Category Archives: Education Governance

Key Lessons for Effective School Boards

This is the second post in a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness. The first post can be read here.

The members of elected and appointed school boards play an important role in governing schools and allocating resources. But beyond these practical responsibilities, a growing body of research suggests that what school board members believe, know, and do can set the conditions for effective classroom instruction and higher levels of student achievement.

For some recent projects, Bellwether reviewed the evidence base on school board effectiveness. Research indicates that effective school boards focus on student learning, make decisions informed by data, and build strong relationships with leadership and the community. Based on this evidence, important practices for effective school boards emerge across five domains.

  1. Beliefs and priorities: Research shows that it is important for boards to hold beliefs and priorities that focus on student learning rather than school management. In addition, a 2006 meta-analysis of 27 studies found that districts with higher levels of student achievement had boards, districts, and schools that were clearly aligned in their efforts to support non-negotiable goals. This further underscores that it is important for boards to clearly codify their beliefs and priorities.
  2. Data use: Boards in districts experiencing academic improvement tend to use more data more often to inform their decisions. For example, a notable study by the Iowa Association of School Boards found that board members in improving districts received data about exemplary programs and practices, test scores, dropout rates, and other measures on a regular basis from superintendents, curriculum directors, principals, and teachers, as well as sources outside the district.
  3. Strategic planning and goals: Effective boards craft strategic plans that are clear and reflect district and community input, and they hold themselves accountable for meeting goals and improving student learning. For example, a study of 10 school boards in British Columbia found that boards in districts with higher levels of student achievement and lower costs were more knowledgeable about district programs and practices and had a clearer sense of their goals. In addition, these districts shared firm values and beliefs about students and learning, and also deliberately articulated and discussed these values and beliefs among themselves and with their communities, suggesting that strategic planning must work in concert with board practices in other domains in order to be most effective.
  4. Communications and community engagement: Research has found that effective boards often have strong community partnerships and cooperative relationships between staff and the community. They also have strong structures in place to ensure clear communication with stakeholders like teachers, parents, and the media. In addition, case studies of school boards from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that business leaders, in particular, can play a critical role in supporting effective school board governance and reforms that improve student achievement.
  5. Effective relationships with district or school leadership: Strong working relationships between school boards and superintendents are important for district and student success. For example, a study of 10 districts across five states found that “strong, collaborative leadership by local school boards and school superintendents is a key cornerstone of the foundation for high student achievement,” and a study of Texas school districts suggests that there is a link between improved student achievement and high levels of trust between the superintendent and school board. Additionally, multiple studies have shown that stable leadership is correlated positively with student achievement. However, research from the Brookings Institution found that superintendents have relatively little influence on student achievement, and that student achievement does not improve with the longevity of superintendent service, suggesting that some turnover among board members and superintendents may be healthy and lead to more effective policies.

Research shows that effective school boards can play an important role in overall school quality. This research has informed Bellwether’s recent work, including developing a framework for evaluating school board effectiveness with Colorado Succeeds, as well as surveying school board members in Washington, DC and Rhode Island. As they look for ways to improve student learning, districts and charters alike should ensure that school boards are using effective practices and prioritize supplying adequate training and support for board members.

Media: “This County Made History and Elected Its First School Board Member of Color” in Education Post

Gwinnett County, the second most populous county in the state of Georgia, recently made history when it elected its youngest and first school board member of color in 2018. Gwinnett has a diverse student population, and more than 50 percent of students are students of color. Why has that level of diversity not been reflected in the local school board?

I wrote about this in Education Post:

Gwinnett County is not alone. A 2018 study by the National School Boards Association found that across the country, 78 percent of board members are White, while only 10 percent are Black, and 3 percent are Hispanic. These numbers are truly stunning and reveal that school boards do not reflect the growing diversity of the nation’s K-12 student population.

School board diversity is important because it allows more voices at the table to inform critical decisions about education policy and practice. All students can benefit when school boards represent the racial, economic, and gender diversity of the students they serve. Read my piece here.

Six Lessons on Education Governance from Rhode Island, the Ocean State

Those who govern our schools (e.g., members of elected and appointed school boards) make and enact policies that are local in scope and potentially enormous in impact. They choose how resources are allocated to support staff and implement programs; they weigh in on decisions being made by district and school leaders that drive day-to-day activities; and they ensure the work being done for kids is aligned to federal and state policies and enacted in keeping with local priorities.

We assume boards make a difference for how our districts and schools function and ultimately, how well kids learn and develop. But what do we actually know about the link between board effectiveness and school quality?

Bellwether has conducted some important research on this very connection. In our 2016 study “Charter Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” we described the relationship between board characteristics, practices, and school quality in Washington, DC, one of the most robust charter sectors in the country. In collaboration with Colorado Succeeds, we developed an evidence-based framework for evaluating school board effectiveness. And in 2018, we received a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to help leaders at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) understand if there was a relationship between its different governance models, their practices, and the performance of their schools across the Ocean State.

Rhode Island has six school governance models, described in the table below, which communities may choose from to suit their local contexts and goals. (For more detail on the state’s historical approach to education governance, see this new report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.)

Bellwether’s mixed-methods approach to learning more about these models included researching state code and regulations on governance models, reviewing research on best practices for board governance, conducting interviews with RIDE staff and other state leaders, designing and administering a survey to governing boards and school leaders throughout the state, and analyzing student achievement results. Our findings include feedback from over one-third of the governing board (called “school committees” in Rhode Island) members and superintendents across the state, primarily representing the two largest governing models: traditional districts (52% of respondents) and independent charters (39% of respondents). We had few respondents from the other school types.

Six takeaways from this research, listed below, may provide insights for state education agencies, school boards, and charter boards both inside and outside Rhode Island about why people serve on boards, how governance is consistent and how it is different across districts and charters, and why observing boards in practice may be critical to understanding links between their decisions and consequences for families and children: Continue reading

The Traditional Public and Charter School Sectors Aren’t as Separate as You Might Think

The recent strike by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which ended after negotiations around teacher pay and class sizes, is but the latest in a long list of tensions between traditional public and charter schools. UTLA expressed opposition to the city’s growing charter sector, so the school board has agreed to put forward a non-binding resolution calling on the state of California to cap the growth of charter schools in the district while the state studies policy changes. This strike, in part, highlights the fact that charter schools compete for students and resources, which can cause pain for traditional public schools.

While it often seems that charter schools and traditional public schools are adversaries, in many places the two sectors are not as separate as one might think. Nationwide, nearly 90 percent of charter school authorizers (the legal entities that grant charters and oversee charter schools) are actually school districts themselves, according to data requested from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA). This means that school districts around the country are often the ones making decisions about when charter schools open and close and what expectations they have to meet.

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

Source: National Association of Charter School Authorizers

However, NACSA’s data also show that school districts only authorize roughly 51 percent of all charter schools, as they tend to oversee fewer schools than other types of authorizers. As we show in our new publication, “The State of the Charter Sector,” the average school district authorizes only about four schools. Meanwhile, independent chartering boards (statewide bodies set up for the purpose of granting charters and overseeing charter schools) authorize an average of 51 schools, and state education agencies, typically housed in state departments of education, authorize an average of more than 87 schools.

This unequal distribution of authorizers and authorized schools is due in part to the fact that independent chartering boards and state education agencies are both statewide entities, overseeing a much larger number of students and schools than a single district. It is also affected by the structure of state charter school laws. While 44 states allow charter schools, only 23 states allow charter applicants to apply directly to non-district authorizers. In the other 21 states, applicants must apply to school districts for authorization of their charter. However, in many states, the denial of a charter school application by a school district may then be appealed to a non-district authorizer.

In some places, like in Los Angeles, competition for enrollment and resources is pitting school districts against a growing number of charter schools. But in many more places, charter schools are being overseen by local districts and comprise a much smaller share of overall district enrollment. This means that traditional public and charter schools often need to function as one cohesive sector. In these cases, school districts should ensure they are using strong authorizing practices, such as the list of “essential practices” proposed by NACSA.

Our new slide deck, “The State of the Charter Sector,” provides more of the latest available information on charter schools across the country and analyses of the challenges that charter schools face.

Ten Lessons from Eight Cities

Over a year ago, I began an ambitious project to tell the stories of cities that implemented citywide school improvement strategies and saw student achievement increase — and to share these stories as lessons for other system leaders. The result was Eight Cities, a beautiful and information-rich website that does just that. It was a rare project that put my team in the fortunate position of listening to some of the brightest, most committed, and humble education professionals in the country. It’s difficult not to learn a lot under such circumstances.

Legacy Charter school building in Chicago with students and crossing guard outside

Legacy Charter School in Chicago. Photo credit: Alexander Drecun.

While each one of our eight stories provides a deep dive into different cities, there were a lot of macro lessons that emerged. Here are ten that I think are particularly salient for state leaders, mayors, superintendents, board members, charter leaders, and funders interested in exploring a similar approach:

1. Language matters. One of our first challenges was choosing a term that simultaneously described a complex citywide education reform strategy with many local nuances without creating a target for people who wanted to reduce it to a single word. What should we call these systems of public schools which shared central beliefs and strategic pillars and saw schools as the unit of change? These were widely referred to as “portfolio districts” until 2017, when the term was weaponized by opponents who took issue with the approach. The Texas Education Agency has adopted the term “Systems of Great Schools.” While I occasionally use “portfolio” as shorthand, I prefer the term “dynamic systems of schools” because it describes the core mechanism of systemic improvement: high-performing or high-potential schools replacing schools that have failed generations of students. But this phrase hasn’t caught on. After much discussion, the Eight Cities team decided to avoid labels and simply tell the stories we encountered. Whatever term is used, the reality is that language matters in rhetorical and political battles but rarely in the day-to-day work of students and parents.

2. There’s no one best way to implement a dynamic system of public schools. Washington D.C. and Newark have dual public education systems comprised of traditional district schools and charter schools, yet D.C. is under mayoral control and Newark was under state control but is now governed by an elected school board. Camden has 15,000 students and a neighborhood charter takeover model with relaxed accountability. New York City has 1.1 million students and moved quickly to give autonomy to all its schools and hold them accountable, while phasing out large failing high schools to make room for new small schools of choice. Denver Public Schools saw consistent leadership from an elected school board and single superintendent for a decade. Continue reading