Voices in Education

Why School Boards Fail to Perform
School boards are more or less invisible partners in education reform. Nancy Walser correctly notes that the role that school boards can play in school improvement tends to get overlooked. On the other hand, many boards fail to perform in the high-functioning manner of those that she studied.

Walser writes that living through dysfunction, as she says happened in Atlanta, can lead board members to learn to get along and to collaborate in behalf of better outcomes. Unfortunately, dysfunction may teach nothing to some board members in some districts. Furthermore, collaboration may be elusive when members of the same board have different visions and varying understandings. I agree that a retreat can be a valuable experience for a school board, but sunshine laws may make such gatherings problematic when they must be open to the public.

In an ideal universe, members of school boards would share goals, equally recognize the need for reforms, and frame policies designed to promote better student learning. Yet, some board members and educators that I have encountered balk at the idea that the board has a role to play in addressing differing achievement levels among schools in the same district. The refrain that I have heard goes something like this: “The schools have the same curriculum, identical programs, and equally qualified teachers.” This, they say, should suffice.

The nation still needs better mechanisms to unlock the potential of school boards so that they might become the invaluable assets that Walser envisions.

About the Author: Gene I. Maeroff’s newest book, School Boards in America, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2010. He is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, and can be reached at info@genemaeroff.com