School boards are among the most misunderstood entities in the public lexicon. They have been described as the lynchpins of democracy and the most powerful political forces in local communities. They also are blamed for everything from school budgets to dress codes. They can work well with local superintendents and principals or they can clash horribly.
With this in mind, I was intrigued by a recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that suggested that educators are "less knowledgeable" about the state of their districts' financial situation than board members who come from a non-education background.
Before we get into the specifics of this claim, let's be clear about the source of this study. Fordham is a right-leaning organization that pushes for drastic changes in education using standards and assessments and experimentation. The group advocates disruptive alterations that can be unsettling to the education community.
Education reformers, Fordham included, would argue that disruptive changes are needed to get today's school kids up to speed. As such, it shouldn't be surprising that its researchers are asking questions that get at this very point.
Fordham's report says that educators who sit on school boards are more likely than non-educator board members to state that raising teachers' pay is very important, regardless of the actual rate of pay in a teacher's district. They are also slightly more likely to state that funding is a major barrier to academic achievement, regardless of the actual level of funding in the district. When it comes to achievement, former educators are more likely to claim that academic expectations are "unreasonable" because of the challenges that students face.
In other words, educators are more reluctant to state that the problems of their districts can be solved without extra resources for teachers or the schools. Educators appear less likely to favor turning the current public school system on its head to facilitate better achievement. That makes sense. Educators probably can speak more eloquently to the unseen values of the current system than their non-educator colleagues. They certainly know the pitfalls of attempting radical changes. And, candidly, they also may be biased toward the way things are.
The study is one of only a few that has attempted to probe how school boards work and what makes them effective. The findings are valuable simply by providing insight that wasn't previously available. The National School Boards Association applauded the report on those grounds, saying it makes "a valuable contribution to the field of school board research."
But the NSBA also directly questioned the assumptions underlying Fordham's definition of school district knowledge. "The authors conflate relative per pupil dollars with school board members' perceptions about how sufficient those dollars are—two entirely different things," the association said.
This is a fair point, but I think it poses an even broader conundrum. Fordham's attempt to measure knowledge of a school district, successful or not, shows how difficult it is to understand the inner workings of school boards. But until we can understand them, we will have a hard time finding ways to ensure their success.
For our insiders: What are the most common or damaging misunderstandings about school boards? What makes an effective school board? What are school boards' biggest problems and how should those problems be addressed? Is Fordham right that educators on school boards are less likely to grasp the financial and academic situations of the school districts? How does the report contribute to the existing body of research on school districts?
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