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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Education Reform Starts With Reforming Boards

By Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education

School superintendents and college and university presidents -- the chief executives of the education world -- don’t have much confidence in their boards.

Only 11% of college and university presidents strongly agree that their board members are very knowledgeable about higher education, and just 3% strongly agree that institutions of higher education institutions in the U.S. in general are well governed at the board level, according to a Gallup-Inside Higher Ed College and University Presidents Panel survey. When it comes to their boards, these leaders are more positive -- 38% strongly agree that their board is well governed. But still, this is a meager approval rating.

The results are similar for superintendents of K-12 districts. Only 3% of superintendents strongly agree that school boards in the U.S. are well governed, while 37% strongly agree their own boards are well governed, according to a Gallup-Education Week Superintendent Panel survey.

As the debate about how to “reform” education rages on, perhaps we should start with the very top -- with the board members themselves and how they are selected. For example, there is a huge difference between private and public college presidents' levels of confidence in their boards. Presidents of private institutions -- where they select board members -- are more than twice as likely to strongly agree that their board is well governed (45%) when compared with presidents of public institutions (20%) -- where most board members are appointed.

Amidst all the upheaval in the world of education -- from disruptive technology and global competition to rising costs and debatable outcomes -- we might have taken our eyes off the most important element of leadership. It’s easy to point fingers at presidents and superintendents, but behind each one is a board that is ultimately responsible for an educational institution. This raises two important questions:

  1. Are we paying close enough attention to who’s governing educational institutions today?   
  2. Do we have the right process in place to ensure that the best board members are selected and trained?  
Governance is critical to getting it right. Great boards hire great leaders. These leaders inspire great teachers, who engage students to help them reach their full potential. Bad boards, on the other hand, pretty much eliminate the possibility that anything great will come from the schools they govern. For as much as we worry about and scrutinize teacher and student performance these days, we do very little to focus on better leadership accountability at the board level.  

As a former "Young" Trustee at Duke University, I remember the rigorous process through which I was selected as a voting member of Duke’s board. The process involved a written 10-page application, interviews, the selection of three finalists, and then a vote by fellow student leaders and members of Duke’s student government. After being appointed, all new trustees at Duke went through a formal board orientation program, which included a full-day training session and a pile of homework. It’s too bad board members for educational institutions don’t all go through a rigorous process like this.

We need to think differently about how we select and train these board members. Many school board members are elected through popular vote or appointed by a political official. Many other members get board seats because of the large checks they write to their respective institutions. This doesn’t automatically mean these members are unqualified for the job, but it sure doesn’t guarantee that they are the best candidate either. We should be looking carefully at whether board members have relevant expertise in education, whether they are committed to being prepared and staying abreast of the issues, and how well they demonstrate having educators and learners foremost in their mind.

In addition to raising the bar on selecting better prepared and more dedicated board members, we also need to ensure boards are regularly training members and reinforcing governing “best practices.” The National School Boards Association (NSBA) and the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) have done a remarkable job providing training for boards and board members, and AGB has recently launched a National Commission on College and University Board Governance. We need more of these kinds of efforts, and we need more institutions to avail themselves of these resources.

As citizens, we must also raise the bar. We need to increase our vigilance over education boards, be more informed about education policy, and get more involved locally with schools and universities. After all, we are betting our future on how well these boards govern.

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