School boards' report card. `Effectiveness' gets a `needs improvement' in study

The first nationwide study ever conducted on the condition and effectiveness of school boards verifies what many educators are saying privately: Before meaningful, long-term education reform can take place, local school boards must learn how to change - streamline their approach - and educate themselves to the more sophisticated policy ideas coming down the school reform pike. Thus far, the nation's 16,000 local school boards have been left out of education reform, according to a study by the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) in Washington, D.C. Reforms have come from state government.

A new ``second phase'' of reform requiring structural changes in schooling - such as new teacher staffing patterns and development, or curricula to better help children think analytically about basic subjects - is now developing, experts note. School boards must play a vital role if this ``second phase'' is to succeed. But most boards are ill-prepared to handle this role, the study suggests.

In recent years, school boards have been mainly ``reactive'' or ``passive,'' according to Barbara McCloud, a member of the IEL study group. The boards haven't been ``out in front'' on reform. ``There's a feeling on many school boards of being overwhelmed,'' she notes. ``Boards don't spend much time, if any, on local education policy.''

In explaining these problems, the study, which touched about 10 percent of school boards nationwide, identified three general areas needing improvement: the character and administrative ability of the boards; public perception and concern; and political power.

Character and ability: Most problems with school boards today stem from the fact that boards do not know how to act as a ``corporate body,'' how to set clear goals and follow them through. In the past decade, board members increasingly reflect special interests - ethnic, political, racial, social, religious - and have not demonstrated collaborative skills such as planning and conflict resolution. Members argue a great deal, often over petty grievances. As a result, they are distracted from focusing on such fundamentals as educational outcomes or strategies. For example, 39 percent of school board members polled felt that appraising curricula is ``one of the most important board functions.'' Yet 42 percent said they spent ``very little time'' doing it.

``We found boards speaking with five, seven, and nine voices,'' says Ms. McCloud. ``But we couldn't find a common bond - a sense of what's best for the whole district, not just a particular interest.''

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, says boards ``are adrift in a sea of administrivia and petty politics'' at a time when they need to exercise leadership.

The public: Since the 19th century, local control of schools has been a deeply rooted and cherished part of American democracy. This has not changed today, the study found. School boards represent the biggest single group of elected officials in the United States - and have launched such figures as Sen. Richard Lugar and former Vice-president Spiro Agnew into political life.

But while Americans like the idea of school boards, very few like or support their own local ones. Fewer still understand them. ``The public seems virtually unaware of the actual role and activities of their communities' school boards, and [displays] massive indifference when it comes to electing them,'' an IEL official said at a Washington press conference to release the report.

School boards often become public scapegoats on issues they aren't even responsible for. Further, the public assumes board members are paid, when in fact only 2 percent receive a salary (30 percent receive minor compensation). Such a public climate adds to school board ineffectiveness.

Political isolation: First, board members increasingly do not come from the traditional or mainstream civic structures in town or city. This is fortunate, in that education shouldn't be politicized. It is unfortunate, in that many of the newer members do not know how local power works and how to use it to good effect. Second, city and town politicians and governments tend to disassociate themselves from school boards - don't want to be aligned with this or that controversy. The study found little ``structured communication'' between municipal government and school boards, says McCloud. As a result, ``Municipal government can easily distance itself from the actual needs and problems of school,'' she says.

One political theme not covered in detail by the report comes from Prof. Michael Kirst of Stanford University, who says that school boards have been ``the big losers in education politics over the last 20 years'' because of unionized collective bargaining and state and federal mandates. Analysts such as Chris Pipho of the Education Commission of the States note that, because of the problems outlined in the report, states such as Texas and California are now offering courses in being a school board member.

The report, which includes recommended strategies, says improvement is especially needed since school districts now face new populations of students, changing tax bases, and more complex management, policy, and operational questions - to say nothing of school reform.

``School Boards: Strengthening Grass Roots Leadership,'' endorsed by the National School Boards Association, is available from the Institute for Educational Leadership, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 310, Washington DC, 20036.

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