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Does Your School Board Have a Governance Mindset?

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Today's guest blog is written by Davis Campbell, retired executive director of the California School Boards Association and senior fellow, University of California, Davis, Center for Applied Policy in Education. 

School district governance is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated functions in education. How school boards and superintendents work together, or not, is one of those issues that almost everyone thinks about but few know actually know what to do about it.

In The Governance CoreMichael Fullan and I spell out the fundamental, non-negotiable elements of highly effective governance systems in school districts and why they work. The premise is simple. Our vision is of a dynamic, powerful governance system, school board, and superintendent working together as a cohesive, unified team with a common unity of purpose driven by a shared moral imperative.  

You're probably wondering how to do that? 

Based upon 40 years of work with high-performing, and some not so great, boards and superintendents and the lessons from the international work of Michael Fullan on coherence, moral imperative, and system change, we begin by focusing on why some school board trustees and their superintendents are highly effective and many others are not.  

What we have found in working with hundreds of high performing, effective school board trustees and superintendents is that in every case, they govern with a profound commitment to quality education for all, combined with a deep understanding, sometimes learned sometimes intuitive, of what governance is all about. 

We call this understanding a governance mindset. 

The big difference involves understanding the difference between politics and governance. Politics is what happens around elections—and in the case of ineffective school boards continues to happen on a daily basis, often favoring narrow groups. Governance consists of setting direction and the ongoing oversight of the district between elections and is intended to serve the needs of the whole community. Shifting from campaigning to governing is what the governance mindset is all about. 

What do we mean by governance mindset?  
It's not so dissimilar in concept to what we expect teachers to have in classrooms: a strong, well-defined instructional, pedagogical mindset. Or what we expect managers to have: a strong, well-defined administrative mindset. So, since governance is a totally different organizational function, it is not unreasonable to expect that trustees should have a strong, well-defined governance mindset. 

Our book provides the essence of what this work looks like in practice and corresponding ideas and strategies for getting better at it. Governance has its own unique responsibilities in the education system. Many unsuccessful boards are the result of a failure of trustees to understand the difference between the unique functions of governance and the ongoing work of administration and curriculum and instruction. There are four ways that Fullan and I offer to break that cycle through a governance mindset. 

Four ways to have a governance mindset are:
1. Systems Thinking - First, having a governance mindset means being a systems thinker. Trustees with a governance mindset understand that governance is a systems job, and that means ensuring that the school district, as one of the most complex organizational systems in most communities, is as effective as it can be. Actions by the board cannot be taken in isolation.  

Governance is a zero-sum game. Every decision taken by the board has an effect, often unanticipated, on something else in the district. An effective trustee, either elected or appointed, connects the dots; they understand how all the pieces in the district fit together. 

2. Strategic Focus - Having a governance mindset means having a strategic focus. Trustees with a governance mindset understand that governance is a strategic job, not an administrative or tactical job. The secret sauce to effective governance is the strategic progression, in a coherent way, through the steps of defining and reaching agreement on the moral imperative, creating a unity of purpose, and adopting strategic goals. The operational focuses of the board and superintendent have to be on achievement of the moral imperative of raising the bar and closing the gap for all students in the district. That is the essence of the governance job. Otherwise, the moral imperative is simply a wish or belief.  

3. Deep Learning - Having a governance mindset means being a deep learner. Trustees with a governance mindset realize their governance power through their knowledge and deep understanding of the issues surrounding the moral imperative and the actions and programs necessary to achieve it. It is not possible to make quality governance decisions without a deep understanding of the programs upon which the board is making decisions. Purposeful superintendents understand that the quality, accuracy, and truthfulness of information provided to the board are directly related to the ability of the board to govern effectively.  

4. Public Manner - Having a governance mindset means trustees manage their public manner. This is one of the most important and often least appreciated traits of highly effective trustees. Trustees with a governance mindset always mind their manner. Such trustees model civic behavior and understand that how they govern as an individual is often more critical than what they say or do. Above all, they are very conscious of modeling the behavior they want the children in the district to emulate.

It is not only trustees that need a governance mindset. Superintendents also need to have a fundamental understanding of the principles of governance. The most successful superintendents with high-performing districts are purposeful in their engagement with the board. They support a governance culture based on collaboration and trust, leading to a high level of coherence. Most importantly, they share a moral imperative with the board. But having effective individuals on a board is not enough. It is the total group that must work well together. In virtually every organization, boards govern not individuals. 

So how is it that some boards are consistently highly effective and others are not?  

The answer can be found in the collective awareness and culture of the board as an organizational unit, as a team, board and superintendent working together. The dominant characteristic of most dysfunctional boards is their inability to find common ground. At the core of this lack of coherence is a lack of understanding and agreement about the nature and purpose of the work of the district. 

Virtually every highly effective board governs with a unity of purpose driven by a shared moral imperative. These boards are highly engaged in supporting the work of the district. They are, in Michael Fullan's terms, coherence makers. ... Because coherence is subjective, lack of coherence, like a string of dominoes, leads to a breakdown in collaboration and trust. In turn, this leads to a toxic governance culture, thereby making developing a shared moral imperative and subsequent commitment to strategic goals virtually impossible.

The key to creating the dynamics leading to a well-developed governance system is in taking purposeful action to create the infrastructure that provides the framework within which trustees and the superintendent can work together. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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