An editorial by Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education:
The Fordham Institute, whose president, Chester Finn, has called the school board “an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole” that should be put “out of its misery,” recently published a report, “Does School Board Leadership Matter?
It definitely contradicts the spirit of Finn’s previous comments.
The document lists information that we have known ever since the original Iowa Lighthouse Initiative was released: School boards, particularly their attitudes on student learning, are an important element of student success. Other information points us to what we must do to ensure that boards are relevant, effective, and beneficial.
The report comes at a critical time for executive directors from state school boards associations who have been involved in attempting to discern what the board of tomorrow will be like. It gives us an idea of what boards need to do to accomplish their primary goal: increasing student achievement and growth.
I believe it also implicitly supports the idea of boards of education, with all of their warts, is the most effective way in which to govern almost all school districts.
Report authors Arnold F. Shober and Michael T. Hartney started with information from “a national  survey of 900 school board members situated across 417 unique school districts.” They combined this information with demographic and student achievement data for the same districts.
Here’s what they found. The bolded sentences below indicate findings from the study. Other comments are mine.
1. Board members, by and large, possess accurate information about their districts and adopt work practices that are generally similar across districts. But there is little consensus about which goals should be central.
The fact that board members have good information about their districts is a hugely significant fact. Without such data, whether provided by the administration or by other board members or from the community is central to making good decisions.
Unfortunately, while the report states that in school finance, teacher pay, collective bargaining, and class size board members have “reasonable knowledge of district conditions,” they “appear less knowledgeable about the rigor (or lack thereof) of academic standards in their respective state.”
2. Districts that are more successful academically have board members who assign high priority to improving student learning. School boards that comprise a higher proportion of members who have an academic focus are, all else being equal, more likely to govern districts that “beat the odds”—that is, districts whose students perform better academically than one would expect, given their demographic and financial characteristics.
Thirty years ago, the focus of boards across the country was on issues such as collective bargaining, the termination of underperforming teachers, and fiscal matters. Today, more focus is on student achievement, measured in standardized test scores and in other ways. However, we still have not identified what those “other ways” are. The public basically only sees and reacts to the test results.
Districts that are “punching above their weights” (my phrase), are those that have embraced raising student achievement as the central goal of the board. While all boards are affected by such factors as politics, funding, and other issues, those that focus on academics do the best, which is what the original Lighthouse study taught us a decade ago.
On the other hand, the study is based on the 2009 survey. I would hope that today, with all of the discussion of Common Core and five more years of discussion of increasing student achievement, there would be an even stronger recognition of the importance of increasing achievement.
3. Political moderates tend to be more informed than liberals and conservatives when it comes to money matters; educators and former educators are less informed.
This is a particularly interesting finding. While the report found “strong evidence that both knowledge and focus are shaped by board members’ occupational background and political ideology,” which is no surprise, it also found that political liberals “are more likely than moderates or conservatives to place less focus on improving student learning, believing instead that schools serve many goals.”
On the other hand, conservatives “do not subscribe to either an academic or plural focus, suggesting that their priorities may lie in financial stewardship (or other matters) rather than in student learning or other outcomes.”
4. At-large, on-cycle elections are associated with districts that beat the odds.
This would appear to be good news for Connecticut, where almost all school board elections occur in conjunction with general elections. The report did not examine the effect of board members running on political lines, which comes with its own benefits and disadvantages.
This study indicates a need to keep our eye on the prize: higher academic achievement for all of our students. It reminds us that board members must become as knowledgeable as possible on understanding relevant data, as well as best practices and current education trends.
In most cases, board members do not join boards as experts in education and, as the study shows, those who do, do not necessarily focus on student achievement. But, the board members who are determined to learn more and, I would add, get involved in regional and statewide opportunities for learning, provide their districts with the value that will make their boards and their students even more successful than they are now.
And in this competitive world, every little bit helps.