Board Impact on Student Success

By Robert D. SommersNovember 20, 2013 | Print

Motherhood, apple pie, baseball, and the school board are institutions above reproach in America. Oh, everyone complains about them, but try taking one away and you will be met with fierce opposition. But what impact has the school board had on student success? Are school boards making a difference?

To answer this question, we must first determine what school boards actually do on a regular basis and then determine if their work is correlated to student success. A study of 40 school boards in Ohio gives some insight.1 The study collected student success information, board member self-reported effectiveness ratings, and actual board actions as embodied in meeting agendas and minutes over a twelve-month period. It then analyzed the relationship between board actions, board effectiveness ratings, and student performance.

The Policy Governance model was used in the study to analyze the work of the boards because it matched the definition of high-quality board work embodied in the literature. The literature suggested quality boards should:

  • Understand and represent the owners’ expectations for the school district
  • Envision the future generally and the role of the school district in that future
  • Establish educational priorities for the school district
  • Measure progress toward achieving the educational priorities and determine the extent to which board policy is carried out by the district staff
  • Acquire information for decision making
  • Manage and evaluate the board’s work
  • Ensure board member development

The board actions were classified using the Carver Policy Governance policy categories: Ends, Executive Limitations, Governance Process, and Board-Management Delegation.2 An “administrative actions” classification was provided to track those actions not considered appropriate governance work by the Carver model (being neither about linking with owners nor policy development, nor policy monitoring). We assumed that all things not governance were simply administrative functions, and indeed, almost all of the actions that fell into this category proved to be approvals of administrative actions and proposals.

Board Impact on Student Success

The 40 school boards documented 8,220 actions during twelve months of meetings. On average, 78 percent of those actions were classified as administrative; in other words, they were actions unrelated to quality governance. Of the remaining actions, the average board allocated their actions as noted in the table above.

Incredibly, the average board spent less than 6 percent of their energy on setting school district direction, monitoring school district progress and compliance, and managing delegation of their power to the superintendent. I don’t recall a single action by the boards that dealt with learning from the ownership. There were no surveys, no feedback discussions, indeed no visible effort to link with owners at all. Even the best boards spent less than 45 percent of their time on what Policy Governance and the literature say is quality board work. In the worst cases, the boards spent less than 11 percent of their time doing board work.

When asked to rate their own effectiveness, the boards generally had a positive view of their performance. They rated themselves well in the areas of understanding and representing owner’s expectations, envisioning the future, acquiring information, and establishing priorities. They gave themselves high marks in the areas of measuring school performance and board operation. They did rate themselves less well in the area of member development. The boards seemed generally pleased with their performance, regardless of their school’s performance or their own board’s actions.

All of this analysis would be deemed irrelevant if board actions were leading to better student performance. Unfortunately, the study found no significant correlation among board actions, board effectiveness (self-reported), and student performance. Student performance varied among the schools in ways unrelated to the board’s actions or views. Further, boards did not consider student success when measuring their own effectiveness.

The 40 school boards analyzed in the study had no impact on their respective schools’ performance as measured by student success. Further, they appeared to be much more satisfied with their own performance than student success rate or the literature on effective boards would warrant. Further, only a small percentage of the boards’ energy was focused on governance.

So what is making a difference in student performance? What caused the variation of student success within the forty districts? The study didn’t address this issue, but literature is emerging in this area and it points to two major factors in improved student performance: quality teaching and quality school district leadership. In particular, a major meta-analysis completed by McREL titled School District Leadership That Works: The Effect of Superintendent Leadership on Student Achievement 3 discovered these factors in improving student success:

  • District-level leadership matters
  • Effective superintendents focus their efforts on creating goal-oriented districts

–Collaborative goal setting

–Nonnegotiable goals for achievement and instruction

–Board alignment and support of district goals

–Monitoring goals for achievement and instruction

–Use of resources to support achievement and instruction

  • Superintendent tenure is positively correlated with student achievement
  • Effective superintendents appear to offer school leaders “defined autonomy”

Interestingly, quality board governance can lead to the conditions noted in this study and in turn can provide assurance of quality teaching. School boards, unfortunately, are not engaging in quality governance work and therefore are missing the opportunity to improve schools for their communities.

The Carver Policy Governance Model is aligned to quality board governance as defined in the literature. The model embodies the ideals for board effectiveness, but in general school boards are not implementing it. Although this study did not address the question, “Does Policy Governance lead to better school district performance?” it did conclude that current board practice does not lead to improved performance. It suggests that a change in how school boards function will be required if they are to be relevant in the educational reform effort. The study did find Policy Governance was very consistent with the literature on what school boards should do; and therefore Policy Governance should be a preferred choice for school boards to consider as they try to become more effective.


1Sommers, R. D. An Examination of the Relationships Among Policy Development Practices of Joint Vocational School District Boards of Education, School Board Effectiveness, and School Performance. Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1998.

2The original research used the older term ‘Board-Executive Linkage.’

3Waters, J. T. and Marzano, R.J., School District Leadership That Works: The Effect of Superintendent Leadership on Student Achievement. Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL), 2006.

At the time of original publication, Robert Sommers, PhD has served on several nonprofit boards, including being elected to a school board and serving as superintendent of a high-performing school district. He is currently the CEO of a growing nonprofit charter school management organization in Detroit. He is also president-CEO of Cogniac Consultants, whose focus is helping create high-quality school district governance and leadership in support of creative, talented school leaders and faculty.

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