"Governance" and "oversight of management." School board members hear those terms from when they are elected, throughout their training as board members, and in the standards laid out by state associations, the National School Boards Association, and even state boards of education and state education agencies/departments. While board members hear the terms frequently, few take the time to consider what both terms mean at their core.
Let's start with oversight of management.
Oversight of Management
"Oversight of management" tends to be the default role of a school board member. Not only is oversight more tangible than governance, but board members typically have more experience in it. Almost all adults manage something in some capacity: people at work, a budget, children, a home. Most people feel like fairly competent managers, so they feel they can competently oversee management activities. Additionally, management typically includes tasks that can be quantified in some way. Even a board member who does not feel completely competent can read a facilities report, track teacher attrition or get training in budgetary matters.
Governance is an altogether different matter, though. To begin with, what does it even mean? Literally, it can be defined as: the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in a collective problem that lead to the creation, reinforcement or reproduction of social norms and institutions. Both the Latin and Greek trace the roots of governance as meaning "to steer."
To steer more nearly represents the heart of what board members should be doing in their governance role. So how is it that they default away from the primary role of their positions – the one that has the potential for the biggest impact on the culture of the community? The answer is two-fold: lack of understanding of what governance entails; and lack of confidence about the impact governance can have, as well as how to go about it.
Do School Boards Still Matter?
Former School Board Member Jeanetta Smith, Denton ISD, Denton, Texas, recollects her father, as a school board member in the 1940s, stopping his plowing to interview a potential teacher in the field where he was working. Since then, board work has moved away from this level of participation to more of an oversight role as legislation became increasingly specific about educators and their role as district administrators, while largely ignoring the board. School reform of the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on district employees, from administrators to teachers. Very little attention was paid to the board itself. In 1985, policy analyst Chester Finn went so far as to call elected boards both an "anachronism and an outrage."
Yet with the professionalization of education, the role of board members shifted. School boards were encouraged not to play an active role in student achievement. Generally, boards felt more comfortable leaving instructional matters solely in the hands of professional educators. Until recently, boards have been excluded from the school reform literature and from consideration as key leaders in the school change process. As research studies have begun to examine the impact of school boards on educational improvement, beliefs about school boards are shifting once more.
The more recent focus on accountability has increased the pressure on school board members to become a meaningful part of the team. Empirical evidence shows the correlations between school board behaviors and student achievement.
Even though school boards are removed from the teaching and learning that goes on every day in classrooms, there are critical linkages between the policymakers who guide local school districts and the behaviors of those who regularly interact with students. Efforts to improve student learning must include efforts to support and develop the knowledge and skills of local school board members as vital parts of the leadership continuum providing guidance and direction around the urgent need to improve learning outcomes for students.
— Iowa School Boards Foundation
Governance Training Is the Key
As the roles of board members change, how can board members make the shift necessary to keep up? Most states require school board training to some degree. While this training varies from state to state in terms of amount, method of delivery, topics and accountability, there is a clear notion that boards need training. Missouri focuses on initial training, requiring 16 hours in the first 12 months; other states, such as Texas, Arkansas, Illinois, Washington and New Mexico, require additional annual training. A cursory glance at the approved topics in Missouri shows that while the balance of training topics is still skewed toward oversight, governance topics are appearing with increasing representation: Student Achievement, School Law, School Finance, Board Policy, Board Relations, Board Operations, Goal Setting/Strategic Planning, Advocacy and Communications, to name some examples.
A deeper understanding of school board governance discourages micromanagement of staff by creating a proactive role for board members in monitoring student outcomes – bringing student achievement to the fore. Boards must be trained on setting high-end goals for student learning and the means to reach those goals. School board training can help board members understand the need for setting a vision and adopting goals to help make tangible progress toward that vision.
However, this training requires a deeper exploration than most board members can receive at a conference. Effective board training that brings about real change needs to be focused, specific and ongoing. Board training through conferences, seminars, books and videos is necessary, but modern boards require a paradigm shift. They need to understand that their behavior matters. How board members conduct themselves in board meetings, how they spend their time and the focus of their discussions all need to be examined if the real change needed to prepare students for their future is going to happen.
Technology and Modern Governance
If board members are expected to be the leaders of the district, all their actions matter. It is not enough to charge teachers with empowering future-ready students; boards must lead by example. Utilizing technology is a basic expectation in today's classrooms. It needs to be the same with today's boardrooms, too. The research shows that the more negative, disorganized and political a school board is, the lower the student achievement.
Technology is the key to board members becoming organized and demonstrating that organization. Yet many board members are fearful of technology; they fear a loss of confidentiality, they fear change and they fear that they will not understand how the technology works. In a high-pressure situation where many board meetings are televised or well-attended, board members resist change out of fear of appearing foolish.
Diligent Community provides an answer to all those fears through a secure portal and training to ease the transition. If board members are going to focus their training on improving outcomes and changing behaviors, progress needs to be monitored and updated regularly. It is counterproductive to have ongoing training or coaching without recording and benchmarking the results. With Diligent Community, strategic goals can be updated and trainings documented in the portal.
Perhaps one of the best outcomes of improved governance is a sense of trust and faith that forms in the community the board serves. Transparency is a hallmark of community expectations, and a key driver in creating trust. Trust translates into support.
In a time of political polarization, school board governance is one of the last bastions of democracy, the most representative form of government. Well-intentioned people come together to make decisions as a collective, capitalizing on the strength of diversity. Little to no pay and quick turnover on school boards can push the community to feel like the board is not steering the school in the right direction. Completing their training, as well as the outcomes of this new focus, will help to shift the perspective of all stakeholders. Good governance training will not only serve the board members, but a better understanding of the job will help board members educate the community, propagating the next generation of leaders.
Curious to learn more? Explore school board governance models and best practices in greater detail.
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