This was written by Anne M. Byrne. a member of the Nanuet, N.Y. school board and a member of the board of directors of the National School Boards Association.

By Anne M. Byrne

In the drama of public education, many people seem to see school boards as wearing black hats. When is the last time you heard a positive reference to school boards in our ongoing national debate? School boards are part of the problem, right?

Actually, local school boards have an essential role in education reform. More often than not, they are composed of energetic citizens who bring a passion for their communities to bear on nettlesome issues ranging from graduation rates to childhood obesity and bullying.

As a longtime school board member in New York State and chair of the student achievement committee for the National School Boards Association, I have been looking at what research says about school boards and student achievement. Does what happens in the boardroom make a difference in the classroom? The answer is yes, unequivocally.

Controlling for demographic differences, districts with high levels of student achievement have school boards that exhibit habits and characteristics that are markedly different from boards in low-achieving districts.

Highly effective boards:

*Set high expectations. Effective school boards have members that are have are committed to student achievement and quality instruction, and have defined clear goals toward that vision. High achieving school boards have members that believe ALL students can learn. While setting the bar high does not guarantee high achievement, failing to do so precludes it.

*Make decisions based on data. Effective school boards are accountability driven. They embrace and monitor data. Even when the information is negative, they find a way to drive continuous improvement. They spend less time on operational issues and more time focused on policies to improve student achievement.

*Work in partnership with superintendents. Effective boards lead as a united team with the superintendent, each from their respective roles, with strong collaboration and mutual trust.

In most communities, school boards meet late into the night to wrestle with tough budgetary, personnel and policy decisions. Are any elected officials as accessible as school board members? I’ve been stopped hundreds of times in the grocery store, and so has virtually every other school board member.

The school board members I’ve gotten to know by attending training events in my state and across the country are dedicated volunteers with deep roots in their communities. They believe in the potential of young people. They are committed to working collaboratively with many stakeholders to improve graduation rates and prepare students for both college and the demands of the workplace in the 21st century.

Every new reform launched by federal or state governments must be implemented by local school boards. They often have to cope with rising expectations, lower state funding and an ever-increasing number of state mandates. In the Obama administration’s Race to the Top, the federal and state governments are laying out the racecourse and setting up hurdles; school boards and their employees are the ones lacing up their running shoes.

How about giving them a little respect?

For information on the traits of high-performing school boards, see the Center for Public Education website.

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