Building a Better School Board
A think-tank weighs in
JOSEPH DANIEL FIEDLER ILLUSTRATION
It seems like a “duh” moment, but a Washington think tank’s one-of-a-kind research finally confirms what seems like a logical conclusion: School boards focusing on academics produce better schools.
“In sum, boards with members who have an academic focus and exhibit certain work practices are associated with better student achievement than expected, given their district conditions. They beat the odds,” says the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to school reform.
Though that conclusion doesn’t seem especially revelatory, this recently released study is in fact an important moment for contemporary education, especially for New Orleans. Until now, there seemingly wasn’t any scientific basis to conclude that school boards casting a laser beam of academic expectation across a district produce more proficient graduates, though members rarely set foot in the schools they govern. Because teachers, principals, curriculum specialists and superintendents direct the day-to-day mechanics of delivery of the academic product, it has never been clear just how much part-time board members matter to students’ overall education.
Turns out, they matter a lot. More importantly the study reveals other aspects about school boards that could be of great benefit to the future of New Orleans schools, if policy makers and voters would just take note.
The study concludes that how and when board members are elected affect academic quality, and so does political allegiance. The study concludes that boards consisting of politically moderate, at-large members are more knowledgeable about district conditions and more likely to focus on the academic bottom line.
People in New Orleans made the connection between bad schools and a bickering school board years ago, just like many urban school systems must have after they, too, switched from at-large board members to district members. Such a trend developed in the mid-1980s to diversify the makeup of boards, a 2010 Bureau of Governmental Research study says. The BGR study says that New Orleans transitioned from an at-large elected board in ’87 to a board of five-district and two at-large members. In ’92, the board shifted to a board of seven district members.
One might argue it’s coincidental that New Orleans schools were some of the worst in the country under the pre-Katrina, all-district board model. Other socioeconomic factors certainly played their parts in the decay of schools, academically and physically. However, the fact that schools under the semi-autonomous charter model that prevails in post-Katrina New Orleans are producing better results with the same high poverty students suggests that the OPSB wasn’t up to the task.
The institute drew its conclusions about the nation’s school boards after conducting an extensive study of board members’ occupational backgrounds, political ideology, attitudes and elections. About 900 board members from 417 districts, including members governing major urban school systems, responded to survey questions. The answers were then compared to corresponding individual district and state data on demographics, finances, teacher pay, student achievement and other factors.
Researchers matched board members’ responses to the data and discovered some intriguing patterns.
One question concerned focus. The survey asked for agreement or disagreement with three questions: The first stated, “The current state of student achievement is unacceptable”; the second stated, “We need to ensure that we don’t place unreasonable expectations for student achievement”; and the third stated, “Defining success in terms of student achievement is narrow and shortsighted.”
The study determined that school boards with members that agreed with the first statement were much more likely to govern districts “where students beat the odds.”
“The boost associated with academic focus is the highest of any school board characteristic that we tested,” the researchers say.
The study also determined that members who reported an education related occupation were more likely to argue that academic expectations are “unreasonable.” Also contrary to expectations, members with business backgrounds didn’t correlate to an academic focus either. The study showed that board members who reported occupations other than education and business were more likely to focus on academics.
The political leanings of board members also affect academic performance, the study indicates. Researchers found a link between political ideology and board members’ accurate knowledge of their districts. They found that members who identify themselves as conservative are less likely than liberals to say that, “funding is a barrier to student achievement, regardless of actual spending in the district.” Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to say that collective bargaining by teachers’ unions isn’t a barrier.
Moreover, board members with occupational experience in education showed less knowledge of the districts overall, and members with non-education occupations showed more “accurate knowledge of actual district conditions.”
The study also matched student achievement data to two types of boards – those with mostly at-large members and those with mostly district-elected members – and found that boards with members elected at-large, those elected by voters from an entire city as opposed to individual neighborhoods or smaller sections of the city, are more likely to govern higher achieving schools.
“While ward elections have substantially increased racial and ethnic diversity of board members nationally, some evidence suggest they have decreased the school boards’ focus on district wide policy concerns,” the study says.
This study underlines the importance of restructuring the OPSB before any state takeover schools are returned to its jurisdiction for management. Recent and past OPSBs have been polarized to the point that they aren’t functional. District elections often elect members who have personal or political agendas that are inconsistent with good schools. District elections are more likely to produce members of the extreme political left or right, rather than the political moderates the study indicates are the most focused on student achievement.
Social and cultural conditions in New Orleans no longer dictate the necessity of district elections to ensure racial diversity. Since the late Mayor Dutch Morial’s historic election as the city’s first black mayor, voters have shown increased diligence in choosing candidates according to credentials, experience and platform over any racial considerations.