A study by a University of Southern Mississippi professor is complete and finds that there is a direct correlation between school board members’ behavior and attitude and the academic achievement of the students under their governance.
However, the leader of the organization here in Mississippi tasked with training school board members says it is a complex issue that is affected by a number of factors including the differing roles of board members and superintendents, elections/turnover and — ironically — education.
Dr. David Lee, an associate professor of educational leadership at USM, led a research team that observed more than 150 school board meetings across the U.S. in attempt to quantify the importance of effective school boards as it pertains to academic achievement.
“The purpose was to see how boards operated in both low- and high-performing school systems,” Lee said. “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.”
Lee added, “School board members are leaders, and they have to act like leaders.” He said school board associations are generally doing an excellent job with training, but too often there is a disconnect between “knowing and doing.”
Dr. Mike Waldrop, executive director of the Mississippi School Board Association, which trains the state’s school board members, said the basic premise of the study is “dead right.”
“A change of just one member of a school board can affect its effectiveness — I’ve seen it personally,” Waldrop said. “There is no doubt that school board members play a crucial role in student performance.”
However, Waldrop pointed out that there are many underlying factors that make the issue much more complex than the USM study shows.
One is the differing roles school boards and superintendents play. Superintendents are responsible for managing their school districts, while school board members are charged with ensuring compliance and governance. Without effective training and communication, Waldrop said school board members and superintendents can find themselves on opposite sides and struggling to perform their duties.
Adding to that complexity is turnover. School board members are largely elected, not appointed. That and other factors mean there is a near-constant “passing of the beret.”
“Every year, we lose approximately 100 of our 700 school board members,” Waldrop said. “It is a moving target. Just when we get all of our school board members trained, we have turnover and start all over again. And the turnover in superintendents is phenomenal. It is a real challenge.”
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the relationship between superintendents and school board members, however, is the divide in training. While the Mississippi School Board Association trains board members, the Mississippi Department of Education is charged with the training of superintendents.
“The only time we get involved with school boards is when there is an accreditation issue,” said Patrice Guilfoyle, communications director at the Mississippi Department of Education.
In short, superintendents and school board members only receive joint training when their school district fails.
Waldrop said he believes a change in the training process for both school board members and superintendents is warranted. More joint education would be a plus, he said.
“The reaction from superintendents who go through joint training with school board members invariably is positive,” said Waldrop, who pointed out that due to limited resources the association can only conduct about a dozen whole-board training programs annually — the vast majority of school board members go through the six-hour training module on an individual basis.
In releasing his results of the USM study, Lee said school board members are not held to same expectations as educators and administrators when it comes to accountability. He was highly critical of what he perceives as a double standard.
Lee said, “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.
“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.”
Waldrop took exception to this, again saying the issue is more complex than that.
“Accountable for what?” Waldrop asked. As example, he asked if the Legislature changes the funding mechanism for schools, should school board members be held accountable for that?
“School boards should only be held accountable for what they can control,” Waldrop said.
Lee, who has been a principal, superintendent of schools, deputy state superintendent of education for the State of Louisiana and a school board member and currently serves as a consultant, said he will present his study’s findings at the annual meeting of the National School Boards Association in New Orleans in April.
Lee also said his research team is developing a national training model based on their research on board behaviors.