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The secret to good schools might surprise you

Published: Tuesday, April 22 2014 11:00 p.m. MDT

Salt Lake City school board members meet at their office in Salt Lake City Tuesday, January 8, 2013. A new study sponsored by the Fordham institute contends that school boards matter, and suggests how to distinguish the good from the bad.

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A good school board, say the authors of a new study, may be able to make the difference between a school that underperforms and one that beats the odds.

Building on a survey of 900 school board members from 417 school districts conducted in 2009, two researchers from Notre Dame and Lawrence University added controls for demographic and funding differences.

They found that some schools outperform others. These differences, it turned out, correlated to different types of school board members. The most significant factor, the study claims, is that higher performing schools have board members who hold a laser focus on student achievement.

A district in which board members prioritize student achievement tends to do better than those where members adopt a “plural focus” that may include “developing the whole child” or avoiding “unreasonable expectations for student achievement.”

“I certainly wouldn’t say that this report portrays school boards as a panacea,” said Michael Hartney, a researcher at Notre Dame University and one of the coauthors of the study, which was released earlier this month. But, on the margins, he said, there is solid evidence that school boards can make a difference.

Electing moderates

Some of the findings were quite surprising. It matters, for example, when elections are held. Holding elections at the same time as state and national-level elections, the authors found, correlates to standardized student proficiency test scores 2.4 points higher than a comparable district that has off-cycle elections.

The likely explanation, said Hartney, is that “off cycle” elections pull in fewer voters, and can often be swung by the intense commitment of a small number of people. This lends itself to ideological extremists on both the right and the left, who then squeeze out moderates in the middle.

But it is moderates on school boards who are more likely to focus on student achievement and to have a better understanding of the district’s real needs. “When you ask a board member what the biggest priority in the district is,” Hartney said, “we found that political moderates were more likely to provide an answer that reflected real conditions on the ground.”

Chester Finn, president of the Fordham Institute, which sponsored the study, thinks the moderates may be more effective because hardline liberals on school boards tend to want to solve every problem with more money, while hardline conservatives blame everything on the teachers’ unions.

“Moderates may be less inclined to view matters through a pre-ground ideological lens,” Finn said.

Kill the boards

School boards viewed by many education policy analysts as anachronisms that exert little impact on how children learn, are easily politicized, and often get in the way of reform. Often they are viewed as stepping-stones on the ladder of local politics, rather than ends in themselves.

“Kill all the school boards,” argued Matt Miller from the liberal Center for American Progress in 2008. He calls localized educational decision-making a “relic from our colonial past.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the right of center American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been widely accused of wanting to kill school boards by privatizing education, placing control in the hands of parents.

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