Making the Connection: Local school boards and student performance
The Vision 2015 Annual Leadership Forum at the University of Delaware last fall featured a workshop on School Board Governance. The panel included three board members representing traditional school districts and one who represented a public charter school. One board member was new, the others longer-serving. The goal was to share information about the importance of school boards and how participants could engage with boards—as constituents, potentially as candidates, and more fundamentally as informed voters.
On May 8, Delaware voters will decide the winners of 12 board races statewide. As I reflect on the workshop conversation last fall, what still resonates is the discussion among panelists and participants about school board accountability. Questions dealt with how board members measure their contributions to district leadership and to student achievement.
Many points were clear: board members are financial stewards, ultimately responsible for the health of their district. Boards also hire, or replace, the superintendent, the most important personnel decision they will make. Boards develop and adopt the policies that shape the lives of students, educators, and school staff every day—from curriculum to seat time to dress codes to collective bargaining agreements. At their best, boards create a vision for their district, and work to implement it. Finally, board members are responsible for putting student achievement first. That expectation is clearly spelled out in the information about board service issued by the Delaware School Boards Association.
Yet, it wasn’t clear from the session just how boards hold themselves accountable for student achievement. Is it by the additional number of students who will be “proficient” (or higher) in math or reading at year’s end? By how many more students will graduate each year? By how many more graduates will be college- or career-ready? Just what are the measures of improvement that boards use, and what are the consequences if nothing changes?
When asked about accountability, several board members in the audience shared broad statements: “I’m always accountable—people talk to me in the grocery store about schools,” and “I meet the public every month at board meetings” and “I get calls at home…I’m very accountable.”
Customer relations is wonderful, but it’s not accountability. I had hoped to hear how board members hold themselves accountable for student performance. And how they support academic growth among all student groups enrolled in their district. Absolute performance—long a fair criticism of NCLB—isn’t the issue, but measurable improvement among all students is.
To my knowledge—and until Race to the Top (RTTT)—the only way board members have been evaluated has been through local elections each spring, in which successful board candidates and reelected incumbents earn a three- or five-year term. Soon, however, there will be public, easily understandable “dashboards” that illustrate clearly how well the state as a whole and individual school districts are performing against the targets they set under RTTT. These dashboards should be released this summer.
The dashboards won’t be available in time to inform candidates’ debates this spring. So, what can voters do between now and May 8th? What if every board candidate, and every incumbent seeking reelection, had to publicly state how his or her board service would accelerate student achievement? Would we see a difference in how much, and how quickly, our students are learning? Would we see graduation and college enrollment rates dramatically improve over the next few years? Would we see even greater alignment among boards, district and school leaders, educators, and community partners focused on student performance?
As we approach the May 8th election, let us ask our candidates, “Will you pledge to do whatever it takes to accelerate achievement, and to put the interests of your students before all else? If so, please tell me how.”
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