Posted by: bkivey | 20 September 2010

School Board Education

From the local paper of record we learn that three state school boards were selected by the state school board association to participate in a free training program to improve school board leadership. The program, called The Lighthouse Program, is based on research published in 2000 by the Iowa Association of School Boards that showed a link between the level of school board engagement and student achievement.

The results of the study and the report that it’s based on can be fairly summarized as reaffirming the Third Rule of Management: People work to expectations. After conducting 160 interviews with school board members and school district staff in Georgia (why this effort wasn’t conducted in Iowa is made clear in the report) the report’s authors found that the more positive the attitude of school board members toward student achievement, the better students tended to do on standardized tests.

From this research the Iowa Association of School Boards developed a training program consisting of a series of ‘modules’ to be used by school boards to improve their effectiveness and, it is assumed, improve student test scores. Whether this program actually improves student learning through school board member education is unanswered 10 years after the study was released, although there is a follow-up study that measures member attitudes after training based on the metrics outlined in the original study.

The reason this program came to the attention of the newspaper is that by the account of members of one of the school boards selected, the training ranges from useless to dangerous. A sampling of quotes:

“I felt Lighthouse was poorly defined going in. In practice it proved to be horrible.”

“We agreed as a board to do this. I’ve been pulling my hair out and banging my head on the wall, but I’m going to continue.”

“It teaches us a dangerous lesson in micro-management.”

It’s hard to judge the content of the program because all of the training modules (videos) have been pulled from the website. Judging from the report one may reasonably surmise that the program instructs school board members to take a more active role in decision-making that is normally the province of professional educators and staff at the individual school level. As one school board member points out in the story, it isn’t the job of the school board to make those decisions. Too right. It’s the function of a school board to assist the district superintendent in setting strategic policy. A board and superintendent should function as management: Set direction, support the staff, and then get the hell out of the way so people can work.

In the story six of the seven school board members were interviewed and attitudes toward the training ranged from ambivalence to hostility. A reasonable person might wonder why they just don’t drop the training, especially as there is no monetary cost for doing so. Presumably the reporter asked this questions, because one board member  said that stopping the program would send the wrong message to kids, telling them that it’s OK to quit if you don’t like the teacher.

Actually, the message they’re sending to kids is that adults are too stupid to stop doing something that no one supports, is seen as a waste of time, and which has no demonstrable or verifiable value in relation to desired results. Perseverance is laudable, but only in the pursuit of  felicitous goals. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of time. Even a child knows that.

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