business is as important as the business we do.

Dr. Ivan Lorentzen, professor emeritus, psychology, Flathead Valley Community College, Kalispell, MT, ilnorway@centurytel.net and Dr. William McCaw, professor of educational leadership, University of Montana, Missoula, MT, bill.mccaw@mso.umt.edu

Houston, P. (2001). Superintendents for the 21st century: It’s not just a job, it’s a calling. Phi Delta Kappan, 82, 429-433.

Washington State School Directors’ Association (WSSDA) (2009, June). Washington school board standards, benchmarks of success and indicators for evaluation, with references. WashingtonSchoolBoardStandards.pdf (wssda.org)

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2020 State of the Association

Full of challenge and change, 2020 was like no other year. NSBA's State of the Association provides a snapshot of the association's advocacy and member services work as well as our ongoing transformation.