Research by Dr. David Lee, associate professor of educational leadership at The University of Southern Mississippi, and his research team have linked the behavior of school boards with student achievement in their districts. This ground-breaking study suggests that school board behavior does matter, and if gains are to be made in low performing districts, behaviors must change at the board level. Lee will make a presentation on his team’s work to the National School Boards Association Annual Convention in April. He offers his assessments of what has been examined so far through the study in the following article.
School boards have been virtually overlooked from recent sweeping accountability movements. Much is expected of school districts, individual schools, teachers, and administrators, but those who potentially most impact the quality of a school system, in regard to policy, seem to have been almost ignored. Unfortunately, sometimes school boards actually hinder and become barriers, thus preventing meaningful school change in a district. This could be related to board members’ political and personal agendas or because collectively, as a governance team, members are ineffective at knowing and making quality decisions.
Our research team has observed more than 150 school board meetings across the country. The purpose was to see how boards operated in both low and high performing school systems. There was a big difference in the way boards in high performing systems conducted their board meetings and what they focused on. They followed their agendas, did not cave in to special interest groups, focused on student achievement and instruction, set clear expectations on learner outcomes, paid greater attention to the curriculum and received frequent updates from their superintendent on academic progress. They focused on what was taught and how it was taught.
Boards in high performing systems appeared to devote more time to student achievement, board members did not try to advance their own agendas, they did not allow any one or more members to monopolize the agenda by grandstanding, and they spent a great deal of time on policy items that enhanced student learning and instruction. Just the opposite was true for the school systems experiencing low student achievement.
Behaviors of the members in high performing systems can, and must be, duplicated. At Southern Miss, our research team is developing a national training model based on our research on board behaviors. It is the behaviors that mark the greatest difference in low, and high, performing school systems. It is not what they know, it is how they act. It is what they focus on and how they behave at their meetings. Their actions, and behaviors, must be consistent with their policies.
Board training is required in every state. Board members have opportunities for quality training regarding their roles and responsibilities. This training isn’t having a positive impact in low performing systems. There is no doubt they know what to do, but we found there was a big gap in this knowledge and how they behaved. If behaviors are negative, progress will be minimal.
There is a tendency for boards to blame others for their shortcomings. They are quick to turn against their superintendent because they don’t see quick gains in achievement. They are looking at others while they should be looking in the mirror.
School improvement is an expensive initiative. Our states are spending billions of dollars on teacher and administrative training, but the group that matters most – school boards - have been flying under the radar. They must be brought into the loop if real change is to take place.
About Dr. David Lee
Dr. Lee has been a principal, superintendent of schools, deputy state superintendent of education for the State of Louisiana, and a school board member. He also serves as a consultant across the country on leadership and motivation. Contact Dr. Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about his research and work at Southern Miss, visit http://www.usm.edu/school-administration-counseling/faculty/david-e-lee-edd.