Using School Board Policy To Improve Student Achievement.
by Lashway, Larry
Whatever controversies the accountability movement has generated, a
decade of standards-based reform has created consensus on at least one
point: Student achievement is the ultimate measure of educational value.
Teachers, administrators, and policymakers now routinely preface their
action plans with the reminder that success is defined in terms of what
For school boards, this mandate presents some challenging questions.
In the current reform model, standards are set at the state level and translated
into instruction at the school level, leaving an ill-defined mediating
role for the district. Moreover, boards have historically taken a low-key,
hands-off approach to student learning, reasoning that instructional decisions
should be made by professional educators. How can they reconcile this longstanding
practice with the demand for aggressive leadership to improve student learning?
Some critics have answered that question pessimistically, concluding
that boards are not up to the challenge and should be replaced by other
forms of governance. However, some board leaders have begun to stake out
a leadership role by capitalizing on their traditional responsibility as
local policymakers. This Digest describes the nature and potential of those
CAN BOARDS INFLUENCE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
Although the current accountability movement has not prescribed a robust
role for local districts, Richard Elmore (1993) notes they can provide
checks and balances to the state and federal actions, adapt state reforms
to local conditions, mobilize local support, and serve as a source of creativity
Elmore's review of research found uneven district performance. He concluded
that districts did not typically coordinate policies to influence what
happened in the classroom; their efforts were "scattered, piecemeal, and,
for the most part, weak in influencing teaching." Nonetheless, he was able
to cite studies suggesting that active district involvement could stimulate
reform activity at the school level.
When Maria McCarthy and Mary Beth Celio (2001) interviewed educators
in Washington schools that had failed to make progress on state standards,
they found that district-level passivity was a common theme. Principals
and teachers felt "little performance pressure," and boards seemed disengaged.
More positively, a study commissioned by the Iowa Association of School
Boards (2001) found that certain board attitudes and behaviors were correlated
with student achievement. Board members in high-achieving districts believed
that all students had the capacity to achieve, whereas their counterparts
in low-achieving districts tended to accept student limitations as unchangeable.
Boards in high-achieving districts were knowledgeable about key reform
elements such as shared leadership, continuous improvement, staff development,
and data-based decision-making, and both they and the professional staff
could provide specific examples of how those concepts were being applied
in their districts. Conversely, the study found that when the board was
not focused on school renewal, teachers and administrators were equally
Although the study was based on a very small sample (six schools) and
does not lead to the conclusion that board action caused improved achievement,
it does suggest that board actions are a key part of a "culture of improvement."
WHAT IS THE BOARD'S POLICY ROLE?
Boards can support reform in a number of ways, such as mobilizing public
support, providing adequate resources, and hiring qualified superintendents.
But recent discussion has focused on re-energizing the board's traditional
Most board members and administrators readily accept the axiom that
"the board sets policy, the superintendent implements policy." But consistent
application of this principle has never been easy. Several studies have
found that boards actually spend only a small part of their meeting time
on policies (Deborah Land 2002), while some school board associations have
conceded that board policymaking is too often reactive rather than proactive
(Illinois Association of School Boards and others 1998).
John Carver (2000) has called attention to "the ironic combination of
micromanagement and rubber stamping." That is, boards not only infringe
on administrative prerogatives, they abdicate their legitimate policy-setting
role to superintendents.
The best-known model of systematic policy governance is built on the
assumption that boards do not exist to run schools but to govern those
who do run the schools (Carver and Carver 1997, Carver 2000). In this corporate
model, boards have operational responsibility only for their own activities,
such as setting agendas and running meetings. Beyond that, they govern
by developing policies that specify desired ends and determine acceptable
means of reaching those goals.
Carver recommends that the means be stated as "executive limitations."
That is, the board identifies any methods or behaviors that are unacceptable.
Within those boundaries, superintendents are free to take whatever steps
seem advisable to reach the desired ends, without further permission from
Once policies are established, boards confine themselves to evaluating
the superintendent's performance in light of the policy. The board holds
the superintendent accountable by asking only two questions: Were the ends
achieved? and Were any procedural limits violated? This "define-and-demand"
control replaces the more typical "poke-and-probe" style in which boards
continually assign new tasks or set new expectations for the CEO.
HOW CAN BOARDS USE POLICIES TO AFFECT STUDENT LEARNING?
Given a systematic approach to policy development, how can boards use
their authority to have a positive impact on student learning?
In the publication Targeting Student Learning (Illinois Association
of School Boards) several state school board associations note that policies
can serve a number of purposes. Some will simply fulfill pass-along mandates
originating at the state or federal level. For example, state law may require
districts to have a written policy governing student privacy.
The National School Boards Association emphasizes the importance of
alignment (A. Bruce McKay and Joanne P. Newcomb 2002). Holding the ultimate
accountability for results, boards should take a systems approach that
ensures consistency among goals, plans, resources, capacity, incentives,
and assessment. Policy is a key tool in ensuring alignment.
More dynamically, policies let boards communicate their priorities and
expectations, sending a clear signal to staff, parents, and community about
the district's goals and values. To some extent, the fact that a board
has policies on student learning (irrespective of their content) will have
a positive impact by demonstrating to the local educational community that
student learning is a priority.
Policies to support student achievement are not restricted to curriculum
and instruction. The authors of Targeting Student Learning have identified
eight broad policy areas that can support student learning: board governance,
academic standards and assessment, education program, curriculum, instruction,
learning environment, professional standards, and parent/community engagement.
For example, board members can establish a policy committing themselves
to systematic strategic planning based on assessment data. Or, they can
establish a goal that all students will receive instruction from fully
WHAT POLICY ISSUES ARE RAISED BY 'NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND'?
Policy experts usually encourage boards to be proactive in establishing
policies designed to meet the unique needs of their schools and community.
However, the sweeping provisions of the recent No Child Left Behind Act
will inevitably put boards in a reactive mode.
The National School Boards Association (2002) has identified a number
of issues in the law that may benefit from carefully thought out policies,
including assessment, student discipline and safety, employment and hiring,
employee liability, Limited English Proficient students, Title I schools,
homeless students, religion in schools, community access to school facilities,
military access to students, student privacy, and sex education. Within
these categories, NSBA has identified some forty-five specific concerns.
Many of these issues can be addressed in a straightforward way, but
others are likely to create difficult dilemmas. For example, the law gives
parents with children in failing schools the right to transfer, and insufficient
space will not be a valid reason for turning down those requests. Thus,
current district policies on school assignment are likely to need a major
Similarly, the law sets stringent requirements for teacher qualifications
that are likely to force revisions in hiring and staffing practices. Existing
policies governing teacher transfers may be superceded by the requirement
that low-performing schools get an equitable share of highly qualified
No Child Left Behind not only mandates sweeping changes in longstanding
practices, it does so with great speed. With no time for a phase-in, boards
can expect to be plunged into a tumultuous environment, and a careful approach
to policy will be crucial.
DOES SCHOOL BOARD POLICY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT?
The idea of coordinating board policy to support student learning is
a plausible reform strategy that seems to mesh well with traditional board
roles. But some scholars are skeptical, pointing out that recent governance
trends have shifted power from the local level to states and the federal
government (David Conley, in press). Boards now find their authority squeezed
by state and federal mandates that dictate learning goals and restrict
operational flexibility. Conley has concluded that boards "are not the
drivers of improvement-related policies, nor do they or will they operate
with broad discretion to determine which policies will be used to improve
Some commentators have also claimed that governing by policy is not
as easy as Carver's model suggests. William Price (2001) argues that a
clear role separation may not be realistic. Board members are frequently
under heavy political pressure to intervene in management decisions, and
superintendents are increasingly being trained as leaders rather than managers.
Price suggests that boards and superintendents may have to engage in a
continual negotiation over who is responsible for what.
Unfortunately, there is little empirical evidence on how board policy
affects student learning (Land; Conley). Much of the available literature
consists of policy recommendations and opinion rather than empirical research.
Answers may be slow in coming because of the multitude of variables that
have to be untangled. By their nature, boards do not create learning; rather,
they work through others by creating conditions that promote learning (Iowa
Association of School Boards).
Thus, as boards gear up for a suddenly intensified reform environment,
they can view coordinating board policy to support student learning as
a "best practice." Thoughtful, systematic policymaking is not a guaranteed
recipe for successful school renewal, but it is associated with success.
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Guide to Implementing Policy Governance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
240 pages. ED 450 457.
Conley, David T. Who Governs Our Schools? Changing Roles and Responsibilities.
New York: Teachers College Press, in press.
Elmore, Richard. "The Role of Local School Districts in Instructional
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Illinois Association of School Boards, and others. Targeting Student
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Achievement. Alexandria, Virginia: National School Boards Association,
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