Michael R. Ford is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. His research interests include public and nonprofit school board governance, accountability, and education reform.
By Michael R. Ford
Do school boards matter? Matt Miller, in his infamous 2008 Atlantic Monthly article, implicitly argued yes, calling for their elimination on the grounds that they are outdated barriers to effective school systems. Other works, including one by Jason Grissom and two pieces I wrote with Douglas Ihrke (see here and here), found a connection between school board dynamics and hard measures of academic achievement. So, to answer my own question, yes, school boards matter.
Rick Hess recently wrote that “…all policy can really do is foster the conditions under which good things are more likely to happen.” I think this is a good way to look at school board governance. An effective school board is the legitimizing body that creates the conditions for positive change within a school district. As such, there is a need to better understand what I call micro-governance, i.e. the way in which small groups (like school boards) work together in the governance process. Thus far, I have found that minimizing relationship conflict, maximizing trust and openness, and board member agreement on the meaning of accountability leads to better micro-governance on public school boards. But are the findings linking micro-governance to student achievement relevant to macro-governance reforms like charter schools? To answer my own question again, yes, I think so. Charter schools, like school districts, have governing boards with the ability to create conditions that maximize student performance.
But there are importance differences between public and charter school boards, most notably the way in which members come to serve; traditional boards are democratically elected, charter boards are not. A study I co-authored (which was nicely summarized on this blog) explored the many differences between charter boards and traditional school boards in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Charter school board members are, in general, more highly educated, more likely to be employed in the education sector, less concerned with the views of the broader community, more ideologically homogeneous, and less prone to conflict than traditional school board members. A deeper look at Minnesota charter school board members indicated that these group differences remained when controlling for board member and school characteristics.
The next step is testing the links between charter board governance and achievement in order to determine the extent to which these boards, like public school boards, can improve student performance through better governance. Thus far, Doug Ihrke and I are finding a connection between board conflict, productivity, and performance. Specifically, charter boards with less conflict are more active and engage in the governance process, leading to enhanced student outcomes.
We have a ways to go with this line of research, but the preliminary results suggest policy makers and nonprofit organizations in Michigan and elsewhere are wise to find ways to improve the governance behaviors of charter school boards. Better training can lead to better practice, and better student performance. Overall, I like to refer to this line of inquiry as the second generation of charter school research. We know that charter schools exhibit a range of performance, making it essential to shift focus away from the question of whether charter schools are effective, to the question of what makes charter schools effective. Governance may just be the answer.