• By Bradley Scott, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June- July 2009

Dr. Bradley ScottMuch has been written on the need for school governance efficacy for school reform to result in high student achievement. But the research has been thin concerning the effect of school boards on student achievement. We must consider the importance of governance efficacy as one of the essential drivers for creating an equity context through which school reform occurs.

This article examines ways in which school governance can guide the creation and maintenance of an equity context within which reform can occur to create quality schools that appropriately educate, graduate and prepare all students for college and life.

In his confirmation hearing before the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, the then designee for Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, testified: “Quality education… is the civil rights issue of our generation. It is the only path out of poverty, the only road to a more equal, just and fair society. In fact, I believe the fight for quality education is about much more than education. It’s a fight for social justice. I come to this work with three deeply held beliefs. First, that every child from every background absolutely can be successful. Rural, suburban, urban, gifted, special education, English language learner, poor, minority – it simply doesn’t matter… When we as adults do our job and give them opportunities to succeed, all of our children can be extraordinarily successful. Second, when we fail to properly educate children we, as educators, perpetuate poverty and perpetuate social failure… And third, our children have one chance – one chance at a quality education, so we must work with an extraordinary sense of urgency. Simply put, we cannot wait because they cannot wait.” (The Washington Post, 2009)

Secretary Duncan also noted in a presentation to the House budget committee: “There’s a lot I don’t like about No Child Left Behind, but I will always give it credit for exposing our nation’s dreadful achievement gaps. It changed American education forever and forced us to take responsibility for every single child regardless of race, background or ability.” (Nagel, 2009)

The notion of “taking responsibility for every child” has to become something more than a slogan or a phrase. It must become a rallying call for every school district to galvanize action across sector, race and circumstance to lead to transformation so that all students are successful.

Dr. María Robledo Montecel, IDRA president, has presented a way communities can take responsibility by examining “contextual and moderating factors that may impede or accelerate school system change” (2005). She presented the Quality Schools Action Framework as “a model for assessing school conditions and outcomes, identifying leverage points for improvement, and informing action.” The framework poses five key questions: (1) What do we need? (2) How do we make change happen? (3) Which fundamentals must be secured? (4) Where do we focus systems change? and (5) What outcomes will result?” (See graphic.)

Dr. Robledo Montecel named two fundamentals as critical to creating student success – fair funding and governance efficacy – “the resources to effectively serve all students and good governance that facilitates academic achievement and success.”

She said, “Governance efficacy strengthens school holding power when administrative and supervisory personnel have the capacity to deliver quality educational services to all students, along with the policymaking and pro-active support of a school board to hold on to every student.” (2005)

Governance Efficacy Defined

It is important then to define governance efficacy in detail. For the sake of this article, governance efficacy is defined as the power of school boards, among others, to change the face of education in their communities through positive and appropriate policymaking, equitable resource allocation and transparent accountability for all stakeholders. This definition is an expansion of a discussion of school board accountability offered by Dr. Abelardo Villarreal (2007). Dr. Albert Cortez and Dr. Villarreal (2006) also described policy attributes that positively impact access and success for students using a framework originally developed by Dr. Rosana Rodríguez and Dr. Villarreal (Cortez and Villarreal, 2006).

Authors Griffin and Carter Ward identified five characteristics of an effective school board that also help define governance efficacy. According to them, effective school boards: focus on student achievement as the number one job; allocate resources to support students based upon their differing characteristics and needs; watch return on investment and report to the communities they serve with transparency and accountability; use good data to inform policymaking to support student success, and engage the communities they serve in providing real opportunities to give input into policymaking process (2006).

In a similar manner, the National School Boards Association defined the “Key Work of School Boards” by identifying a framework of eight interrelated actions that school boards should undertake to engage their communities and improve student achievement through effective governance. The actions involve work in the areas of: vision, standards, assessment, accountability, alignment, climate, collaboration and community engagement, and continuous improvement. (See a detailed discussion of each of these actions at the NSBA web site at http://www.nsba.org/services/school-board-leadership-services/key-work).

There is one critical piece that is missing that seems to be strongly suggested by Secretary Duncan’s comments above. Quality schools that support high student achievement, school graduation, college attendance, and life success for all diverse learners can only occur in a context of educational equity, such as where the Goals of Educational Equity and School Reform (Scott, 1999; Scott, 2000) create a high equity context for action, transformation and school reform. While it appears to be implied in the research and work of the authors cited, it is clear to this writer that the goal of equity must be specifically stated – not merely implied – and it must be fore-front in any work that seriously embraces “quality education as the civil rights issue of our generation.”

I have previously described systemic equity as, “the transformed ways in which systems and individuals habitually operate to ensure that every student has the greatest opportunity to learn, enhanced by the resources and supports necessary to achieve competence, excellence, independence, personal and social responsibility, and self sufficiency for school and for life” (2000).

Strategic and focused implementation of the Goals of Educational Equity and School Reform is critical to the creation of systemic equity.

The Equity Context

The systems and structures a school district puts into place to ensure that no learner is denied the fair and equitable benefit of a quality, sound educational experience afforded to all other students regardless of race, gender, national origin, economic level and handicap is the lens through which all of the business of the organization is filtered. This is the work of school boards. It is the challenge of governance efficacy to create a culture that is a high equity context where systemic equity and the Goals of Educational Equity and School Reform become the regular practice of a district’s operation (Scott, 2001).

The following questions must be posed and answered before an organization can say that it has employed an equity lens to serve all students regardless of their differing characteristics:

  • How does this practice impact all learners?
  • What policies, resources and/or other supports are needed to create equitability across different populations?
  • What might create a negative or adverse impact on any identifiable population?
  • How might that adverse impact be avoided?
  • What precautions should we take as we move forward?
  • How do we monitor our work to ensure comparable high outcomes for all students?

The Iowa Lighthouse Project supports this notion of a culture of equity. The project is a 10-year study of the relationship between school board leadership and student learning. The original study was commissioned by the Iowa Association of School Boards in 1998. Over the 10 years since the original study, various phases of the implementation of the findings reveal that school boards make a difference in the creation of high student achievement (IASB, 2001). The study revealed that boards in high achieving school districts are significantly different in their knowledge and beliefs about students and education from low-achieving districts.

The actions of school districts with high achieving students operated in five critically different ways. The school boards:

  • Consistently expressed the belief that all students can learn and that schools can teach all students. This “no excuses” belief system resulted in high standards for students and an ongoing dedication to improvement.
  • Were far more knowledgeable about teaching and learning issues, including school improvement goals, curriculum, instruction, assessment and staff development. They were able to clearly describe the purposes and processes of school and identify the board’s role in supporting those efforts.
  • Used data and other information on student needs and results to make policy decisions.
  • Created a supportive workplace for the staff, including regular professional development, support for more effective, shared leadership and decision making, and regularly expressed appreciation to the staff.
  • Identified how they connected with and listened to their communities and focused on involving parents in education.

Boards in high achieving school districts focused on policies supporting changes in the conditions and the environment, i.e., the context of practice. In other words, these boards used their authority, power and decision making capacity to promulgate policy that led to a transformation of the culture of schooling that ultimately improved achievement for all students.

This research describes an example of high equity context. The lens for increased student achievement reflects a push for the sustained implementation of systemic equity where the Goals of Educational Equity are used to impact policy, administrative action, instructional practice, professional and human development, community and parent engagement and involvement, accountability by all stakeholders, and continual monitoring toward improvement to support high achievement for all diverse students.

Each element of the Quality Schools Action Framework developed by Dr. Robledo Montecel requires equity to be effective. With this framework as the starting point, boards would have to determine how high or low their equity context is. They would have to use their power to create and implement policy and provide the necessary leadership to raise the equity context if reform is to occur and be sustained to lead to increased achievement for all.

The Final Challenge

Secretary Duncan presented a challenge when he stated: “The biggest barrier, the only remaining barrier in my mind is: do we have the courage? It takes courage to expose our weaknesses with a truly transparent data system. It takes courage to admit our flaws and take steps to address them. It takes courage to always do the right thing by our children, but ultimately we all answer to the truth. Reforming public education is not just a moral obligation. It absolutely is an economic imperative. It is the foundation for a strong future and a strong society. Education is the civil rights issue of our generation. The fight for quality education is about so much more than education, It’s a fight for social justice. It is the only way to achieve the equality that inspired our democracy, that inspired women to stand up for theirs, and then inspired minorities to demand their fair share of the American promise, and it inspires every child to dream.” (The Washington Post, 2009)

Finally, it is important to close by noting that every educational institution has an obligation and is challenged to filter its business in support of student success through a lens of educational equity. This lens helps to protect the civil rights of every learner under the law, to guarantee equitable educational opportunity for every learner regardless of his or her differing characteristics, and to provide the appropriate educational supports for school success, post secondary school attendance and completion and life success supported by the necessary resources to make that success possible.

Governance efficacy is critical for creating and sustaining the high equity context for the reform that is needed, and education stakeholders must hold themselves and all others responsible for these outcomes.

Six Goals of Education Equity

Public schools can do what they choose to educate their students within certain limits and parameters, but they are accountable for educating all learners to high academic standards and outcomes regardless of differing characteristics of those learners. Bradley Scott, Ph.D., (director of the equity assistance center at IDRA) has developed the following six goals of education equity as a framework for school districts.

Goal 1: Comparably high academic achievement and other student outcomes

Goal 2: Equitable access and inclusion

Goal 3: Equitable treatment

Goal 4: Equitable opportunity to learn

Goal 5: Equitable resources

Goal 6: Accountability

For more information see:


Cortez, A., and A. Villarreal. “Assessing Policies for Success of Minority Students,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2006).

Griffin, A., and C. Ward. “Five Characteristics of an Effective School Board: A Multifaceted Role, Defined – How does your school district measure up?” Edutopia (San Rafael, Calif.: George Lucas Educational Foundation, March 21, 2006). http://www.edutopia.org/five-characteristics-effective-school-board

Iowa Association of School Boards. The Lighthouse Study (Des Moines, Iowa: The Iowa School Boards Foundation, 2001). http://www.nvasb.org/assets/improving_school_board_decision_making.pdf

Nagel, D. “Ed Secretary Duncan Wants to ‘Flip’ NCLB, Vows to Scale Up What Works,” The Journal (March 13, 2009). http://thejournal.com/articles/2009/03/13/ed-secretary-duncan-wants-to-flip-nclb-vows-to-scale-up-what-works.aspx

National School Boards Association. Key Works of School Boards, web site: http://www.nsba.org/services/school-board-leadership-services/key-work

Robledo Montecel, M. “A Quality Schools Action Framework – Framing Systems Change for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 2005).

Scott, B. “A Comparative Study of Teacher Perception of Race and Race Relations in Two Selected Districts,” unpublished dissertation (University of Texas at Austin, May 2001).

Scott, B. “We Should Not Kid Ourselves: Excellence Requires Equity,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2000).

Scott, B. “From ‘DAC? to ‘EAC? – The Expanding Role of the Equity Assistance Center,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 1999).

Villarreal, A. “School Board Accountability for School Boards that Support Educational Equity,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2007).

The Washington Post. “Arne Duncan Confirmation Hearing,” CQ Transcript Wire (January 19, 2009).

Bradley Scott, Ph.D., is director of the IDRA South Central Collaborative for Equity. Comments and questions may be directed to him at feedback@idra.org.

[©2009, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 2009 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.]