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Government & Politics        < Previous        Next >


Book Review:

'The Essential School Board Book'


Q. I'm thinking of running for school board. How hard a job is it? With all the standardization in education, can a local school board still make a difference for kids? I want to help, but I don't want to waste my time; my family and my job have to come first.


A school board post can be as stressful and time-consuming as you make it. But of course, you'd rather have it be inspiring, challenging, fulfilling and manageable. And it can be all that, and more, if you go into the post well-prepared, and conduct yourself well during your service.


Be sure to talk to current and former school-board members in your area, confidentially, to see what they think. Find out how many OTHER meetings and phone calls are typical each month, on top of the regularly-scheduled meeting. Find out how often parents or others create hassles - is the atmosphere tense and suspicious? Are you up for that? Also find out if the apathy is gaping in your district and what efforts are being made to change that. An apathetic public may signal a district-wide attitude of smugness and self-righteousness, low morale among the staff, and a mediocre or poor educational product. Are you up to change that? Find out if the superintendent struggles for power or has personality conflicts with superiors and subordinates; remember that as a school-board member representing the public, you are the superintendent's "boss," but many of them don't like that reality and can be difficult and pull dirty tricks on you ("Didn't you get the memo?").


You might want to spend an hour or two in the district office, paging through the gigantic policy manuals that are characteristic of public-school districts. See if that material is something you would like to engage yourself with on a regular basis.


You might also ask to see the minutes of the last year or two of school-board meetings. It might be a red flag of poor quality if every single vote is unanimous - groupthink and gridlock. But on the other hand, you don't want to see a whole bunch of sharply-divided votes, either: that signals discord and difficulty.


For background information on how school-board decisions really can affect student achievement for better or for worse, read "The Essential School Board Book: Better Governance in the Age of Accountability" by Nancy Walser.


She's a former school board member in Cambridge, Mass., who is assistant editor of the Harvard Education Letter. She studied the actions of 16 school boards in different kinds of districts in urban, suburban and rural settings in an attempt to link what policies and practices led to the best gains in student achievement.


The book has been lauded for sharing real-world solutions, although observers agree that there is still scant scientific evidence that puts a clear cause and effect relationship between school-board policies and excellence in student outcomes.


The book is built around these five themes for a school board member to consider in decision-making:


         Building a foundation


         Staying focused on achievement


         Avoiding pitfalls


         When things go right


         Looking ahead





Homework: You can obtain the book from this website or any number of other sources:


By Susan Darst Williams Government & Politics 17 2011


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