A groundbreaking new report finds that school board members increasingly are focused on student achievement and preparing students with 21st century skills to compete in the global economy.
NSBA released “School Boards Circa 2010: Governance in the Accountability Era,” on Feb. 3. The report is authored by researchers Frederick Hess and Olivia Meeks at the American Enterprise Institute and was funded by the Wallace Foundation. NSBA partnered with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and the Iowa School Boards Foundation to produce the report, which is based on a survey of more than 1,000 board members and superintendents from all types of school districtsurban, suburban, and rural.
The report provides a detailed look at the demographics of school boards members, what board members think about a number of school reform initiatives, how they do their work, and the relationship between the school board and the superintendent. The report also delves into areas such as elections, campaign, and ties to teachers unions.
Some of the highlights of the 83-page report include:
- Two-thirds of those surveyed see an urgent need to improve student achievement, and nine out of 10 are concerned about an overly narrow focus on achievement.
- School board members and superintendents have similar goals for preparing their students for college, the workplace, and, above all, “a satisfying and productive life.”
- School board members, especially those in large districts, are more representative of the communities they serve than state legislatures and members of Congress. Boards now include a greater percentage of women — 44 percentthan the U.S. House of Representatives (17.5 percent) and Senate (17 percent).
- School board members tend to be well educatednearly 75 percent of members surveyed hold at least a bachelor’s degreeand most describe their political views as ideologically moderate.
- A major concern for school board members is dealing with the economic downturn and decline in local real estate values and state revenues. More than two-thirds of board members ranked their funding and economic situations as extremely urgent.
- More than 88 percent of board members report that they almost always or often turn to their superintendents to get information to make decisions, giving the superintendent a crucial role.
NSBA Executive Director Anne L. Bryant pointed out that the date showed, contrary to popular beliefs, only 17 percent of board members had ever belonged to a teachers union. Further, only 15 percent had received campaign contributions from their unions, and most of those donations were less than $1,000.
She also noted that the report queried board members about obstacles and barriers to progress. While funding was most frequently cited as a top issue, more than 52 percent cited collective bargaining as an impediment to removing ineffective teachers. That issue is particularly timely because of the renewed interest in ending teacher tenure and the U.S. Department of Education’s labor management conference in Denver later this month, Bryant said.
NSBA and several other education groups and teachers unions will be participating in that conference, to be held Feb. 15 and 16, and Bryant said these concerns should be raised.
Hess authored a similar report, “School Boards at the Dawn of a New Century,” that was released by NSBA in 2002. That report also examined the demographic data and inner workings of board members, but Hess noted that many of the issues, including accountability for student achievement, were not as prominent at that time.
“One of the really interesting things is that frankly we didn’t think to ask a lot of the questions in 2002 that we did this time, when you think back our expectations of governance were so different,” he said.
Amber Winkler, the research director at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a conservative think tank that has often criticized school boards, encouraged board members to rethink the issue of school governance. The Wallace Foundation stipulated that NSBA partner with an organization with different beliefs to receive funding for the project.
The Fordham Foundation strongly supports school choice, including liberal charter school laws and vouchers for some students. Winkler said that she was unhappy to see that data that showed school board members were “lukewarm” to ideas such as school choice, charter schools, and year-round calendars.
That said, she was pleased that “the results showed school board members are conscientious citizens, take jobs seriously, and work hard for very little pay.”