Public education in Canada has much to be happy about given the recently announced 2015 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, in fact, a strong body of research that confirms that good 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:
- Effective school boards commit to a vision of high expectations for student achievement and quality instruction and define clear goals toward that vision.
- 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.
- Effective school boards are accountability driven, spending less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement.
- 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.
- Effective boards are data savvy; they embrace and monitor data, even when the information is negative, and use it to drive continuous improvement.
- Effective school boards align and sustain resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals.
- Effective school boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.
- 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.
Stephen Hansen firstname.lastname@example.org