Board-Savvy Superintendent                          Page 12


Engaging Your Board in

Reform Policy Work



Board-Savvy McAdams

Nearly everyone agrees that boards of education should govern by policy. But for most boards, policymaking is limited to adding state and federal mandates to their policy manual and from time to time passing regulatory policies in areas such as pupil assignment, student discipline or human resource management.

Most major reform initiatives are, in effect, superintendent executive orders, supported by a board vote of approval or sometimes more formally by a board resolution. These items seldom find their way into the board’s policy manual. The Center for Reform of School Systems has reviewed well over 100 board policy manuals, and with the exception of the school districts in which we have worked, the number of reform policies can be counted on one hand.

Why is this? It is because school board members find involvement in management easier and more rewarding than policy work and because superintendents all too often see themselves as the architects and strategists for reform and don’t engage their boards in policy leadership.

Board members are pulled into management because management decisions often attract public attention or because of the pressure from special interests. Solving problems is a satisfying exercise of power. Intervening to help get rid of an unpopular principal, place a friend in a job, obtain a contract for a powerful vendor or solve a transportation dispute — in the reasoning of a school board member —makes someone happy, makes the district better, makes me feel like I am making a difference and, incidentally, contributes to my re-election.

A Mistaken Route
Policy work is altogether different. It requires some familiarity with education research, considerable homework, collaborative rather than individual action and a long-term perspective. Change policies are intended to make the school district better in the future, but there never are guarantees — and in the meantime, change frequently has more enemies than friends.

Superintendents feel the imperative and have the knowledge to design and initiate changes that will improve district performance. They know the big levers for change, and they are likely to be more reform-minded than their boards. For many district leaders, it is easier to just act — with the blessings of, perhaps, a not-fully-informed board — than to challenge board members to understand the issues and partner with them in designing innovative approaches to improvement.

This is a mistake. Governance is oversight and direction setting, and direction setting includes goals, strategy and policy. School boards have a responsibility to say not only where they want to go but also how and how fast they want to get there.

Achievement targets are goals. Standards, curricula, assessments, accountability, teacher quality, building leadership, instructional delivery, empowerment, resource allocation and more are strategies. Boards must thoroughly understand and own policies regarding these strategic issues, and for sustainability, so should the people they represent.

Enduring Legacy
This is the crux of the matter. Sustained improvement requires time and broad public support. Superintendents, with rare exceptions, do not serve a school district long enough to fundamentally transform it.

Boards also come and go, but if major reform policies are understood and owned by the board, embedded in policy and championed to the public, they are more likely to be sustained and transformative. If they are not, on the superintendent’s departure, they are likely to disappear. If for no other reason than legacy, superintendents should want their district designs to endure.

Are there superintendents doing this, insisting their boards become deeply engaged in reform policy leadership, specifically identifying desired changes, examining research and best practices, participating in policy development, monitoring policy implementation and overseeing communication to build support from teachers, parents and civic elites? Yes indeed. For a start, and there are others, visit the websites and read with interest the powerful reform policies approved by boards in Aldine, Texas; Anchorage, Alaska; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Duval County, Fla.; Fresno, Calif.; Gwinnett County, Ga.; Hartford, Conn.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Washoe County, Nev.

Don McAdams is founder and chairman of the board of the Center for Reform of School Systems in Houston, Texas. E-mail:





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