Opinion

Collins: The Humble Local School Board Is a Missing Link in Improving Public Schools. 3 Ways to Help All Board Members Live Up to Their Potential

By Todd Collins | May 27, 2019

LAUSD board listens to a speaker at a Los Angeles Board of Education meeting on January 29, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Whatever you think about your local school board, you probably don’t think it is the key ingredient to improving a struggling school system. At best, it’s a benign and somewhat vague presence, approving budgets and handing out diplomas. At worst, it is a dysfunctional roadblock to reform.

But in fact, local school boards are the missing link between good ideas and effective district improvement. Without better school boards, we will never have sustainably better schools.

The past 30 years of school reform efforts have aimed at improving everything but the local board. We’ve had programs to upgrade teachers, principals, superintendents, curricula, accountability systems and funding formulas. The net result, intentionally or otherwise, has been to cut back the traditional role of the local board, which in the past played the starring role in running American schools.

But local school boards still, almost everywhere, have one crucial function — they are responsible for hiring (and firing) superintendents and setting goals for their performance. This is huge: No matter what the strategy, school district improvement depends on leadership and management. Both are in the realm of the superintendent, and only the local school board can hold him or her accountable for results.

This role isn’t unusual — it’s what boards are for. From private-sector corporations to nonprofits, the main purpose of any board is to manage performance, of both the organization overall and its chief executive officer. It sets goals for concrete results and oversees the CEO to make sure those goals are achieved. That’s the essence of accountability.

Unfortunately, many local school boards have trouble living up to that role. Most board members lack experience and often don’t understand the board’s role — or how to carry it out. Many superintendents “manage” their boards, either by locking them out or co-opting them as part of a “governance team.” Some boards overstep and micromanage, doing the superintendent’s job. And most districts still focus on just delivering services instead of achieving results, which keeps management focused on inputs instead of outcomes.

How can local board members live up to their potential and do their jobs?

● Training — Not in board procedure and district bylaws, but in how to set goals (and what kind), monitor progress, evaluate results and manage performance. That’s where the rubber hits the road with accountability. Organizations like the Broad Foundation have invested heavily in the important work of recruiting and developing quality school superintendents; we need the same effort to develop quality school board members.

● Tools and templates — Private-sector management and boards live or die by leading and trailing indicators, dashboards and operating metrics, while most superintendents and school boards look at little except high-level budgets and annual test scores, usually well into the next school year. Performance management isn’t mysterious, but it is detailed and needs constant attention. Boards need to learn the drill.

● Experience — They need to recruit a new type of board member, people who know how to lead large organizations. In many districts, major business leaders have withdrawn from public school affairs, sometimes putting their weight instead behind alternatives like charters. This is a huge loss, for both the business community and the schools. Business leaders must support traditional public schools, which are a central institution in every community.

In Palo Alto, where I serve, Hewlett Packard has long been one of the largest private employers. Senior HP executives served as elected members of our school board for more than 30 years, until the 1980s. That included eight years of service from founder David Packard, who at the same time was president of HP. That is a level of community involvement and institutional support that can move the needle on school district success.

There is a saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” That’s true in my experience. Without urgency, attention to detail and a strong organization, strategy doesn’t really matter — you’ll never actually get it done. Strong school boards are essential for strong management, which is the source of strong culture. Taking a page from the private-sector playbook, we can upgrade our execution by upgrading our boards. Until we do, school improvement will be a hit-or-miss proposition.

Todd Collins is vice president of the Palo Alto, California, Unified School District Board of Trustees.

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