Can This School Board Be Saved? Author AJ Crabill Has a 5-Point Plan
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I have always held a skeptical view towards school boards, a viewpoint that has been ingrained in me since my time as a high school student attending school board meetings. As I have grown older, it has become clear to me that these meetings have remained remarkably similar over the years.
It is common to witness boards erupting in chaos over issues related to censorship and cultural conflicts. Additionally, heated debates often arise concerning various privileges related to opportunities, such as tracking, selective magnet schools, and adjustments to neighborhood enrollment boundaries. These distractions often overshadow the true purpose of school governance.
When I came across AJ Crabill’s book, "Great on Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective," I found myself agreeing with his statement that school boards are often ineffective. Crabill, a former board chair for Kansas City, Missouri’s public schools, draws on his experience working with numerous boards as the national director of governance at the Council of the Great City Schools.
As we approach the school board election season in 13 states, where voters will cast their ballots for Board of Education members in April and May, I had the opportunity to chat with Crabill before the release of his book on March 28. In his book, he argues that the current sorry state of school boards does not have to be permanent. He provides a comprehensive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses that boards bring to their work, as well as a five-step approach to making them effective.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
: Let’s begin with the backstory. How did the idea for this book come about? Why did you decide to write it?
Crabill: The intention behind this book is quite simple: to accelerate the shift of school boards across the nation from focusing on adult inputs, such as staff, books, programs, and facilities, to focusing on student outcomes. That is the central premise that guides the book. Everything else is just supporting details.
The book begins by examining how school boards often get caught up in adult inputs and highlights the negative consequences of this approach. However, the main focus of the book is to guide school boards towards intentionally and unapologetically prioritizing the growth and development of students.
I assume that your experiences on or working with school boards have influenced this perspective?
Absolutely. My personal experiences, the research literature, and everything I have read on the subject all point in the same direction: the areas that school boards prioritize do have a significant impact on student outcomes. When school boards place their emphasis on student outcomes, they are more likely to create conditions that lead to improvements in those outcomes. On the other hand, if school boards focus on trivial matters like the color of cheerleaders’ uniforms, then the result is a misdirected focus.
Your anecdote in the book about a board spending a meeting discussing the potential change in the color of their school buses was quite eye-opening.
Indeed, it was a striking example. One board member expressed their philosophical opposition to non-yellow school buses. These stories are not fictional; they are unfortunately true.
I completely understand. Having attended numerous school board meetings myself, I am no longer surprised by the outrageous comments privileged families make during these gatherings.
In fact, I would like to discuss a related tension. You suggest that the process of improving boards starts with clarifying a vision and setting priorities. However, in the current state of public education, there is often discord regarding the vision for American education. Board meetings often become platforms for arguments that do not directly address student outcomes. Do you believe that the process of electing school board members interferes with achieving a consensus and improving the boards?
Yes, that tension does exist. The improvement process begins with establishing a shared vision and setting priorities. This requires a level of consensus within the board and the community. However, the reality is that there are often conflicting visions for public education in America. This discrepancy leads to heated debates and disagreements that divert attention away from improving student outcomes. It becomes a challenge to align board members and keep them focused on the common goal.
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That is precisely why I propose that boards dedicate fifty percent of their time to prioritizing student learning. This still leaves the other half of their time available for other priorities that the community values, such as finances, transportation, or any other relevant issues. Our goal is for board members to prioritize student needs while also acknowledging the realities of their circumstances and ensuring sustainability.
Some education reformers have argued that school boards are beyond repair and that we should explore alternative models of governance. However, there is no substantial evidence to suggest that other governance models outperform elected school boards. Whether it’s transitioning to a board appointed by the mayor or adopting a hybrid model, these alternatives still tend to prioritize adult inputs over student outcomes. They may fail for different reasons and in different ways, but they ultimately fail nonetheless. The data doesn’t support the notion that changing the selection process alone will solve governance issues.
Instead, I propose a more nuanced and practical approach through a five-step continuous improvement process that can be implemented immediately. We don’t have to wait for new legislation, the right superintendent, or the right stakeholders. This process involves focusing on priorities, monitoring progress, aligning resources with goals, and sharing progress with the community.
When it comes to managing controversies like book censorship debates, we need to shift our focus from specific arguments to the underlying community values at stake. The board’s role is not to simply determine where to place stop signs, but to understand and protect the core community values, such as safety in the case of stop signs. Similarly, when it comes to book selection, the board should codify community expectations and establish "guardrails" that protect the values underneath. Different communities will have different values surrounding books, and it is the board’s responsibility to represent these diverse visions and values. The district’s education team can then work on translating these values into daily practices within the school system.
Variety in perspectives and values is something to be celebrated, as it reflects the diversity of our nation. Each geographic community should have a school board that aligns with the values that its residents seek. However, this becomes more challenging in areas where the vision is contested, particularly in countywide systems that encompass urban, suburban, and rural regions. In these cases, boards may consist of individuals with varying ideological leanings, making decision-making more complex.
Title: Successful Strategies for Transforming School Board Behaviors
The successful recall of San Francisco school board members highlights the importance of addressing the underlying causes that lead boards astray. In my experience working with school boards nationwide, I often emphasize the significance of changing adult behaviors to improve student outcomes. The key drivers for behavioral change among adults are knowledge, skills, and mindset.
To initiate change, it is vital for board members to evaluate their existing knowledge. Do they have clear goals? Are they investing time in matters that directly impact students’ knowledge and abilities? It is crucial to differentiate between adult inputs and student outcomes, a challenge that can be overcome through training on state requirements and best practices.
Ineffectiveness can arise when board members fail to utilize their time efficiently and effectively. It is essential to identify the necessary skill set required to transition from status quo behaviors to those that have the most significant impact on students. Developing and honing these skills can be transformative for both the board and the students they serve.
The Power of Mindset:
Mindset plays a pivotal role in driving behavioral change. Viewing the world from a new perspective enables individuals to behave differently. Consider a school board that believes a student named AJ simply lacks the desire to learn. This mindset may result in behaviors that justify excluding AJ from educational opportunities. However, adopting an alternative mindset, one that acknowledges AJ’s desire to learn but recognizes a gap between their current abilities and aspirations, prompts commitment to bridge that gap.
Change in Action:
The remarkable aspect of mindset transformation is that external circumstances need not change for progress to occur. The take on little AJ, as an example, remains unchanged, along with the board members’ knowledge and skills. Yet, by perceiving AJ as a willing learner and acknowledging their role as a bridge, the board can deploy their existing knowledge and skills in a powerful and transformative manner. This mindset fosters resilience, particularly in education, where challenges are inherent. An empowering mindset supports teachers’ resilience in classrooms and boardrooms alike.
Shifting to a new mindset can be challenging. Early childhood education research underscores the significance of intervening during a child’s developmental years. However, it is critical to recognize that shifting adult behaviors is often more arduous. School boards can navigate this challenge through a combination of training and coaching. Research highlights the substantial impact of coaching in conjunction with training, leading to significant improvements in student achievement.
The Role of Coaching:
Boards must be willing to seek coaching and support, as well as embrace behavior change. I have been fortunate to witness school districts undergo this transformative process, resulting in tangible improvements. During my tenure on the board in Kansas City, we doubled the percentage of students reading at grade level, increased graduation rates by 15 points, and achieved full accreditation from the state for the first time in decades. This success was possible through a combination of training, coaching, and a willingness to embrace change.
Without a doubt, the book contains numerous concrete ideas that can greatly improve a school board. However, if you had to give one piece of advice to elected members, what would it be?
Collaborate with your board chair to determine the extent to which your meetings prioritize student outcomes. I conclude the book by emphasizing this, informing readers that if they’re ready to take the next step, a link to a time-use evaluation is provided. Take the time to evaluate your recent board meeting and analyze where your time was spent. Then, convene with your board and engage in a sincere and curious discussion about whether this is truly what we want. Should we continue with this pattern or should we dedicate more attention to student outcomes in order to truly make a difference in student performance?
School board members have a genuine desire to see their students succeed. Based on my experience, when board members are confronted with this reality, it sparks a sense of urgency and encourages them to take action.
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