Voices in Education

School Boards and Adult Issues
Anyone who is interested in school governance should check out the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the Atlanta School Board. In brief, all its high schools were put on probation this month by an accrediting organization due to dysfunctional behavior on the APS school board.

Only 15 short months ago, the National School Board Association (NSBA) honored the Atlanta board as the best urban board in the country. Due to this honor, its good government practices, and mounting evidence of student progress, I included the Atlanta board as one of the 16 “high-functioning” boards in my book, The Essential School Board Book: Better Governance in the Age of Accountability.

So what happened?

According to a report by the accrediting group, AdvancED, board turnover following the 2009 election resulted in a cascade of events that split the board into two feuding factions and sparked a variety of legal and ethical charges, culminating in a lawsuit over a policy change for electing the board chair and a public fight over how to handle the issue of misuse of a district credit card by a board member. Board meetings “have been dominated by adult issues, with little or no substantive concern about students,” putting the progress of its schools and students in jeopardy, the report notes.

To their credit, board members apparently sought help from AdvancED. The board has until September to work with a mediator and devise a plan to get the district’s governance back on track, including a plan for replacing outgoing, longtime superintendent, Beverly Hall.

Although the Atlanta situation is extreme, it’s unfortunately not that surprising. As Gene Maeroff notes in his new book, School Boards in America: a Flawed Exercise in Democracy, “School boards in large urban settings sometimes find it difficult to concentrate on the needs of students instead of those of adults.”

Maeroff is a prolific author and former national education reporter for the New York Times now serving as school board chair in Edison, NJ. His book lays out the good, bad, and the ugly (he adopts this phrase as one of his chapter titles) about the work of school boards. It’s a pretty comprehensive overview of the type of issues, pressures, and controversies boards face these days, with plenty of cautionary tales.

The work of school boards, of course, is not for the faint of heart, and I suspect that many people will read Maeroff’s book and just want to throw up their hands. But that would be a shame.

By now, all the flaws of school boards (and those that elected them) are well-travelled territory: the battles over books, curriculum, jobs, and contracts; obsessions over single issues and personal agendas; as well as ethical lapses and personal conflicts that can crop up any time a group tries to work together. They make great headlines, but extract an excruciating toll on the energy and creative talents of many in a school system. Because we live in a democracy, these battles will probably never go away. Maeroff makes a compelling case why elected school boards won’t either.

So what to do?

The first thing is to start differentiating. There is no such thing as “school boards in America.” There are high-functioning boards, okay boards, mediocre boards, and dysfunctional boards. We need to ask: what separates those boards that make a difference in moving education forward in their districts from those that don’t? Only a few studies exist that have posed this question. More studies are needed to convince voters that board practices are linked to student achievement, so they can hold their board members accountable.

Then it’s time to get serious about studying and replicating effective board practices. Even though board members are often volunteers, there is no good reason why they should not be expected to learn from other boards that are having success within the constraints of their job—just as principals, teachers and others in education are expected to do. Sometimes, like in Atlanta, they may need extra help.

One thing I’ve noticed about high-functioning boards is their almost philosophical approach to “adult issues,” be it union pressure for more money or a single issue championed by a constituent group. Rather than dismiss it, ignore it, or shame it away, these boards tend to confront it and turn it into an opportunity to reason with, or educate, the whole community.

Maeroff has a good example in his book. It’s the story of the “math wars” that consumed Ridgewood, NJ for three years after a parent group took to the Internet to pressure district leaders into installing Singapore math in the elementary schools. Casualties included two superintendents and a savvy board chair who tried to keep the board on task and give the educators a chance to explain why and how math was being taught.

The board eventually approved a different curriculum after a new superintendent set up a planning process with meetings for both teachers and parents and opportunities for the public to inspect the four textbook series under consideration. “When the board accepted the recommendation [of the planning committee] near the close of the school year in 2009, only a smattering of parents attended the meeting,” Maeroff writes. By then, it’s probably safe to assume that many in Ridgewood knew a lot more about teaching and learning math than they ever had before.

There are ways that school boards can anticipate and guard against the kind of chaos that can come with board turnover, but sometimes, with some individuals—and this seems to be the case in Atlanta— they don’t always work. In the end, it’s the price we pay to live in a democracy.

About the Author: Nancy Walser is editor of the Harvard Education Letter and the author of The Essential School Board Book.