Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 2 of 10: Democracy Rules

Part 2: Democracy Rules

Although self-evident it is worth repeating – the reason we have publicly elected school boards is to provide the public with a voice in one of society’s most important “public goods” - education. By exercising this right we select individuals from our local communities to represent our interests in public education. To be clear, this is much more than (or should be) representation for parents of school-aged children. The governance of our public education system is critically important to our whole society. It creates our future citizens, future leaders, future employees, future parents, and those who will be running the world. And we have a right (with few restrictions) to elect whomever we choose to represent us, as is the case in all levels of government. The shame is that despite the importance of the role voter turnout for school trustee elections is generally low. But regardless of the percentage of the community that voted, those with the majority of those votes will take on this role of representing their entire community - those who voted for them, those who didn’t vote for them and those who didn’t vote at all. This can be a difficult transition for some, challenging their interpretation of what political representation means.

For most trustees, being elected to a school board is their first foray into political office. They enter with little governance experience or training, bringing equal measures of enthusiasm and naivety to this level of democracy that is arguably closer to the people it serves than its provincial and federal counterparts.  While sometimes looked down upon as the bottom of the political totem pole, school boards are Canada’s oldest democratic institution, developed from and for local communities. School boards also serve as the learning ground for many who go on to serve in other levels of government. Look into the biographies of politicians at the provincial and federal levels and you will find many got their start at the school board level, closest to and truly from those they serve. It is not a stretch to say that school boards serve as the genesis and the crucible of democracy.
The vast majority of new trustees are eager to learn their new role and to work as a contributing member of the corporate board. And “new blood” is a good thing for boards. New members bring energy, fresh perspectives, and challenges to the status quo. However, sometimes things don’t go so well, particularly if the new board members were elected on a wave of anger at previous decisions – more common when previous boards have had to make tough decisions related to school closures or reconfiguration. I have seen well-functioning boards become barely civil after the election of trustees who see themselves as agents of dramatic change. Sometimes the passion for change sends shock waves throughout the whole district, destabilising systems, damaging morale and occasionally careers.

More frequently I have seen boards that have been the cause of their own woes by not having in place procedures that provide for a respectful and moderated forum for debate and change. Some boards pride themselves on getting along, rarely showing dissent, and predictably voting in unison. While this may make for short and sweet board meetings it begs the question of how deep and meaningful the board’s work really is, and how well the board actually reflects its own community. The whole reason boards have several members is to bring a variety of perspectives to the decision-making process.  If all of the trustees are like-minded then why have a board in the first place?  Like the grit in the oyster, healthy debate and questioning of the status-quo can produce the pearls that enrich the school district and its students. Well-functioning boards have processes in place that foster the “noise” of democracy in a respectful and productive manner.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 1 of 10


When I was the Executive Director of a provincial association supporting publicly elected school trustees one of the more frequent calls for assistance would be about intra-board relations – trustees not getting along with each other. These calls would often spike at the beginning of the term, with newly elected trustees sometimes rocking what was previously a smooth-running board. But sometimes they were the result of long-standing disputes that were pushing the board to the brink of dysfunction. The following and subsequent posts provide a list of observations and suggestions on how boards can work in a productive and respectful manner while still benefiting from the diversity of opinions and styles around the table.

Board Work is People Work

The reality is that board work is people work, and people work can sometimes be messy. Individuals come to trusteeship for a variety of reason, from diverse backgrounds, varying experiences with the school system, and a range of skills in board work. Some run for election because they want to see change.  Some have a specific issue they want to promote or resolve – often related to a personal experience with the system. Some just want to serve and give back to their community. Some are retired educators who see trusteeship as a way to bring their professional expertise into a governance role. Some see themselves as advocates for a particular social or political cause. Some are angry. Some are skilled in teamwork, debate and group processes. Some are not. Some have been successful by being tough and assertive. Some are quiet or uncomfortable speaking their minds.  Throw all of these backgrounds into a group that is tasked with running a multi-million dollar organisation employing hundreds of people and making policy decisions that will impact the life chances of the children in their community, and you have the potential for discord, disharmony and dysfunction.  Happily, most boards get it right. Through hard work, training, patience and support, most trustees develop processes and skills for working together while maintaining their individual perspectives. Sadly a few boards don’t, preferring to bump along from meeting to unhappy meeting, to the detriment of students, staff and the important office they hold. But it doesn't have to be that way.


Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Ensuring Good Governance

Publicly elected school boards (boards of education in BC) have been in place in most Canadian provinces even before Confederation.  I and others have argued that locally elected school boards are the “ground zero” of democracy because they are our most local form of governance entirely focussed on one of our most important public goods - education. However, democracy is about more than just citizens selecting others to represent their interests through election. It also comes with responsibilities for those elected to provide that representation appropriately.

School board governance is the foundation on which student achievement and fiscal responsibility are achieved. These outcomes are a board’s reason for being, but the means of achieving them are equally important. However, except for funding and budgetary matters, provincial governments generally provide little direction on the way that trustees should go about their work – on the actual processes of governance. To be clear, this is not to suggest that school board governance is a free-for-all. There are well-documented standards for good governance in the literature and these have been shown to positively impact student learning. Most boards meet these standards, but this is largely by choice and circumstance rather than by requirement. I have witnessed previously high functioning boards with a history of good governance practices fall into turmoil. Sometimes it is a result of external pressures exerted by special interest groups or overly partisan politics. Sometimes it is an internal challenge presented by a single board member who decides their individual agenda should supersede the board’s and not be restrained by previous procedures.  Boards have very limited means to manage the behaviour of individual trustees, and for the most part, the only significant tool available to the Minister is to fire the whole board if things eventually get bad enough.

Some would argue that the determination and assurance of good governance should be purely a local matter and that the performance of boards should only be assessed by constituents through elections. However, the counter argument can also be made that the definition and assessment of governance should not be left to good intentions, optional learning and the vagaries of elections. School boards matter and research shows that those who have strongly embedded governance practices have a greater positive impact on student learning. An opportunity exists for boards and their provincial associations to proactively work with government to agree on a set of standards for good governance and ways to empower boards to enforce them. Let’s applaud the many boards that apply these standards, but let’s also be open and courageous enough to explore options to ensure that the standards are continuously met by all.

Stephen Hansen


Saturday, 18 August 2018

Standards of Good Governance

The evidence is clear - good governance matters. It matters to student achievement, it matters to the expectations of communities, and it matters to democracy itself.

The challenge is identifying what good governance looks like in observable and measurable terms. There is a significant body of anecdotal writing about school board governance which has guided the work of boards, but it is only in the last decade or so that much of this writing has been supported by multiple case studies and longitudinal, large scale research. These studies show that high achieving school districts (translation: student success) are governed by boards that exhibit a common set of characteristics. The research supports what we already know – there is a linkage between what happens in the boardroom and results in the classroom. Board governance does impact student achievement – positively or negatively.

Although the descriptions on the components of good governance may vary to slightly from study to study, there is general agreement on the following characteristics.

Mandate Clarity
High achieving districts have boards that are crystal clear that their primary purpose is enhancing student success. This goes beyond well-meaning mission and vision statements. These boards use student success as the primary filter to assess every board decision and they drive their beliefs about student success through the entire system. They do not use budgets, socio-economic factors or politics as excuses for low student outcomes.

Role Clarity
High achieving districts have boards that are unambiguous about their role. They focus their attention on setting district goals, passing supporting policies, allocating resources and holding senior staff accountable. They work hard at maintaining the boundaries between their governance role and the administrative functions of senior staff.  They take a "mile high" approach to the operations of the district. Additionally, individual trustees understand and work within the corporate board model. They do not see themselves as representatives for any specific stakeholder or partisan group.

Dynamic Strategic Planning
High achieving districts go beyond the more typical yearly strategic planning exercise. Boards in these districts continuously use the strategic plan as a lever to drive decisions and assess outcomes for themselves, their superintendent and the district as a whole.

Responsible Conduct
High achieving districts have boards that have clearly articulated codes of conduct to guide their interactions with staff, the community and each other. They hold themselves to high standards of behaviour and have processes for managing issues before they interfere with the work of the board and the success of the district.

Superintendent Success
High achieving districts have superintendents who are trusted, supported and held accountable by their boards. Superintendents are seen as governance partners but also the chief executive officers responsible for carrying out board policy and meeting student achievement goals. The superintendents are assessed formally each year and informally throughout the year.

Boards as Learners
High achieving districts have boards that see the need to be continuously improving their governance work. They understand that good governance is a skill set that can be learned. They allocate time and funds to improving their own performance.

Board Assessment
High achieving districts have boards that formally and informally assess their own performance throughout the year. They hold themselves accountable to progress on their strategic plan and their adherence to their code of conduct.

Governance Transparency
High achieving districts have boards that keep their governance work accessible and transparent. Except for very few occasions where confidentiality is essential, all debate and decisions are conducted in open and documented sessions. There is no caucusing, block voting, or “meetings before the meeting” to hash out the uncomfortable bits.

Informed Decision-making
High achieving districts have boards that make decisions based on information from a variety of sources. Boards know what questions to ask and how to asses the information they are provided. They invest in processes and skills that will provide adequate and trustworthy data to guide and support decisions.

Community Engagement
High achieving districts have boards that work hard at connecting with all sectors of the community – those who voted for them and those who did not, those who have children in school and those who do not, those who are stakeholders and those who are not. They actively take their governance work outside of the boardroom and schools. They participate in community activities, are ambassadors for the school district, and continuously seek input. They make sure that there are ample and easy opportunities for public input.

The above characteristics are easy to describe but require effort, consistency and processes to maintain. They do not result in improved student success just by being a checklist of beliefs to which a board may ascribe. Governance should not be a “black box” of ambiguous attitudes, beliefs and good intentions. Good governance can and should be explicitly described, embedded into policy and reinforced through assessment. 

It matters.

Do School Boards Affect Student Achievement?

Public education in Canada has much to be happy about given the recent PISA results. Overall, Canadian students ranked among the world’s very best in reading, science and math. Although the PISA scores tell only part of the story about a country’s education system, clearly Canada is doing something right - or more likely, several things.  One question is whether Canadian school boards can take any credit for the results. Or put another way, does what happens in school district boardrooms make any difference to what happens in the classroom?

Despite a somewhat ambivalent view on the value of publicly elected school boards, there is good research that confirms that the quality of school board governance does affect student achievement. Based on a meta-analysis of numerous studies over the past twenty years including three intensive Lighthouse Projects conducted by the Iowa Association of School Boards between 2000 and 2008, there is a consensus that school boards in high-achieving districts exhibit governance practices not seen in comparable lower-achieving districts.

A review of this research by The Centre for Public Education identified the following eight school board characteristics that have an observable impact on student achievement:
  1. Effective school boards commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction and define clear goals toward that vision.
  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.
  3. Effective school boards are accountability driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement.
  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.
  5. Effective boards are data savvy; they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.
  6. Effective school boards align and sustain resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals.
  7. Effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.
  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.

Certainly, Canada’s enviable educational success is a result of a host of factors, including the combined efforts of teachers, assistants, administrators, parents and the students themselves. But let us not overlook the important role that leadership plays in any success. As the governance leaders of the hundreds of school districts in Canada, publicly elected school trustees clearly can take their fair share of the credit for Canada’s strong rankings.

Good governance makes a difference. It requires effort, dedication and learning. The above characteristics mirror the trustee curricula offered by Canada’s provincial school board associations. Trustees who avail themselves of these programs and work together to apply them are making a positive difference in the learning outcomes of millions of Canadian students.

School boards matter.