Local school boards are in a powerful position to contribute to school improvement, but much of that potency can go unrealized. This is partially because many statewide school improvement strategies ignore the potential of local school boards and partially because local school boards often lack the systems necessary to significantly impact student outcomes.
Unfortunately, many state leaders privately suggest that local school boards are incapable of contributing to improvements in student outcomes: The educational equivalent of “do no harm,” so the reasoning goes, is the best that can be expected. Twenty years ago, there was not much evidence to challenge that thinking. But over the past decade, a strong consensus has emerged in academic and professional literature: Under specific circumstances, local school boards can be a valuable force multiplier for school improvement strategies. There is a connection between the two; what happens in the boardroom echoes in the classroom. Resolving the statewide strategy disconnect with state education policy leaders and supporting local school boards are two opportunities to speed up systemic improvements in student outcomes.
State education policy leader opportunities
Teach about the research. A step that policymakers can take is to create statutorily defined, local school board trainings that reflect the opportunities boards have to support student outcomes. Not all states have required training for local school board members and often even the states that do are not focused on strategies for improving student outcomes. A more valuable school board training framework, whether the state has mandatory trainings or not, would help board members understand what they can do that would have the largest impact on improving student outcomes.
Support quality of implementation. Local boards also require a means of monitoring the consistency of implementation of school improvement strategies. This is where state policymakers can offer an incredible benefit. I have worked with teams of school board leaders — nationally at first and then more recently in Texas — to develop a statewide rubric that local boards can use to self-evaluate implementation of the lessons learned from the latest research. In Texas, we also designed training to orient board members to the rubric and encourage its use on a quarterly basis. While the voluntary initiative is still fairly new (about two years old), early evidence from school systems that have implemented this work with fidelity suggests both meaningful changes in adult behavior in the boardroom and improvements in student outcomes in the classroom, particularly at the secondary level.
Local school board opportunities
Effective goal setting. For local boards to support statewide school improvement efforts, they need goals focused on student outcomes — but unfortunately, most school board goals focus on adult inputs, not student outcomes. In addition, states can encourage school boards to set goals that follow the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) strategy, which will better equip boards to evaluate and monitor progress. Goals should be limited in number — preferably three, but no more than five — so that the board’s focus is narrowed, not diffused. And finally, the goals should inspire adult behaviors to change; if the board’s goals do not disrupt existing norms, then next year’s results will likely mirror last year’s results.
Effective goal monitoring. My coaching to local school boards is to invest at least 50 percent of their time each month into monitoring progress toward their SMART student outcome goals — and states can encourage this too. As the board begins to invest more time into learning how well students are performing, that can help drive a greater focus on the part of the administration.
State education leaders can encourage local boards to better support statewide school improvement strategies by being willing to wade into conversations about the specific behaviors that most correlate with improvements in student outcomes — and then adopting those behaviors at scale. In my experience, most boards are willing to change their behaviors when provided with the appropriate tools and supports. And when that happens, schools improve.