Study: Good school board members make a difference

Study: Good school board members make a difference

(District of Columbia) It might not be surprising to learn that some school board members across the country paid for their services – most are not, but almost half, 48 percent – spend between 15 and 40 hours per month on district business.

Another third spend less than 15 hours per month, and 19 percent devote more than 40 hours per month to board activities.

Those are among the findings of a new survey about school board members from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-leaning think tank based in D.C.

The report was based on responses from a questionnaire of more than 900 school board members in 417 locations throughout the U.S. Although the survey was conducted in 2009, the study is one of the few to examine the characteristics of school board members who make a difference to student performance.

The Fordham team framed the study in a series of questions aimed at understanding how well suited the typical school board member is for office.

“While supporters of local school boards argue that they are crucial for keeping schools responsive to community concerns, detractors contend that popularly elected board members lack the knowledge, commitment to academic achievement or appropriate work practices to oversee the nation’s schools,” the report authors said, noting that critics also call the system outdated and say it is quickly being replaced by other forms of governance including schools that are under the control of mayors , state agencies of educational management organizations.

One key finding is that most school board members surveyed had a “reasonably clear” understanding of such fundamental school business issues as the budget, teacher pay, collective bargaining and class size.

In each of the policy areas, board member responses matched actual district conditions about 20 percent of the time with the vast majority of their responses falling just outside the margins by making small factual errors.

“Regardless of whether they are knowledgeable from the outset, or whether they surround themselves with savvy staff and administrators, many are making decisions from an informed point of view,” Fordham researchers said.

Interestingly, the survey discovered that board members whose professional background is in public education are less likely than those whose business life is conducted outside the school to actually understand the conditions inside the district.

They also found a correlation between good district knowledge and political ideology: moderates appear to have the best knowledge of the school conditions when compared to either conservatives or liberals – designations that were self-imposed by respondents.

“This is troubling not because ideology or experience shapes board member opinions – that is unavoidable – but because voters in today’s polarized climate might favor strong conservatives or liberals over moderates (“at least they have an opinion!”) and former educators over  system outsiders (“they know what it’s really like”),” the Fordham researchers said.

Finally, the survey found that districts most likely to successfully perform above expectations elected their school board members “at large” – that is, from the district as a whole rather than, for instance, candidates running for a seat representing just a part of the district.

“Board members elected during on-cycle, at-large elections are more likely to serve in districts that ‘beat the odds’ than those who are chosen by voters off-cycle or by ward” Fordham said. “Off-cycle elections have a noble intent (to isolate board elections from partisan politics), as do ward elections (to elect board members who reflect the demographics of the electorate).

“But given the import of recruiting board members who give top billing to student learning, a system that holds off-cycle, ward-based elections is, at best, counterproductive – and, at worst, harmful to kids,” the report said.

Of the 900 board members surveyed, Fordham said 56 percent were male, 44 percent were female but less than 40 percent had children attending school in the district they represented.

Nearly half called themselves politically moderate while 32 percent identified themselves as conservative and 21 percent liberal. About a third worked or still work in the school system; 18 percent said they worked in “business” with 14 percent engaged in “professional” occupations.

In conclusion, Fordham said, a good school board member is a critical part of improving student performance.

“Granted, much of the implementation of American educational policy takes place in schools and classrooms, away from school boards and direct democratic accountability,” they said. “School boards do not, and cannot, monitor and cajole teachers and principals (and even the superintendent) on a daily basis. Even so, boards can do a lot – and our children, teachers, and communities deserve school boards with the capacity to do just that.”

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