This is the inaugural post in a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?
Gene I. Maeroff has adapted this excerpt from his book School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy. He is president of the board in Edison, N.J. and is serving his second term as a member. He is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. His biographical and contact information are available at www.genemaeroff.com.
America’s school boards are too easily diverted from larger purposes. They may get bogged down in issues better left to staff. Some school board members want to meddle and they get more involved in administrative matters than they should. Boards sometimes invest precious hours in matters of little consequence. In other words, school boards too readily waste time and effort.
School boards too readily waste time and effort.
Ultimately, a school board should be held accountable for ensuring that the district makes needed improvements. Instructional success should be the members' paramount concern. They ought to look in the mirror when they seek to affix blame for the district's failures.
The school board should specify objectives and then leave it
Many people believe that school boards—nearly 14,000 of them in the U.S—are what’s wrong with our education system. Many believe they are what stand in the way of school improvement.
I spent five years on a school board and don’t think they are the problem, but do believe that more often than not they stand in the way of school improvement. Are there any other school board members who have tried to reform their districts?
Are you out there? What is it like trying to turn around a tanker with a paddle? Are you a flamethrower or consensus builder? Did you win any fights? Were you able to improve your district? Have you come away from your experience as believer in boards of education or a determined skeptic?
Of the thirteen papers presented at Fordham’s Rethinking Education Governance for the 21st Century last December, one that had particular resonance for me was Rick Hess and Olivia Meeks’s analysis of the school district dilemma.
Hess and Meeks envision an education world organized around function not geography.
Nobody seems to like school boards (except me, perhaps), and the authors begin with a crisp summary of some of the sharper arrows shot their way. But Hess and Meeks do a brilliant job of taking us by the hand and leading us gently through the weeds of school board governance and the foothills of the popular alternative of mayoral control, until we reach the mountain top where they show us a place where we “organize schooling around function rather than geography.” It’s an amazing view.
Today, they argue, “every school district is asked to devise ways to meet every need of every single child in a given area,” and it doesn’t work. Districts are simply not capable of “build[ing] expertise in a vast number of specialties and services” or “juggl[ing] a vast array of demands [that] require them to become the employers of nearly all educators in a given community.”
Hess and Meeks are too practical to suggest the end of geography (i.e., all virtual all the time), but they understand that current school district impotence is a symptom of a problem not its cause. Importantly, their analysis of the causes also makes them
"But you must remember, my fellow-citizens,
that eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,
and that you must pay the price if you wish to secure the blessing.
It behooves you, therefore, to be watchful in your States as well as in the Federal Government."
—Andrew Jackson, Farewell Address, March 4, 1837
At some low point in my tenure on the board of education in my small school district, a friend advised, “Don’t worry. You are like gravity. They always know that you are there.”
Much good can come from keeping institutions honest.
Though I aspired to being more than a reminder of some facts of life as member of a board of education, gravity was at least a starting point. And I appreciated my friend’s larger message: that much good can come from keeping institutions honest. In fact, as I reflect on the last five years of public service, I’m thinking that keeping governments honest may be the single most important duty of every citizen.
And in honor of the holiday, I offer five lessons learned, which to my mind seem close to self-evident truths, about school governance:
1. Don’t underestimate the value of information
My claim to fame at board meetings was asking questions. What does this project cost? When would it be finished? By whom? What happens if it doesn’t get done? Does the program improve student achievement? How? “What is this, a Congressional hearing?”
- Stretching the School Dollar
- Common Core Watch
- Ohio Gadfly Daily
- Board's Eye View
- Choice Words
About the Editor
Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Since 1991, Meyer has focused his attentions on education reform in the United States, an interest joined while writing a profile of education reformer E.D. Hirsch for Life. Meyer subsequently helped found a charter school, served on his local Board of Education (twice) and, for the last eight years, has been an editor at Education Next.
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