Systems Change and Governance: School Boards That Lead for Equity

By Larry Leverett, Executive Director, Panasonic Foundation

The Panasonic Foundation, established in 1984, is guided by its core commitment to support efforts of school systems to improve academic and social outcomes for all students: “All Means All.” The Foundation provides direct technical assistance to support system effectiveness with attention focused on equity challenges in the school system. Our theory of action has continuously evolved as a result of: 1) changing contexts (i.e., federal and state policy and legislation such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT)); 2) changing emphasis of major school reform approaches; 3) the ever-growing body of knowledge supported by educational research influencing practice (e.g., teacher quality, impact of access to rigorous curriculum, motivational and resiliency theory, valued-added equity strategies, critical race theory); and 4) the influences of demographic factors and the societal responses to race, culture and ethnicity. In our early years, we emphasized the school as the unit of change and invested our resources in strengthening the capacity of school-level educators to implement school-based management processes. Some years later, we grew frustrated by the impact of central offices who were not supportive of the creativity and innovative spirit of schools who began asserting their views about autonomy, authority and decision-making roles.

In the late 1980s, the Foundation responded by rethinking its theory of action and landed on a greater emphasis on central office as the unit of change. However helpful this shift was, it quickly became evident that the school board’s role required our additional attention as the Foundation worked to refine its systemic approach to school system change. The present theory of action encompasses the board of education, superintendent, senior leadership team or cabinet, and other central office supervisors and administrators, as well as individual schools. Our work with school boards seeks to support the development of governance structures to provide important leadership for systemic equity through policy, resource allocation, community and family engagement, comprehensive communications and monitoring system-wide performance.

Why Focus on Governance?

As the Foundation made the shift to districts as the unit of change for our work with school systems, we quickly became aware of the importance of working with school boards to increase effectiveness. The district remains a viable organizational structure for advancing system-wide equity strategies with such equity-focused policies as weighted resource allocation, strategic staffing, differentiated school support systems and locally determined accountability designs to monitor system performance using multiple measures. School boards have an important role as stewards of the education investment made by communities. However, the storied history of public school boards that have failed to perform responsibly has caused numerous reformers, advocates and legislators to believe that school board influence must either be reduced or eliminated as a means to govern public school districts.

Today, we see various hybrids of school board models, from boards under mayoral control, to advisory boards that vary in their ability to act on personnel or finance matters, to county or state-operated takeovers with replacement of school board structures and composition. The Foundation has supported board development in school systems with various structures and roles, including working with school boards that represent practices and policies that affirm the views of many school board critics, and working with districts that are models for using the governance structure to lead for equity. We have worked with school boards that honor their responsibility to engage effectively with communities and staff to provide governance that steers school systems toward equitable outcomes for all students. We join with those who demand effective governance systems in public education. Cronyism and nepotism — and politically driven, unethical (sometimes illegal) policies and practices — adversely impact systems’ ability to provide the opportunities and experiences that learners need and must be firmly addressed by the appropriate enforcement agencies.

We believe that effective school boards make a difference in system efforts to improve student performance. Several we have worked with in the Foundation’s partnership program have provided their communities with system-wide stewardship by working with the superintendent to shape an authentic vision and mission. They have defined core values and beliefs and established goals based on high expectations for students and staff, and have created effective systems for deliberate policy governance, orienting, monitoring and evaluation of system and superintendent performance. Their effectiveness is often evident in the systems of support available for schools, investments in capacity building, and diverse interventions available to support student success in universal high-quality teaching and learning environments.

These boards drive accountability through governance-driven monitoring systems. They are in the position to engage families, communities and internal and external stakeholders; have a clearly defined annual work plan; engage in self-assessment to determine priorities for board development; engage in ongoing learning to expand their knowledge of the latest developments in the field of education; and have multiple approaches to engaging their diverse communities. Finally, these effective boards work arduously to ensure that their work is aligned with system-wide efforts to improve achievement for all learners. All means all.

Through its leadership and in partnership with communities, school boards have the responsibility to give direction, determine resource allocation formulas, and set the vision, mission, core beliefs and strategic goals of the system. The board determines whether or not equity becomes a front-burner issue in a school community and supports the leverage points to make change happen (i.e., system goal-setting, strategic and operational plans and accountability systems to measure and publicly report on indicators of success).

CBN_Quote_LL-11School boards can demand that school systems act affirmatively to examine the root causes for student performance disparities, set clear expectations for the elimination of these gaps and intentionally confront the disparities among student populations. School boards that lead for equity intentionally provide different levels of support to meet the most urgent student needs and achieve improved student performance. Effective school boards are organized to “break the links” of longstanding barriers that adversely impact the success of all students and fully accept the responsibility to lead for equity. According to the Panasonic Foundation, school boards that lead for equity:

  1. Adopt, support and implement an equity-based vision, mission, system goals and policies to provide a framework for the work of school district staff;
  2. Maintain effective communications and relationship with the superintendent and hold the superintendent responsible for student achievement;
  3. Demonstrate leadership, courage and the will to govern the district on behalf of the entire community;
  4. Allocate resources equitably to ensure that all students have the opportunity to learn and succeed academically and socially;
  5. Educate and engage the community to create a sense of system- and community-urgency to aggressively do “whatever it takes” for every student to achieve success in school;
  6. Enable all students in all classrooms to engage in mastering rigorous academic content;
  7. Act to hold the school board and all adults accountable for the improvement of student outcomes based on multiple and varied measures;
  8. Monitor system performance of all students to assess, report and communicate the academic performance of all students;
  9. Ensure that every student is taught by a high-quality teacher and that every school is led by a high-quality principal;
  10. Strategically engage students, families, communities, residents, businesses, elected and appointed municipal officials, community-based organizations and others to increase the effectiveness of collaborative efforts to support the academic and social success of all students;
  11. Establish clear board of education work plans that align with system improvement priorities, invest in their own development, reflect on their effectiveness throughout the calendar year and annually engage in a formal self-assessment; and
  12. Model high standards of ethical practices both individually and as a full board.

Effective school boards are organized to “break the links” of longstanding barriers that adversely impact the success of all students and fully accept the responsibility to lead for equity.

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School Board Leadership for Equity-Driven, Achievement-Focused School Systems 

School boards have the responsibility to lead their school systems in partnership with communities, to share a commitment to ensuring that every learner has the resources, supports and opportunities to be successful, academically and socially. Too often, boards rely exclusively upon standardized test results as the sole indicator of how well a school system is performing. Unfortunately, school boards most often fail to measure system performance in areas that support such college and career readiness goals as social emotional competence, digital literacy, global awareness, cultural responsiveness, self-efficacy and managing diversity. It is often said that we should “inspect what we expect.” We expect our graduates to master the so-called “soft” skills, but too often boards fail to establish the policy framework or set goals followed by monitoring system performance in these important areas for student growth and development. Certainly, we realize that performance on standardized testing in our meritocratic, credential-oriented society will be necessary. However, school boards who accept the vision of graduating students who are well-prepared for adult roles require our measurements to be broader than a narrow set of indicators based on a limited, test-result-only definition of what it means to be prepared. Boards that lead for equity and excellence are urged to broaden their lens to include a wider scope of indicators to judge system success.

There are very few districts that can claim the absence of gaps between their highest performing students and all other students (i.e., African American, Latino, Native American, English Language Learners, students requiring special education and children from economically challenging conditions). Educational equity is a challenge for urban, suburban and rural school districts. The demographic shifts in the United States are projected to include more and more diversity. For the first time in the history of public education, the majority of students enrolled in American public schools are children of color. Every community is experiencing the impact of these shifts, whether a toney, affluent suburban district with a mainly homogeneous student population or an urban district that is mainly African American with high levels of poverty. Equity issues vary in type, scope and attention to each population — including historically underserved student populations, or the growing population of immigrant students, students who are tracked into special education, or English Language Learner (ELL) students who languish in programs that fail to accelerate performance in meeting Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) and other state standards. Whether there are 20 students or tens or hundreds of thousands of students, school systems are responsible to provide every learner with the opportunity to learn and succeed in rigorous academic programs.

Policy as a Tool for Sustaining an Equity Focus

Typically, school boards that we have worked with over the years have incrementally adopted literally hundreds of policies over time. Clearly, it is difficult for boards to govern policy effectively in such situations. Some school boards have succeeded in efforts to dramatically reduce the number of policies in their policy manuals and have been able to introduce coherence, resulting in clearer policy direction to guide the systems, improved ability to monitor key policies and ability to better track system performance.

Some boards that have made these shifts have not only created a more manageable number of policies to monitor, but have also been able to require that superintendents engage with them to ensure shared understanding of the data to be used to demonstrate adherence to major policy provisions. Too often, school boards are frustrated when reports provided by the administration do not align with the policy intent. This frustration can be significantly reduced by boards and superintendents allocating time soon after policy adoption to build shared understanding of expectations, supporting data and indicators of alignment with policy intent. Investing the time on the front end of the policy-setting process saves time and confusion when system performance is reported by the superintendent.

Elimination of the “policy-cluttered” reality of so many school boards is particularly important for boards that define their work as leading for educational equity. A leaner, more focused set of policies gives the equity-driven board a chance to systematically concentrate on a portfolio of high-leverage, equity-based policies to determine system performance and superintendent effectiveness in advancing strategic and tactical strategies and activities designed to improve student learning. Without such a deliberate system in place, the difficulty to sustain equity initiatives through superintendent or board member turnover increases.

Having a strong equity focus supported by a thoughtful, deliberate and strategic board policy framework increases a board’s chance to sustain an equity-based agenda during board or superintendent changes. When policies and monitoring systems are aligned, systematic and emblematic of the governance culture’s modus operandi, it is far more likely that policies, practices and expectations become more deeply embedded as governance tools to promote and sustain equity commitments in a school district. While this board policy approach may not be completely unassailable by future board members or superintendents, there is a far greater chance to sustain an equity focus over multiple years, even when board members and/or superintendents come and go.

School boards committed to sustaining equity efforts are urged to engage their communities, with their full diversity of interests and needs, to develop and share ownership of an equity-based policy framework. The extent to which the board and community linkages use differentiated approaches to build community knowledge, understanding, co-development of and commitment to the system’s equity work will be an important factor that affects the sustainability of an equity agenda. Boards are encouraged to invest in building the community-based support and partnership needed to increase the difficulty for future boards or superintendents to dismantle a policy-based equity framework because it is valued and co-owned by the community as a hallmark of their school district.

There are strong examples of school boards that have developed and implemented an equity-based policy framework that memorializes the important equity expectations for a system. In one district we have worked with, there have been three different superintendents in the past decade and some changes in board composition. Yet, the equity focus has remained intact and is continuously anchored to a set of policy commitments made by earlier boards. A second district has developed a set of system-generated accountability indicators to better understand district progress on key equity-oriented leverages. This system’s balance scorecard tells the story of successes, challenges and continuous improvement in areas directly aligned with major policy provisions in the several, key equity-oriented policies.

However, we have found that, for boards that have several hundred policies covering a range of topics — from managing blood borne pathogens, to disciplinary procedures for students carrying firearms, among other issues — the likelihood of the board monitoring policy implementation is fairly minimal. The policy governance model developed by Dr. John and Miriam Carver[1] has great potential as a resource for helping boards steward their organizations by developing, monitoring and reviewing their policies. Districts implementing such streamlined policy governance usually have 50 or fewer policies that they monitor annually. The power of this model is the use of policy as a lever for change and accountability as opposed to the present paradigm of volumes of policy documents that are most often not used or referred to until a problem arises.

Use Board Work Plans and Learning to Focus Time and Meeting Effectiveness

Some of the practices to promote board learning include allocating time in the annual board calendar for workshop meetings focused on a topic of shared interest; development of monitoring reports that provide data on key teaching and learning policies; multiple indicators for measuring student performance; and organizational culture and climate markers at the school and district levels. Boards also use data from their own self-assessments, learning from community forums or carefully designed community linkage meetings focused on topics of shared interest with the board.

Effective boards dedicated to equity and excellence also seek out opportunities to update their knowledge on topics related to board members’ interests. It is important that school boards, as stewards of a community’s educational system, model “learning for leading.” Effective school boards keep abreast of changes in the education field and their potential impact on the community by adopting annual board development goals that expand board members’ knowledge in areas that may have implications for the school district.

Boards that lead for equity will benefit from learning more about the complexity of system changes necessary to address matters of racial, socioeconomic and cultural diversity within their communities and districts. They’ll also benefit from seeking to understand how racism and other marginalizing practices affect access, opportunity and outcomes. The ability to deal with matters of race, socioeconomics, language and other factors — and build shared knowledge around cultural responsiveness — informs policy development, resource allocation practices, systems of professional development, human resource approaches and accountability policies and practices.

Sadly, school boards often lack developmental and training experiences needed to build their capacity to lead for equity. Most states have school board associations that provide a range of services to orient new school board members: tools for board self-assessments, training on state and federal laws, rules for ethical conduct and other necessary topics. The board’s role in leading for equity, however, is not generally a skill set in which many state school board associations have a depth of knowledge.

Sustaining the District’s Equity & Excellence Focus

Maintaining traction on an equity-focused, board-, superintendent- and community-driven agenda is a major challenge for many school systems. Too often, school districts are confronted with the challenge of superintendent turnover or shifting priorities of school boards. The hiring of a new superintendent frequently leads to abandoning the change efforts of the preceding superintendent and starting with a new vision, mission and strategic direction. Unfortunately, the tenure of urban superintendents is on average 3.2 years — less than the five-year period that deep change usually requires in complex organizations. Shifts in board membership also contribute to an absence of long-term ownership of equity initiatives and to the extremely difficult challenge of building and sustaining the multi-level support and commitment needed across school systems and communities.

Effective boards recognize this reality and invest in building a framework that promotes continuity of a board- and community-owned system of governance designed to survive the impact of churn at the board and superintendent levels. School boards that carefully develop, articulate and monitor policies to anchor the system’s vision, mission, core values and broad goals, are in a stronger position to sustain long-term system changes even when superintendent turnover occurs. Effective, equity-oriented school boards hire superintendents who enter the relationship with the board with clear guidance and expectations it sets in partnership with the superintendent. Without such clear direction, there is essentially no anchor for changes that require long-term commitment.

When a board is highly effective, it is engaged in actively maintaining a productive working relationship in partnership with the superintendent. There are no “magic potions” that can be applied to instantly create a productive board/superintendent relationship. While not a total solution, boards that develop and support locally adapted versions of policy governance usually have a better opportunity to create conditions for both the board and superintendent to work within mutually agreed boundaries and expectations. The board’s work as a policy-monitoring body calls for clear agreement on board expectations and the evidence required to demonstrate progress and/or adherence to policies in areas of student performance and wellness, organizational climate and culture, finance, operations, human resources, facilities and other areas.

When education boards provide policy direction, set clear goals, delineate expectations, and are clear on desired system performance, there is a foundation for significant clarity between the board and CEO/superintendent about the expectations of adherence to educational equity. When the board is clear on expectations for system performance, the board and superintendent are in a better position to assess the impact of the superintendent’s leadership on the system. An equity-driven board is also clear that a balance of pressure and support are required to move the system forward on equity goals. All support with no pressure = little or no change. Similarly, all pressure and no support also = little or no change or improvement.

Effective Equity-Driven Boards Model Collaboration

Education boards become less effective when they fail to model collaboration, respect, team building and relational trust. “Do as I say and not as I do” does not work as a way to lead toward a vision and mission within an organizational context that values people and their ideas, and depends upon the shared effort of many working across cultures and perspectives toward a common mission. Too often, we focus on the technical changes without considering the importance of investment in development of the adult relationships required to engage the tough work of supporting deep equity in every school. The adaptation of social and emotional (SEL) competencies and skills to adult relationships requires more reinforcement. Effective school boards must model the behaviors they expect others in the system to model in their day-to-day interactions with colleagues, students, parents and community members. The dynamics, communication and work styles among and between the board members, board and superintendent, board and staff send a message about the district’s culture and expected behavior.

Recently, Panasonic Foundation consultants have encouraged boards with deep conflicts to “push the pause button” on judging their colleagues harshly. One technique that has been used quite widely is to have board members share their “stories” of school experiences, remembering times when they have been affirmed or judged and the impact of each, and reflect on learning experiences or conditions that either catapulted their learning, or situations that blocked learning. Each time we use this exercise, board members emerge with a different understanding and appreciation for their colleagues on the school board. Some boards working with superintendents have launched “courageous conversations,” supported cultural responsiveness training, and invested in organizational development processes that foster teamwork and collaboration. Others have developed by-laws, norms, and disciplined operational agreements and procedures for managing complaints, problem-solving processes, setting agendas and other routines that often can fan the embers of conflict. Panasonic’s work with school boards recognizes that technical change is often difficult to successfully penetrate in school districts where the board and superintendent team does not model or fails to invest in the adaptive changes necessary to build the critical mass needed to make change happen. Greater investment and support for the personal development of adults has often been a missed opportunity that yields benefits to sustainability.

Building Board Capacity to Lead for Equity

Superintendents have a responsibility to organize the system to respond to what the governing body and community have determined is important.

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School boards are either appointed or elected to guide school systems. Through a significant community, staff and student engagement process, they are responsible for setting the vision, delineating the mission and core values and aligning policy accordingly to set the system’s direction. This is the school board’s role. Superintendents are hired by boards, as intended representatives of their communities, to drive the mission and vision and to organize the school system in a way that is aligned with the system’s core values. Superintendents have a responsibility to organize the system to respond to what the governing body and community have determined is important.

Likewise, once the board has executed their responsibilities to define and articulate the mission, vision and values, there is an important responsibility to be clear with the CEO/superintendent about what is expected of him/her, and not get involved in management. Management is not a role of the board. A “shipwreck” often occurs when the board does not define its work as policy, but as management and administration; or when the accountability of the superintendent is not clear, and the board lacks polices to hold the superintendent accountable. When these things are not clear, systems are likely to have turnover of superintendents that is attributable to a lack of shared understanding and agreement between the board and superintendent.

Nearly all state school board associations have developed board training programs designed to meet minimum requirements set by state legislatures or state boards of education. Typically, these programs are organized to clarify the legal responsibilities of local boards of education, compliance with state ethic codes, state education law, sunshine laws, and other guidance related to a broad range of state-specific requirements for school boards. Nearly every state has set minimum expectations for training board members. However, there is little state-level emphasis on the role of the school boards to function as leaders for equity, which leaves to chance the development of knowledge, skills and expectations related to educational equity and student achievement.

Education boards need to be clear about their own development. It is important for boards to engage in processes such as self-evaluation and self-assessments, to examine and be reflective about their policy agendas, to have clearly defined goals for their own improvement, and the ability to govern systems. Boards also need to have outward exposure, to look at practices from other boards within their local and state contexts as well as nationally, to attend conferences, and be well-read. Boards need to have a way of learning new information to help them understand movements (e.g., the Common Core, or the role of assessment). Boards need to be learning organizations in order to be clear about their roles.

When superintendents and school board members do not have shared understanding, there is an absence of the coherence, focus and support needed to drive equity-driven policies and practices in the district. The relationship that is positive and optimistic in the early tenure of a superintendent tends to fade over time and is replaced by tension in the relationship, micromanagement, and role dysfunction in the responsibilities of both the superintendent and school boards. The behaviors that result decrease the effectiveness and ability for governance and executive functioning by the superintendent to carry out an agenda focused on student achievement.

Every community context has unique issues, challenges and concerns that require active board learning to build their capacity and ability to respond effectively to their local context. Boards should have a “learning agenda” on best practices nationally (e.g., reducing long-term ELLs in districts, the most effective means of accelerating the progress of black and Latino males, the gender issues related to STEM, etc.). This level of learning should be part of board activity where the system is set up for learning, including self-assessment, workshops, key learnings from the field, and state and federal policies and their impact on the district. Boards must be informed in order to be pro-active.

The Panasonic Foundation’s Work With School Boards

The Panasonic Foundation district partnership is a philanthropic and capacity building commitment to decade-long relationships with our partnership districts. Superintendents and school boards are key district leaders that agree to support a 10-year partnership in a continuous improvement effort anchored in a shared commitment to eliminate the predictability of student achievement based on false beliefs that associate the ability of students with their race, ethnicity and poverty. The Foundation, school board and superintendent sign on to an agreement to identify several areas of work to address system-wide barriers and obstacles to improved student achievement. The Foundation and district agreement works toward locally identified goals that require continuous focus of the district leaders to set goals, develop strategies, build system capacity to achieve the mutually defined objectives, monitor system and student performance (including broadened notions of success), and to make mid-course adjustments to refine the strategic and technical work necessary to achieve the desired results.

Presently, the Panasonic Foundation partnership districts include: Elizabeth, New Jersey; Oakland, California; Prince Georges County, Maryland; Jersey City, New Jersey; Portland, Oregon; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Newburg, New York; and San Diego, California. The Foundation is also an actively engaged supporter and convener of the New Jersey Network of Superintendents, a community of practice focused on system leadership for educational equity. Participating superintendents represent a diverse group of urban and suburban school systems.

Many of our partnerships have gone the full 10 years; some more. However, we learned early on that the improvement effort often fails to reflect a linear design. Ten years seems to be a long enough commitment to make system change, but the realities of superintendent turnover, changes in membership of boards, and local, state and federal policy changes often deter anything that approaches a linear march toward desired partnership outcomes. In many ways, we are reminded of the classical Greek legend portraying the unending work of Sisyphus who rolled a heavy stone up a hill and every time he neared reaching the top of the hill, the stone escaped his grasp and tumbled back to the starting point at the bottom of the hill. Some would conclude that partnerships have not achieved their full potential due to the inability to secure a consistent approach that fixes the problems of governance and leadership.

We have accumulated experiences of good work undone by the breakdown of the board and superintendent relationship; changing membership, politics and values of school boards; and challenges that emerge as ideologies, political agendas, and turnover in system leadership that places forward progress and institutionalization at risk. Some things get better, but the reality is that the constant churn of leadership at the top mitigates against the early energy to move the needle on breaking the links between race, poverty and educational outcomes across entire systems. However, we have also learned that the long-term commitment of the Foundation far exceeds the “three years and out” approach of most philanthropy that is based upon the faulty view that permanent solutions to system governance and leadership are permanently resolved and can be permanently “fixed,” given the complex nature of large system change. Panasonic’s commitment is to remain engaged through superintendent changes, and ideological and political changes of the boards. We have supported improvements for a period of time, but the tough reality is that school boards and superintendents require ongoing support to weather the storms that are certain to emerge over time.

The Panasonic Foundation’s approach is to help school systems create conditions that support increased board and superintendent ability to focus on equity. This approach requires the Foundation to understand the dynamics and realities of board governance and superintendent leadership. The following are descriptions of our work in the real-time context of school boards and superintendents in our partnership districts:

  • Managing Board and Superintendent Transitions – The Foundation often works with school boards as superintendent changes occur due to resignations or terminations. Our efforts often include work with the board to identify equity and excellence work that the board values and wishes to sustain as it seeks to identify a new superintendent. Work during transition often seeks to build board unity on the work that is important to sustain. School boards often change in ways that require support, including school board composition changes due to elections, mayoral appointments and, occasionally, mid-term resignations. The change of two or three board members results in re-shuffling relationships, politics and interests. Boards need assistance to increase chances that the re-constituted board finds common ground on the critical work of leading for equity and excellence.
  • Development and Implementation of Superintendent Evaluation Processes – The Foundation engages the school board and incoming superintendent to reach agreement on the focus, tools and process to assess the performance of the superintendent. All states in the U.S. have statutes requiring the board to define a process for superintendent evaluation. There are many models for the board and superintendent to select from, but some customization is often needed to tailor the process to the district’s vision, mission and strategic goals. It would seem that this “low hanging fruit” requirement would be easily accomplished without much ado. However, “off the shelf” models may not capture the specific equity interests, policies and goals of a school board. The Foundation provides assistance to both the board and superintendent to achieve agreement on an evaluation tool and process that can be used to effectively monitor the system’s performance through the superintendent evaluation process.
  • Monitoring Board Effectiveness – Effective boards have established systems for monitoring their own as well as system performance. The work with school boards to re-examine their responsibility to monitor key policies to promote equity is not typically included in most training experiences of school boards. The Foundation uses retreats and workshop sessions to increase board knowledge on how to structure agendas, meeting time and annual calendars, and to be in partnership with the superintendent about establishing clear directions. Each board we support is involved eventually in development of a board-adopted work plan that sets the expectation for scheduled monitoring of policies intended to measure system performance.

We have found that boards that enact a locally adapted form of policy governance have been more effective in reducing the administratively developed presentations, reports and updates that too often fail to provide boards with the information they need to evaluate system performance in targeted policy areas related to improved student learning. The superintendent receives clear direction through an interactive process in which the administration provides the board with its interpretation of measurements to be used to report on progress toward attainment of major policy provisions. Such deliberate approaches have resulted in boards revising policies to provide greater emphasis on teaching and learning; reduced the number of administratively initiated board presentations on initiatives, plans or updates; and increased board meeting time on matters that have greater relevance to monitoring system performance related to student achievement.

  • Monthly Follow-up with School Board Leadership – Monthly district site visits are a standard component of the Foundation’s protocol. Our senior consultants use this opportunity to “check-in” on the work of the school board, emerging challenges and successes.
  • Board Retreats – Most of our partnership districts hold 2-3 board/superintendent retreats per calendar year. The retreat process includes a series of confidential interviews with each board member synthesized into a report to the board that highlights areas of agreement and tension; hopes, fears, aspirations and interests; and perspectives on board effectiveness and board/superintendent relationships. This information is often used for customized self-assessment instruments that sometimes supplement other ad hoc board assessment surveys.

Typically, the board is asked to organize a small, ad hoc retreat committee representative of the perspectives held by board members. A key purpose of having the committee is to build board ownership for the success of each retreat. The committee has the responsibility to draft the agenda, retreat objectives, and advanced reading or preparation materials.

  • Disciplined Processes – Too often, the absence of agreement on basic operations of the school board can trigger conflicts between the board and superintendent. Boards have targeted areas such as complaint management procedures, communications protocols, agenda setting, board norms and agenda setting. Our work with school boards and superintendents helps to clarify procedural matters to ensure that the full board, superintendent and her leadership team are operating within agreed upon processes.

Suggestions for Building Board Capacity to Increase Effectiveness

The Panasonic Foundation’s work is focused on ensuring all kids have access to high-quality instruction and supports, and ensuring systems are hiring and supporting highly effective system leaders. We also convene a Superintendents’ Network where we work with superintendents themselves and (to an extent) with their leadership teams. There is no area of work that a superintendent leads that is not impacted by the governance system in which they are immersed. When highly effective leaders of districts are working with highly effective boards, the likelihood of achieving equity and excellence is dramatically improved.

There is very little attention focused across the nation on building highly effective boards. This is a major problem.

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Once boards are elected or appointed, people tend to view boards as either “good” or “bad.” There is very little attention focused across the nation on building highly effective boards. This is a major problem. Furthermore, who runs for the board is more and more complicated. There are ideologically driven candidates, single-interest candidates, candidates supported by unions, those supported by wealthy people external to the district, etc. More attention needs to be devoted to who is elected or appointed, and what it takes to develop high-performing boards. We need to maintain an expectation that boards are supported in developing their ability to effectively govern a system driven by equity and excellence.

It is very important for boards to have a real sense of vision, mission and real core values that are authentic and used with sincerity, purpose, deliberateness and intentionality. Also, foundational documents and policies give direction to the system and clearly communicate values for a school system. Support through policy and planning, a human resource framework for hiring, developing, and building people’s capacity to deliver on the system’s core values and expectations — all need to be clear, real and authentic. This is one component of making this work.

A second component is to clarify roles for the board and superintendent through clear policy coming from the board to the superintendent. Investing in developing a shared understanding of the desired level of system performance upon which the superintendent will be judged is critical. Very serious attention needs to be given to the monitoring, support and evaluation of the superintendent using multifaceted system performance data throughout the year, in partnership with communities. This is not an annual event.

The steps associated with achieving these two components include:

  • Having deliberate intentionality as to how the board’s time is used (e.g., for workshops, monitoring, etc.);
  • Building the board’s understanding and capacity to be informed stewards of a community system;
  • Having infrastructure around policy and policy monitoring, and clear lines around where the board’s role begins and ends on the management-policy continuum;
  • Having clear goals for each year where boards model active learning through reflecting, assessing and monitoring their own improvement goals; and
  • Connecting to the community by re-thinking the board’s relationship with the community in its work, for example, how the board consults and links with the community and the policies of the board to require system-responsiveness and broad and authentic family and community engagement. Boards need to be clear about their particular work in this area, and how it is different from that of the superintendent and his or her staff, and schools.

Reducing the impact of disparities on the education of America’s school children will require men and women who have a strong sense of urgency to ensure that all children are prepared academically and socially to meet the challenges of our times. The work of school boards will continue to be a factor in how communities — urban, rural or suburban — will organize efforts to ensure student success. The work and responsibility of school board members help shape a local policy context that recognizes the importance of ensuring that all students have the opportunities and supports necessary to be successful, contributing members of society.

There have been many debates about the purpose and value of local boards of education. It is likely that the next decade or so will not result in the dissolution of school boards across the United States. Communities will likely continue to elect or appoint school board members with the hope that they will be good stewards of their community of schools. Hopefully, a sense of civic responsibility and acceptance of the urgency needed to dramatically increase the development of learners who are college, career and life ready will inspire quality candidates ready to invest in school board membership.

The challenges of school boards are not likely to be less arduous a decade from now as we continue to move forward in a global economy, which will have less value and opportunities for young people graduating schools without the hard and soft skills necessary to succeed. The development of school board members committed to an “All Means All” belief system will be important to providing equitable opportunities for learning and growth.



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About the Author

Larry Leverett, Executive Director, Panasonic Foundation

Dr. Larry Leverett is the Executive Director of the Panasonic Foundation, a corporate foundation with a mission to help public school systems with high percentages of children in poverty to improve learning for all students so that they may use their minds well and become productive, responsible citizens. Leverett recently served as Superintendent of Schools in Greenwich, Connecticut. His career in education has included urban and suburban experiences as a classroom teacher, elementary principal, assistant superintendent, school board member and Assistant State Commissioner of Education. During a 15-year span, he was a superintendent in three school districts, including Plainfield and Englewood in New Jersey. Leverett serves on advisory committees for the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Educators for Social Responsibility and the Laura Bush Foundation for School Libraries. He is committed to social justice and ensuring that all children have access to a high-quality educational experience in public schools.