More than once while discussing or presenting my research someone has asked me, do school boards really matter? My stock answer to this question is always yes, of course school boards matter. There are over 13,000 of them overseeing the delivery of public education in the United States, the number of boards and reach of the American school board as an institution makes it a relevant area of study. But are school boards effective?
This question is more interesting, but a bit simplistic in my opinion. School board governance is a human endeavor; its effectiveness is dependent on the group dynamics of a board, the extent of the governance challenged faced by the board, and the broader context in which the board operates. Given the diversity of school board members and environments, a more appropriate question is, what makes school boards effective?
In a just published article in the Journal of Urban Affairs, Douglas Ihrke and I attempt to answer that questions using national data collected from about 5,000 elected public school board members in the United States. We test the following two hypotheses:
- Hypothesis 1: High levels of school board member conflict are linked to lower district high school graduation rates
- Hypothesis 2: The negative impact of school board member conflict on district graduation rates is comparably higher in urban school districts.
We focus on conflict because previous work by Jason Grissom and ourselves has demonstrated the negative impact of board conflict on public and nonprofit performance. We measure conflict using a scale consisting of the level of school board member agreement with the following four statements:
- Conflict among some school board members is high
- School board coalitions tend to form along predictable lines
- During board negotiations, prior conflicts often resurface
- Disagreements between board members often become personalized
Hence, we are measuring perceptions of conflict. This is on purpose. Board governance is a human enterprise, and as such, we argue that perceived conflict among those charged with governing, be it objectively measured or not, is impactful. As I argued in a recent piece in the PAtimes, in board governance perceptions are reality.
What do we find? Using state-level fixed effects models controlling for board member age and district characteristics, we find that conflict negatively impacts high school graduation rates. Simply, as board conflict rises, graduation rates go down. The role of conflict is particularly important on urban school boards. The graph below tells the story. Though conflict has a negative relationship with graduation rates on both city and non-city boards, the consequences of conflict are much greater on city boards.
The study has a couple key takeaways. First, our analysis demonstrates a link between school board governance and performance. This is further evidence that school boards can improve outcomes by improving governance. Second, the consequences of poor governance behaviors are greater on urban boards. Our findings may also speak to the reason urban boards are more often targeted for external reforms such as mayoral takeovers.
Of course our study is not perfect. Graduation rates can mean different things in different places. And the link between conflict and performance may be different in school districts without high schools. But nonetheless, our study adds to a growing body of evidence showing that school boards can be a vehicle for improving student achievement, and deserve greater attention and research interest, particularly in urban areas.