• By Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June- July 2007

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealThirty or more years of school reform efforts have yielded some positive educational outcomes. But these results have been slow in coming. And they have been accompanied by the same depressing statistics that have consistently described the academic landscape of this country, particularly with respect to American Indians, Hispanics and African Americans. Perhaps attempts to reform and make schools more responsive have been isolated. They have failed to engage, enlighten and develop ownership by those stakeholders most entrusted with the responsibility to provide leadership and support for quality education: the school board.

When was the last time you thought about initiating school reform by influencing school boards to develop an understanding of issues, solutions and policies to prod administrators to make school reform a reality? How many times have you seen school boards – as supreme bodies with responsibility to govern schools – take leadership in setting school reform goals, setting parameters for school reform, providing flexibility for school administrators to execute school board policies, assigning authority to ensure that school administrators operate research-based implementation and management practices, or establishing self-imposed and mandatory accountability measures that guide expectations and consequences at all levels of the school hierarchy?

It is time for school boards to demonstrate leadership in what happens in the schools that we entrust them with and to become accountable for exerting the necessary leadership to achieve educational success of each and every student entrusted to their custody.

In the research literature, knowledge about school reform efforts is concentrated on research-based practices for school administrators. Focusing on systemic changes by addressing solely school administrators and other personnel ignores the fact that school boards, as representatives of the public who elected them, have “unlimited” power to change the face of education in their communities.

It is time to hold school board members accountable for what they have not done to hold on to a greater number of students until they graduate, to provide them with a quality education that prepares them for college, and to close all achievement gaps.

School boards must be careful not to cross the line of administration, but they cannot rely solely on firing and hiring superintendents before they can take any other pro-active action to fend off mediocrity.

Walking a fine line not to cross into school administration entails strategic planning with the superintendent and other community stakeholders for targeted school transformation efforts that lead to strong student holding power and high student achievement. The use of external experts to advise this strategic planning group is essential. In such cases, the school board initiates strategy through its superintendent to plan and become fully engaged in creating a window of opportunity for greater support in the school reform effort.

Educational mediocrity reveals itself through a lack of academic accomplishments that is unacceptable and a threat to our democracy as a model of human dignity and equality. The fact that our academic accomplishments place us below many other nations in the world is reason for concern.

The loss in brainpower, human dignity and economic supremacy is immeasurable, with serious consequences to our social order and world leadership and security. School boards must wake up and assume their leadership roles more assertively and with greater dedication as guardians of educational excellence and equity.

How School Boards Can Become More Involved in School Reform Efforts

The role of school board members in creating systemic changes in our schools cannot be underestimated. For example in Texas, a school board “constitute[s] a body corporate and [has] the exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the district” (TEA Guidelines).

Its power to govern is enforced through policies that have the force of law. These policies shape the quality of education that a community offers its students. In other words, the quality of education is a reflection of the understanding, commitment and dedication of school boards to excellence and equity.

Five key strategies that can help school boards become more involved in issues that matter to students and schools are discussed below.

1. Become better informed of community assets and needs, student characteristics, and implications for a quality educational program. Although most states require that their school board members receive training during their tenure, the training rarely targets knowing their communities (assets, needs, student characteristics) or basic knowledge about a quality education program. How can we entrust the education of our children to persons who are responsible for school policy but who have a limited knowledge of quality education and quality teaching?

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for school board members to become totally disconnected from their role and the duty that they are elected or appointed to carry out. The community that elected them should demand greater interest, action and leadership from them.

2. Engage in constant dialogue with community leaders and parents to ensure that schools work in partnership with community members and parents to enrich the quality of education to be provided. Successful school boards meaningfully engage their communities in periodic forums, meetings and reflection sessions to check the pulse of schools in graduating students who are ready for college, in ensuring that schools are holding on to students, and in creating school environments that are safe and responsive to the needs of all students.

Building community consensus and support for school transformations based on research and compassion are powerful methods. It also can neutralize the effects of political rivalry and enmity that cause school board paralysis, deadlock and inappropriate action. Too often school boards engage community only during election times.

3. Promote and facilitate partnerships with community members and parents as a powerful way of creating and sustaining educational change. Recently, a leading school superintendent was lamenting the lack of knowledge and commitment of school administrators to value and partner with their communities and parents to create a learning community that works and supports a quality educational program.

Effective school boards are strong advocates of meaningful engagement. They promote and facilitate partnerships with community and parents as a powerful way of creating and sustaining change that leads to student engagement and success. School administrators must realize that total student success will not be achieved until the school partners with all sectors of the community and parents and has the full confidence of students.

4. Become an integral part of a leadership team responsible for designing school reform efforts. Many times, school boards underestimate their contributions as citizens and elected representatives of the general public in school reform efforts. They bring different, essential perspectives into the planning and design phase of school reform. They are in a position to change policies to enable schools to make the necessary changes.

The total disengagement of school board members from school reform efforts can have a detrimental impact on schools’ success. By disengaging, board members abdicate the power and responsibility entrusted to them through the democratic process.

5. Be accountable to the community for excellence and equity in the provision of services and the resultant academic accomplishments. If systemic changes were well-defined, understood and supported by an informed school board, they would be less vulnerable to disruption of educational services to students created by school leadership changes like a new superintendent or new principals. Many times, leadership vacuums left by superintendents’ or administrators’ sudden departure lead to complete school disarray and dysfunction.

When a school board is informed and engaged in the educational design process, continuity is sustained, transition can be less troublesome, and the implementation of effective policies and practices will not be disrupted.

In conclusion, the benefits of a more involved school board cannot be underestimated. School boards are at the root of an educational system founded upon democratic principles and promote the tenets of democracy and self government.

There is no doubt that ownership of school reform efforts by a school board can result in greater community support and acceptance, stronger collaboration among schools in a school district, and increased participation of community stakeholders. Our children cannot be the victims of an indifferent and unconscionable system that can be manipulated by self-serving and insensible politics. Our children deserve better.

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is director of IDRA Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2007, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 2007 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]