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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