Improving Achievement Through School Board Governance: Evidence From Wisconsin

One of the more frustrating parts of academia is the struggle to get your work in front of people that can actually use it. To paraphrase the fictional Bunny Colvin, what is the point of doing research (especially in public affairs and nonprofit management) if the only audience is other academics? In my pre-academic career it was always easy to get policy reports out there, which makes me wonder if critics of academia are on to something when they argue our research is too esoteric to be useful. Personally, I do think academic research can and should be of practical use. With that in mind, one thing I hope to do here is summarize some of my own research in ways that can be of use to practitioners.

Earlier this summer, Douglas Ihrke and I published a piece entitled: Do School Board Governance Best Practices Improve District Performance? Testing the Key Work of School Boards in Wisconsin? This article is part of a larger project in which we attempt to understand if and how school board governance impacts student achievement. The general impetus for this project is the continuing debate over democratic governance in public education. My thinking is that before getting rid of school boards, we ought to know a little something about them. Specifically, we surveyed school board members in the state of Wisconsin on a wide variety of issues, including the extent to which they focus on the ideas embedded in the Key Work of School Boards. What is the Key Work of School Boards? More or less, it is a guide of best practices created by the National School Boards Association.   The basic idea is that high-functioning school boards should be placing their time and efforts on specific areas in order to boost achievement. Fair enough, but is there evidence that boards placing more focus in these areas are actually obtaining better results?

We asked board members the extent to which they agreed (on a 1 to 5 scale) with the statements below. Each statement operationalizes one of the key work focus areas, which are also listed below in bold.

  • Vision: We engage in continuous strategic planning.
  • Standards: We set and tweak district academic standards in response to student needs.
  • Assessment: We set and tweak district assessment policies in response to student needs.
  • Accountability: Members freely admit when they are wrong.
  • Alignment: We view the Superintendent as a full partner in the governing process.
  • Climate: Members can take each other at their word.
  • Collaboration and engagement: We regularly listen to the ideas of community members and act on their input when we 157 deem it appropriate.
  • Continuous improvement: We frequently and consistently engage in board development activities.

Using their responses, we created an index that measures the overall extent to which board members adhere to the key work concepts. We then performed an analysis to determine if board members adhering to the concepts oversee comparatively higher-performing districts. Once we accounted for the impact of district size and student demographics, we found no clear link between adherence to the key work concepts and reading, math, or overall accountability scores. However, there is more to the story.

When we restricted our analysis to board members who have served for five or more years…the reasoning being it takes time for board governance to impact performance…we found a statistically significant link between adherence to the key work concepts and reading proficiency levels, and district accountability scores. In English, there is evidence that adherence to the concepts embedded in the Key Work of School Boards does positively impact academic achievement.

The practical takeaway of this research is that school board governance matters. In particular, board members seeking to improve the performance of their district through improved governance should focus on the Key Work areas, and should do so over a period of time. Notably, the link we found between school board governance practices and academic achievement is much smaller than the link between student demographics and academic achievement. However, a school district cannot control the make-up of their student body, but school board members can control their areas of focus. Which is why I think our finding is substantively significant. In the future, we are working to see of this relationship holds true in other states. But for now, it suggests the National School Boards Association was onto something when they developed the Key Work of School Boards.

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