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Clarifying the Role of School Board Members

Stephanie Hirsh image
Stephanie Hirsh

The school board sets policies and creates an expectation for the climate of learning that takes place in the school system. While professional educators do sometimes serve on school boards, most school board members are not professional educators and are probably less familiar with the concept of professional learning. The superintendent and other staff can engage board members with professional learning so that they understand their role in supporting such learning.

Board members should be able to understand the principles of effective professional learning and be able to discuss specific instances of how it supports student achievement in their school system. A long-term, multi-school system study, Foundations for success: Case studies of how urban school systems improve student achievement, shows us that "moving districts" can make those linkages. Throughout each phase of the study, researchers identified research-based professional development for staff as one of seven "conditions for improvement" evident in high-achieving school systems. More importantly, board members in those systems did not simply approve funding for such professional development but could describe specific examples of activities and their links to improvement plans. 

While in most cases, the superintendent is the chief advocate for professional learning, the day-to-day operations of the school system are typically delegated to a school system administrator. This individual helps the school board understand the importance of professional learning and the ways in which it contributes to continuous improvement and student achievement. If a school board is fortunate enough to have a professional educator among its members, that person can add a perspective based on previous teaching experience. If that is not the case, school boards can engage in dialogue with teachers, both formally and informally, to get their perspectives. Other school board members might relate the subject to their own work experiences and the role that ongoing improvement expectations have played in their businesses and organizations. 

To properly understand their role in continuous improvement through professional learning, a school board's members must study and learn together — demonstrating that they value learning for everyone on the team. A school board has a great opportunity when the subject of professional learning lands on its agenda. If the school system does not initiate the discussion, it might originate from the board table. Either way, professional learning is an important subject requiring the attention of school board members.

This post is adapted from A School Board Guide to Leading Successful Schools: Focusing on Learning 

Stephanie Hirsh & Anne Foster

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