The evidence is clear – good governance matters. It matters to student success, it matters to the expectations of communities, and it matters to democracy itself.
The challenge is clearly 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 success – 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 a board may ascribe to. 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.