According to the National School Boards Association, “The key work of school boards – student achievement and community engagement to promote student achievement – is becoming nationally recognized as the primary agenda for boards of education.”

This statement is based on the premise that excellence in the boardroom promotes excellence in the classroom, but does evidence support that premise?

The 2009 study1 of the Iowa Lighthouse Project found that “school boards can impact student achievement by creating conditions for productive change. Recommended steps included building connections across the education system, providing workplace support and professional development, and finding the right balance between district authority and school autonomy.”

In 2013, from the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. David Lee’s ground-breaking study2 submits that “school board behavior does matter, and if gains are to be made in low-performing districts, behaviors must change at the board level.”

Most recently the question, “Is there hard evidence that democratically elected school boards impact student achievement and, if so how?” was undertaken by UW professors Michael Ford and Douglas M. Ihrke.

Their research3 findings, published in the International Journal of Public Administration, found that “school boards can positively impact student achievement by:

Keeping its strategic plan up-to-date.

Adjusting academic standards and assessment policies in response to student needs.

Being open and honest with one another.

Governing in partnership with their superintendent.

Proactively and regularly engaging with the public.

Engaging in formal board development.”

It is one thing to understand the concepts of school boarding and quite another to practice them with fidelity. Boards not focused on learning how to govern quickly find themselves frustrated and inappropriately wander into a district’s organizational duties. If your board is focused on your work rather than their own, one wonders if they truly know what their work is.

Effective boards participate in systems thinking, accept their fair share of responsibility for student outcomes, partner with the superintendent to create a shared accountability process, and create the conditions under which excellent teaching and learning can take place.

Simply put, effective school boards know which sand box is theirs and which is the superintendent’s.

Research would undeniably tell us that if we are not working to develop boards of education, we are underutilizing them. After working 20 years with communities wanting to lift up public schools, I couldn’t agree more.

Boards I work with want to operate more effectively. They are focused on governing, building community connections and building the healthiest of relationships with the district CEO.

The research is clear. Building capacities within boards of education is critical to realizing student success. A skilled school board is an asset that a savvy and clever superintendent knows is too valuable to waste.


Mary is a former teacher, licensed administrator, school board member and the most recent Executive Director of Parents United for Public Schools. In 2012, she was the first woman to receive the MASA Distinguished Service Award.

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