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Volume 25, Number 5
September/October 2009

Secrets of High-Functioning School Boards

Practices, not structure, are the key to supporting student achievement


The next time you read about a major new school reform initiative in a district, look hard for a mention of the local school board. Chances are you’ll find little to no information on what role the board played in championing the initiative, selling it to doubting members of the public, or making the difficult budgetary decisions to make it possible in the first place.

Chances are when you do read something about a local school board, it won’t be complimentary. School boards—made up of citizen-taxpayers tapped to govern local public schools—are routinely blamed for problems from passively accepting the status quo to aggressively putting personal agendas above sustained, strategic plans for systemic improvement.

Proposed solutions for these governance problems, however, usually center on changing the structure of the board or the means by which members are chosen: Boards, it is often suggested, would operate better if members were elected districtwide, or for longer terms or staggered terms, or if they were simply appointed instead of elected.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

K. W. Gemberling, C. W. Smith, and J. S. Villani. The Key Work of School Boards; A Guidebook. Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association, 2009.

R. H. Goodman, L. Fulbright, and W. G. Zimmerman Jr. Getting There from Here: School Board–Superintendent Collaboration: Creating a School Governance Team Capable of Raising Student Achievement. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service, 1997.

Iowa Association of School Boards. “The Lighthouse Inquiry: School Board/Superintendent Team Behaviors in School Districts with Extreme Differences in Student Achievement.” PDF of paper presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, Seattle, WA, April 2001.

D. Land. “Local School Boards Under Review: Their Role and Effectiveness in Relation to Students’ Academic Achievement.” Review of Educational Research 72, no. 2 (2002): 229-278.

The Lighthouse Project of the Iowa Association of School Boards:

P. Mitchell, A. Gelber, S. Sa, and S. Thompson. “Doing the Right Thing: The Panasonic Foundation’s Guide for Effective School Boards” (draft). Secaucus, NJ: Panasonic Foundation, 2009.