Bored of Education Rhetoric, Lack of Sound Leadership and Poor Performance Stifle Student Achievement


 In the report below, Diane Ravitch and others discuss weaknesses, pitfalls and improvements that need to be made regarding school board governance in light of education reform. It should be noted, the report was issued pre-Core and is directed at NYC, but the ideas are still the same and are applicable in a variety of school board and education policy contexts across NYS.

The Parent Commission on School Governance and Mayoral Control convened in June 2008 to formulate clear and specific proposals for the New York State legislature in preparation for the sunset of mayoral control in June 2009 with the expiration of the School Governance Reform Act of 2002. As parents of children being educated in the New York City public school system whose voices have been excluded from decision making for the last seven years, we see the need for a new system that provides a real partnership for education instead of the autocracy that currently exists.

The Parent Commission proposes changes in the current governance system to provide necessary accountability and checks and balances, a more meaningful role for school districts, stronger parental input, and a better management structure and representation for special education students. Finally, we recommend that a commission be formed to develop a constitution for the New York City public school system. We believe that enacting our recommendations will form the basis of a dynamic, responsive, and responsible form of school governance for New York City.

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Low academic performance has been widely recognized as a problem for at least two and a half decades, since A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) sounded a call of alarm in 1983. Since then, policymakers and educators have tried hundreds of reform ideas, including teacher professional development, class-size reduction, raised graduation requirements, comprehensive school reform, high-stakes testing and innumerable reading and math programs. But few reforms have succeeded in producing substantial and sustained improvement in academic achievement.

School Boards May Contribute to the Low-Academic-Achievement Problem
Increasingly, policymakers have identified traditionally organized, heavily bureaucratized school districts as one source of the low academic achievement. School boards, particularly in ethnically diverse communities, contribute to low academic achievement by what they fail to do, e.g. do not keep school districts on course, do not as the governing body stay focused on student achievement, etc. (Finn & Kegan, 2004). Policymakers, as a result, are debating the value of school boards and rethinking whether another leadership structure, i.e. school districts governed by the mayor, would be more effective at governing public schools.

School boards often do resemble dysfunctional families whose members represent the stubborn and competitive factions that divide communities. A 1992 report found that school boards failed to establish a climate of change and orchestrate a coherent strategy for reforming America’s public schools (Danzberger, et al, 1992). Specifically, the report asserted that boards were not providing far-reaching or politically risk-taking leadership for education reforms and they had become another level of administration, often micromanaging the school district. Moreover, according to the report, boards did not exercise adequate policy oversight, nor did they have adequate processes for accountability and for communicating with the public about schools and the school system. They showed little capacity to develop positive and productive lasting relationships with their
superintendents and paid little or no attention to their governance performance and to their needs for on-going development of their capacity to govern.

Education Reforms Have Diminished the Power of School Boards
Some trends in public education reform in the last two decades have tended to diminish the power of school boards. Site-based management took hold in the late 1980’s, and weakened school boards and districts’ central office. By the mid1990s, in cities such as Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York, mayors assumed control of school districts, appointing boards that were frequently little more than window dressing. Moreover, choice-based reforms threaten to limit governmental power more generally and empower parents.

The latest policy trend threatening the autonomy of local school boards is the recent push for
standards and accountability, epitomized by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, a federal statute that requires schools to administer standardized tests every year to students in grades three through eight. Schools that fail to demonstrate adequate yearly progress toward proficiency (as defined by the states) are subject to sanctions ranging from the potential loss of students to the eventual reconstitution of their operations.

Whatever their role, school boards typically retain a lot of practical power over the day-to-day functioning of schools. They select superintendents, set expectations, approve budgets, oversee major management systems and processes, approve and sometimes create the policy framework within which the district operates, approve contracts and usually personnel appointments, and significantly influence district culture. All of these activities help establish the overall vision and strategic direction of the school district. However, boards also have a strategic leadership role in helping schools focus on and support student achievement, which many boards do not perform very well. To strategically lead a school district, boards have the authority to develop a strategic plan, establish performance criteria for the superintendent, and implement structural changes to the district to improve the delivery or content of education. Because of these wide-ranging
responsibilities, boards continue to be a major leverage point for effecting overall district
transformation. Despite their power, however, a lot of boards do not demonstrate the kind of leadership and perform the role needed to improve student achievement.

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Other Resources for SChool Board Governance:

NYSSBA OML Presentation

School Board governance according to NYS

Seven Legal Dues for School Board Members

NYSSBA School Board Presidents Handbook

Webster’s Roberts Rules of Order Revised

Parliamentary Procedure

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