April 19, 2014  

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School Board Management Style, Student Achievement Correlation Examined

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Dr. David Lee

Does a school board’s management style play a significant role in student academic achievement?

That’s the question University of Southern Mississippi educational leadership professor Dr. David Lee and some of his graduate students hope to answer through a research project examining correlations between high and low-achieving school districts and the behavior, decisions and personalities of the boards that govern them.

The project looks at select school boards in every state, with a mix of high and low achieving districts from each. Most boards are required by law to have their meetings documented, including through videotape and transcript, and Lee’s group has been able to find many online.

Other desired outcomes of the research project include establishment of a research data base on school board activity across the country and the development of a potential national training model for local school boards.

Lee believes the project is the most comprehensive of its kind. “If we can get communities’ eyes open to see the necessity of having school boards do as good a job as teachers and administrators are expected to do, students will benefit,” he said.

When analyzing video of board meetings, the research team employs a checklist that looks for, among other items, orderly conduct among board members; if one or two board members dominate the meetings; if the board president maintains order over the meeting; if community input is facilitated and encouraged; and if academic issues such as curriculum and instruction are discussed.

The research team’s analysis also takes into consideration how a school board is chosen. Most are either elected or appointed by a local governing body, and Lee believes a school board’s philosophy and decision-making style often reflect those of the community’s political leadership.

School boards managing high-performing districts display cooperation and teamwork among members, behave in a professional manner and frequently include and address topics related to curriculum and instruction on their meeting agendas, Lee said.

“Research shows that school boards governing successful districts are actively involved in the academic component, and work in tandem with the superintendent to secure results,” said Lee, who has served as both a school superintendent and school board member.

However, the national average of a school district superintendent’s tenure is 2.5 years and declining, Lee said, which he believes is due in part to the impatience school boards have with superintendents brought in to rescue struggling districts.

“Some of the same research also indicates it takes 3-5 years to turn around a failing school district. But if a board doesn’t support the superintendent, he or she can’t succeed,” he said. “Too often, they (school boards) just want a quick fix. What we’re seeing is that in districts on the rebound, the superintendent has more flexibility to make decisions.”

In the eyes of the school community, the blame for failure usually rests solely with the superintendent, Lee says, often because he or she declines to criticize others out fear of being seen as insubordinate or uncooperative by potential future employers. In this scenario, Lee says, the board is absolved of blame when the superintendent is dismissed or resigns.

David Maxwell, a graduate student on the research team who is also assistant principal at Gautier (Miss.) High School, says the project has shown him that a spirit of teamwork between the superintendent and school board can equal success. “The decisions which are made by this team are vital and far-reaching,” Maxwell said.  

Lee recognizes being a board member can sometimes be a thankless job, but one that can bring great satisfaction and achievement if best practices are employed.

“It’s our hope this research will prove beneficial for everyone involved in the leadership of school districts, not only board members but building managers, teachers and staff, in order to help students reach their potential,” Lee said.

 For information about the Southern Miss Department of Educational Leadership and School Counseling, online visit http://www.usm.edu/school-administration-counseling