Education Up Front

October 16, 2002

October 30, 2002

November 6, 2002

Are school boards making the grade?

With fall elections next Tuesday, there's been considerable attention centering on various school board races throughout the county's 43 public school districts.

Chief among those campaigns is the San Diego City Schools' Board of Education where the battle rages for two open seats and a shift in the board majority. In a strange way, the fates of the Blueprint for Student Success, a massive and long-term reform program now under way in that district, as well as that of Superintendent Alan Bersin are more dependent on what happens in the voting booths than whatever has or has not happened

in the district's classrooms and the progress that is being made.

Ours is a democratic society in which we favor electing people to positions of authority, including the selection of citizen politicians to oversee our public schools. However, given the political shrill surrounding many school board candidate campaigns, one can only wonder sometimes the extent to which our educational system has become a political football, tossed back and forth over such issues as how to teach kids to read and compute, whether there should be art and music classes, and even whether school teachers should explain the "birds and the bees" to their young charges.

Your kid got a tuba in his closet? Chances are you don't like the heavy emphasis on literacy that, in some cases, has superseded music instruction and bands in some of our schools. Your desire for your child to make music might influence how you vote and affect the outcome of an entire educational approach that we know is making progress for so many students in San Diego.

The question of whether school boards should continue to be elected is more centered in big city districts. One educational observer, Dr. Tom Glass from the University of Memphis has just published a report in which he argues for the end to the American practice of having urban voters pick their schools boards.

Glass believes the winners of those elections are too prone to play politics and too weak to keep school districts on a steady course. He said urban school board members, by and large, "are not accountable to the public, seemingly possess modest skills, are very conflict prone, politicized and demonstrate that they often cannot work successfully in tandem with superintendents. The electoral process is not proving to be an adequate evaluator for urban boards."

In effect, Glass says politicized school boards result in abruptive and too frequent changes in school superintendents in many urban districts. He found that 30 large urban districts collectively ran through 137 superintendents in 11 years, 1990-2001, led by Kansas City which hired and dispatched nine superintendents in the past 12 years.

Glass wants the job of selecting board members to be turned over to mayors or governors or blue-ribbon commissions as is the case in some places.

I'm not sure Glass makes the case that such appointments would

de-politicize the process, but his observation that school boards,

particularly those in urban districts, operate in varying degrees of

dysfunction is worthy of consideration and our attention.

Maybe it isn't so much how school board members are selected as it is how they should be evaluated. We spend so much time and attention evaluating school site administrators, teachers, and curricula as determinants of student achievement that we have ignored the issue of how to evaluate school boards and their superintendents ostensibly the very top layers at the local level in our public education system.

With all the campaign rhetoric now at full volume, how is it that we've not given voters a thoughtful way to assess school boards and their members who run for election every four years? Students get report cards, teachers and administrators are evaluated, and schools are indexed for academic performance. Why not board members and the superintendents they hire? Is there a report card that grades a school district leadership's performance and effectiveness?

The answer is no. However, there are many who believe a district leadership report card would be useful, especially at election time when candidates spar over whether the glass is half empty or half full and are campaigning on the supposed merits or supposed flaws of the current district administration.

If such a report card were to exist, what might be its measurements? Glad you asked. The ones that come to mind include the following variables:

  • Is there a leadership culture that empowers others, provides vision and helps shape a culture and climate of understanding multi-cultural and ethnic differences?

  • Does the district's policy/governance mechanism emphasize teamwork in forming internal and external district policy and in defining expectations of performance as well as demonstrating good school governance?

  • Are there effective communications and community relations with students, staff, and parents, and the community as a whole, including beneficial relationships with the media? Is there good community feedback as well?

  • Does the district's organizational management stress the necessary skills to meet internal and external "customer" expectations and effectively allocate resources?

  • How about curriculum planning? Is district leadership current in the latest designs in curriculum, teaching, learning, and testing theories?

  • Does the district's instructional leadership ensure that highly effective teaching techniques are in place and that instructional resources are used to maximize student achievement?

  • Does district leadership manage human resources effectively by developing and implementing a staff performance evaluation system and applying ethical, contractual, and legal requirements for personnel selection, development, retention, promotion, and dismissal?

  • Are the district's leadership values and ethics emphasizing and modeling appropriate value systems, ethics and moral leadership?

  • Labor relations are a critical leadership function at not only staff but the board level as well. Are board members appraised of and knowledgeable about the labor negotiations process and the status of contract bargaining? Do they understand the need for productive relationships with employee bargaining groups?

  • Are there formal district goals in place and a process that reports on the progress towards attaining those goals?

    This list of appropriate measurements makes it abundantly clear that candidates have no business running on single-issue platforms. School district governance is multi-faceted and increasingly complex. Those who prevail through the election process and become seated board members should vow to work closely within the system and even closer with each other to

    advance their respective school systems.

    The education of our children requires massive cooperation and teamwork and a belief that we are doing more things right than wrong that the glass is half full, not half empty. More can be accomplished by board members and superintendents building consensus throughout their constituencies than becoming a noisy public spectacle and going it alone.

    Improving student achievement is not going to be accomplished by gadflies and political long rangers.

    Hovenic, Ed.D., is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the Foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. E-mail her at

  • October 16, 2002

    October 30, 2002

    November 6, 2002