New York State School Boards Association

8 characteristics of school board effectiveness

Traits associated with high student achievement

On Board Online • April 11, 2011

By Paul Heiser
Research Analyst

The connection between quality teachers and student achievement has long been established. But what about the link between school boards and student achievement?

That connection has been harder to prove. However, research is making it increasingly clear that school boards in high-achieving districts exhibit characteristics that are markedly different from boards in low-achieving districts. Differences in these characteristics are evident when comparing high- and low-performing districts with similar levels of poverty and disadvantage. 

In a recent report, the National School Boards Association's Center for Public Education examined the research and identified eight characteristics of effective school boards.

  1. Effective school boards commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction, and define clear goals toward that vision.

    A 2006 analysis of 27 different school district leadership studies conducted since 1970 (known as a meta-analysis) found a positive correlation between setting goals for student achievement and student performance. The correlation was particularly strong in districts where school boards: (1) set goals collaboratively with other stakeholders; (2) established "non-negotiable goals" in at least two areas – student achievement and classroom instruction; (3) aligned their goals with their district's; (4) monitored goals for achievement and instruction; and (5) used resources to support the goals.

    A 2003 study, titled Beyond Islands of Excellence, found that districts with high student achievement adopted simply stated visions of student success, such as, "All our students will achieve on grade level," and used them in public and staff presentations.

    The Lighthouse I studies (in 2001 and 2007) by the Iowa Association of School Boards also showed the importance of identifying goals. In low-achieving districts, board members were "only vaguely aware of school improvement initiatives."

  2. Effective school boards have strong shared beliefs and values about what is possible for students and their ability to learn, and of the system and its ability to teach all children at high levels.

    In the Lighthouse I studies, board members consistently expressed their belief in the learning ability of all children and gave specific examples of ways that learning had improved as a result of district initiatives. Poverty, lack of parental involvement and other factors were described as challenges to be overcome, not as excuses. Board members expected to see improvements in student achievement quickly as a result of initiatives.

    Board members in low-achieving districts frequently referred to factors such as poverty, lack of parental support, societal factors, or lack of motivation. Board members expected it would take years to see any improvements in student achievement. For these board members, the reasons for pursuing change often were simple ones – to meet state mandates and avoid sanctions. 

  3. Effective school boards are accountability-driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement.

    One characteristic of effective governance is to focus on student achievement while spending comparatively little time on day-to-day operational issues. Poor results are associated with  micro-management by the board, confusion of the appropriate roles for the board member and superintendent, interpersonal conflict between board chair and superintendent, and board member disregard for the agenda process and the chain of command.

    One case study provides an example. In Chula Vista, Calif., top administrators asked the school board for money to attract exceptional principals. In response, the board approved a policy with higher salaries for principals, giving the district more leverage to attract quality candidates to the district. Later, the board granted the central office greater flexibility to provide principal raises and bonuses. Members also supported the superintendent in dismissing principals who did not meet performance standards; this smaller but still significant action reflected the policy and partnership approach adopted earlier by the board.

  4. Effective school boards have a collaborative relationship with staff and the community, and establish a strong communications structure to inform and engage both internal and external stakeholders in setting and achieving district goals.

    The Lighthouse I studies found the importance of collaborations and communication by comparing high- and low-achieving districts in Georgia. School board members in high-achieving districts had strong communication among the superintendent, staff, and each other. While the superintendent was a primary source of information, he or she was not the only source. Board members received information from many other sources including the curriculum director, principals, teachers and sources outside the district. In addition, findings and research were shared among all board members. By comparison, in low-achieving districts, board members expressed concern that not all information was shared or shared equally.

    Similar factors were evident in the 2006 meta-analysis of 27 studies. In this study, the authors found that high-achieving districts actively involved board members and community stakeholders in setting goals. 

  5. Effective boards are data savvy: they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.

    In the Lighthouse I study, board members in high-achieving districts identified specific student needs through data, and justified decisions based on that data. In addition, board members openly discussed trends on dropout rates, test scores, and student needs, with many seeking such information on a regular or monthly basis. Board members in these districts view data as a diagnostic tool, without the emotional response of assessing blame. 

  6. Effective school boards align and sustain resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals.

    Successful boards recognize the need to support high priorities even during times of fiscal uncertainty. One leading example is in providing professional development for teachers, administrators and other staff. According to a 1993 study, effective boards saw a responsibility to maintain high standards even in the midst of budget challenges.

    Lighthouse I researchers also identified research-based professional development for staff as one of seven "conditions for improvement" typically evident in high-achieving districts. From the board's perspective, members did not simply provide funding for such professional development – they could cite specific examples of activities and their link to improvement plans.

    In low-achieving districts, however, board members said teachers made their own decisions on staff development based on perceived needs in the classroom or for certification. "Board members knew there was a budget for staff development but were unsure whether there was a plan for staff development," the study noted. In fact, board members frequently made "disparaging remarks" about staff development, calling it an ineffective strategy. 

  7. Effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.

    In a 1997 study titled Getting There from Here, districts with a strong board/superintendent relationship had greater student achievement as measured by dropout rates, the percentage of students going to college, and aptitude test scores. A 2002 study sponsored by the Council of Great City Schools also emphasized the importance of these factors. Boards in successful districts defined an initial vision for the district and sought a superintendent who matched this vision. 

  8. Effective school boards take part in team development and training, sometimes with their superintendents, to build shared knowledge, values and commitments for their improvement efforts.

    In high-achieving Lighthouse I study districts, school board members said they regularly participated in activities in which they learned together as a group. They cited frequent work and study sessions with opportunities for inquiry and discussion prior to making a final decision. In low-achieving districts, however, board members said they did not learn together except when the superintendent or other staff members made presentations of data.

    In the 2006 meta-analysis, one key goal for superintendents was to produce an environment in which the board is aligned with and supportive of district goals. The study suggests that supporting board members' professional development is one of several ways that superintendents can help realize this goal.

    Two of the effective districts in the 2003 Beyond Islands of Excellence study used formal training and professional development for school board members. In Kent County, Md., the board created a strong working relationship among the central office, board, principal and teachers. In Minneapolis, the school board emphasized its role in establishing goals, setting indicators, aligning resources to goals, monitoring progress, and communicating with the public. 

Worst practices 

Research suggests student achievement will suffer if school board members: 

  1. Are only vaguely aware of school improvement initiatives and seldom able to describe actions being taken to improve student learning.
  2. Focus on external pressures as the main reasons for lack of student success, such as poverty, lack of parental support, societal factors, or lack of motivation.
  3. Offer negative comments about students and teachers.
  4. Micromanage day-to-day operations.
  5. Disregard the agenda process and the chain of command.
  6. Express dissatisfaction with information flow; little communication between board and superintendent.
  7. Are quick to describe a lack of parent interest in education or barriers to community outreach.
  8. Look at data from a "blaming" perspective, describing teachers, students and families as major causes for low performance.
  9. Display little understanding or coordination on staff development for teachers.
  10. Are slow to define a vision.
  11. Did not hire a superintendent who agreed with their vision.
  12. Do little professional development together as a board.

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