School boards: Good for policy, bad for management


Jul 6, 2017

Last Thursday in a special session called by the New York governor, the state legislature voted to reauthorize mayoral control over New York City schools. For the last fifteen years, the city’s school chancellor has been appointed by the mayor—an arrangement unlike most school districts in the U.S., and one that would have ended at 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning without Legislative intervention.

Leading up to the deadline, New York mayor Bill De Blasio warned of “chaos” if control backslides to community school boards. His sentiments weren’t far off from those of Reed Hastings—the Netflix CEO, former president of the California State Board of Education, and major education donor—who recently declared school boards to be a significant impediment to U.S. education. There is an important question here for communities across the country that is larger than mayor De Blasio’s political hyperbole: should public school systems have management oversight from elected boards, or should district executives have more unilateral authority?

The answer lies in a truth as certain as death and taxes: elected bodies—such as school boards—are good for making public policy, but often terrible for managing organizations. When it comes to policymaking, the gridlock of democratic representation is a good safeguard against injustice and inequity. But when it comes to giving vision, focus and direction to an organization—such as a school district—gridlock undermines a leader’s ability to get things done and make progress beyond the status quo.

In any organization, the primary task of a leader—such as a school district superintendent—is to get people to work together in a systematic way.  Research by Clayton Christensen shows that leaders have just a handful of tools they can draw on to elicit cooperation, depending on their circumstances.

Management through democratic consensus only works when board members largely agree on how the school system should be run. Unfortunately, this circumstance rarely exists outside of small and demographically homogeneous communities. Instead, the teachers, administrators, unions, taxpayers, parents, and politicians who back and elect board members often have divergent priorities and disagree strongly about how to improve education. Furthermore, all these constituent groups have different ideas of what will cause improvement—from more money to more computers, from better teachers to smaller class sizes, and many more.

In low-consensus circumstances, the only way for an organization to make progress beyond the status quo is to give strong leaders the authority to define a vision for change and then drive the organization in a new direction. But superintendents in districts with democratically-elected boards rarely get the power they need to make change happen. Inevitably, some constituent groups elect a few activist board members with a mandate to drive their own agendas. Once this happens, the divergent priorities of board members pull the district in multiple directions at once, making it nearly impossible for superintendents to prioritize their efforts or purposefully pursue any particular goal.

But how can the members of a community ensure that public schools meet their needs if not through publicly-elected school boards? One answer is to balance less direct public oversight through school boards with more educational options for the public to choose among. Rather than expecting all schools to be all things to all people, let different schools address the divergent needs and values of the public. Charter schools and vouchers are one way to do this, but an equally workable alternative is to create open enrollment policies among district schools and give school principals more autonomy over the visions and practices they institute on their campuses. If we move to school systems where voters do not voice their priorities and values through school boards, we need to give the public freedom to find schooling options that align with their needs.

For a real shot at improving education, school administrators cannot be bound to the divergent demands of multiple masters. School boards are valuable for high-level oversight, such as initiating ballot measures to increase property tax funding for schools and providing high-level school accountability. But for the sake of our students, if we want superintendents and principals to be able to manage their schools effectively, we need to get school boards out of the business of directly overseeing school operations.

Too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the pot, and too many governing trustees threaten to undermine the vision and focus of a school system.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow studying education at the Clayton Christensen Institute and an elected member of the school board for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.

  • WGersen

    Mr. Arnett provides a good overview of the tensions that exist between Superintendents, Boards, and the various constituent groups each serves. There is one factor that he overlooks: the impact of standardized testing. Before the advent of NCLB, the various constituent groups not only had debates over how the district should be RUN, they also had debates over how to MEASURE how well schools are being run. When NCLB came to town, the debate about measurement disappeared: test scores were all that mattered…. and that determination had a HUGE impact on decision making up-and-down the chain of command and within districts. And the reliance on tests as the primary metric for “quality” is now having a subtle but powerful impact on the way schools are managed…. and the impact is not beneficial.

    With summative standardized test scores used as the ultimate measure of “quality”, individual and collective student progress is measured against other students in an age cohort. Because TIME is the only variable available to administrators and teachers when PERFORMANCE on tests is viewed as a constant benchmark, schools serving students who fall on the low end of a statistical artifact— namely the bell curve created by standardized test writers— devote more time to teaching those items. Another consequence of test-centered metrics is that teachers in those schools spend much of their energy working with students who are on the cusp of achieving another statistical artifact, namely the “cut score”. This leads to the ultimate adverse consequence of test-centered metrics: an ever widening divergence between affluent schools and schools serving children in poverty. Because test scores align with wealth, “high achieving” schools tend to serve children raised in affluence and “low achieving” schools tend to serve children raised in poverty. As noted above, teachers in “low achieving” schools need to devote more and more of their time teaching-to-the-test and those districts, consequently, devote more and more of their resources to that narrow goal. When faced with the budget difficulties that emerged after 2008, districts serving children raised in poverty shed “frills” like Art, Music, PE, and social services. Affluent districts, on the other hand, were not only more insulated from the budget hits of 2008, their teachers generally ignored the STATE standardized tests since their students scored in the higher ranges without requiring any focused instruction. Finally, and most importantly from my perspective, the use of summative standardized tests as the primary metric precludes any move toward mastery learning where student progress is measured based on formative tests.

    As the paragraph above illustrates, with standardized tests as the ultimate metric, neither administrators nor school boards have any choice about which master to serve: they MUST ensure that test scores are high or they will lose their jobs (if they are administrators) or lose local control of their schools (if they are a Board). My tweet on the question of governance and change would read: “For a real shot at improving #ed, don’t bind accountability to standardized test scores”.

  • Fash Fashoferson

    There is so much that is absolutely WRONG in this article. You were elected by the people for the people. And it is under my impression that you ran your election on the backs of kids and families in this community to make sure they werre provided with a safe environment. If you are unwilling to do the job you were elected to do maybe this is the wrong avenue to persue.

    The school in conjunction with the school board are entirely funded by tax payer money, therefore, it is the responsibility of the school and the school board to have full conversation and disclosure of the operations of the school and it’s functions. It is the ultimate decision of the school board whether pro or con to allow for full transparency of these operations. The public has this right as voters and taxpayers.

    The article states that ‘school boards are “good for making public policy but often terrible for managing the organization”. This premise is totally incorrect. The role of a school board (members) is to ‘set direction by establishing district goals’, ‘establish structures through policy and documents’, ‘monitor and verify district performance against board goals’ and solicit community input through community involvement in districts efforts, achievement and needs. The school board has one employee that they manage, that is the superintendent. The school board directs the superintendent to implement all of the above outlined. It is the responsibility of the superintendent to ensure the school board is up to date on all activities of the districts functions, the school board otherwise does not get involved with the day to day operations. A high functioning school board has a close relationship with the superintendent to ensure that the above functions without a flaw and the superintendent is accountable to the board and the board is accountable to the public.

    Another point is made that “instead, the teachers, administrators, unions, taxpayers, parents, and politicians who back and elect board members often have divergent priorities and disagree strongly about how to improve education”. This is precisely why the public needs to filter out these special interest groups like unions who back candidates simply to ensure that retirement benefits are increased rather than looking at student achievement and how to make sure students are college ready, that should be the focus, everything else is secondary. So to blame the school board having divergent priorities is totally incorrect.

    The article brings out that , “for a real shot at improving education, school administrators cannot be bound to divergent demands of multiple masters”. This is farthest from the truth and shows that the Trustee Arnett does not understand the role of the school board and the superintendent. The superintendent, at the direction of the school board, administers programs and functions, there is only one master that administrators march to, that is, direction from the superintendent. This statement by Trustee Arnett is totally incorrect. Had the Trustee Arnett taken the opportunity to take the Governance classes provided by the State Board, this would have been clearly spelled out. He is totally uneducated in how it operates within a school structure. The taxpayers are the investors, they want to see results, and the real problem is that there is no accountability for poor student achievement especially in MHUSD but yet taxes keep going up. In fact, it was just voted to approve a parcel tax to fund retirement benefits because MHUSD is running in a 4MM deficit. No accountability but yet school districts want more money.

    The article says, “too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the pot and too many governing trustees threaten to undermine the vision and focus of the school system”. Trustee Arnett is part of the school board which he fails to disclose. Trustee Arnett succumbs to the status quo regularly and aligns with teacher trustees that their only interests are preserving their retirement. Perhaps it would be best if Trustee Arnett resigns because it is apparent he is part of the so called divergence that he sees as a problem.