Deconstructing school governance

Deconstruction has become quite a buzz-word in recent years.  It seems that almost anything which people regard as important has the capacity to be deconstructed – novels, ideas, artworks, philosophies, religions, language, political movements, bad arguments, family structures, systems of education, desserts, and so on.

First developed by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, deconstructionism seeks to critique established structures by pulling them apart to demonstrate their incompleteness or incoherence.  Derrida’s writings are famously dense and inaccessible (which suggests they might benefit from deconstructing).  The essence of his approach begins from the premise that the words we use are culturally determined, oppression-reinforcing, imprecise and inadequate reflections of the reality we are seeking to describe and analyse, and his philosophy proceeds from there towards its seemingly predetermined conclusions.

I expect that very few school board members have ever studied either Derrida or deconstructionism in detail, and my advice would be to leave things that way if personal sanity and any sense of optimism are valued.

Why, then, am I raising it here?

In my experience, not all deconstruction is explicit or intentional.  Unintentional deconstruction can be highly destructive for school boards and the schools they govern, and it is therefore important to know what it is and to recognise it.

Sound, sustainable, effective school governance follows an accepted, time-honoured structure.  Among the pivotal principles of sound governance are respecting the boundary between governance and management, fulfilling a range of fiduciary and non-fiduciary duties, acting in accordance with its constitution and policy manual, maintaining clear ethical, legal and financial standards, setting and consistently adhering to a clearly articulated mission, vision and set of values/principles, respecting confidentiality while communicating effectively, supporting its CEO (the Principal), and so on.

By definition, deconstruction means breaking down.  For both legal and operational reasons, none of the pivotal principles of sound governance described above should ever be deconstructed, but this is not to say that everything a board does should go unchallenged.  After all, practices are not the same as principles.  For example, boards which function in a tightly closed manner may consider giving a voice to staff, students, parents, alumni, or other groups – provided doing so does not dilute the board’s authority or autonomy.  In practice, this might mean (as an example) opening up the board’s advisory committees to these or other constituencies.  This would be an example of intentional, managed, conscious deconstruction.

A section of the Transfăgărăşan Road, or Route 7C, in Romania.

Board deconstruction can be either intentional or unintentional, and it can have both positive and negative impact.

I recall being told about a key member of one board who apparently announced (before I had begun working with that school): “Yes, I know that boards are supposed to govern and leave operations to the staff, but I quite like getting involved in the operational side of things.  So, hear me say this – I’m going to keep doing it”.  This was a board that lost its Principal and imploded shortly afterwards because of the micromanagement of this and other similarly intractable board members.  It was a clear example of conscious deconstruction that violated the sound principles of governance, and it was catastrophic for the school.  It should have been nipped in the bud by a strong board chair with the unanimous support of the entire board.

Unconscious deconstruction is both more common and usually far more insidious than conscious deconstruction.  It occurs when well-meaning but untrained board members slip into bad habits because of inertia, ego, or a simple lack of explicit training in effective governance.  The board doesn’t mean to violate the principles of effective governance, but it does so unknowingly because its members have never explicitly reflected on what they need to do to add meaningful value to the school.  It’s almost never the result of malicious intent.  Rather, it’s the consequence of busy, passionate, well-intentioned people being placed in important positions of responsibility with insufficient training, orientation or preparation.

In such cases, intentional positive deconstruction can actually be used to rectify the situation.  Any board that undertakes a process of re-examining its practices and priorities in the light of ‘best practice’ will discover benefits it never knew existed.  In such cases, deconstruction in the form of an independent board performance review will reveal the dross, uninformed practices and inefficiencies that are working to diminish the board’s effectiveness and efficiency.  Such intentional, positive deconstruction is like a necessary pruning that provides a foundation for RE-construction – the opposite of deconstruction. 

So why don’t all boards engage in regular, independent performance reviews to deconstruct ‘the old’ and then consciously reconstruct ‘the new’?  For some boards, the reasons are emotional or relational – they don’t want to expose the shortcomings of certain members.  This is a common but weak reason, because few boards would ever tolerate under-performance of the school’s paid employees on such grounds.  Research shows that school boards have a huge influence on the student outcomes, the staff morale and the community reputation of their schools, so the inclination by some boards to bury their inadequacies is short-sighted in the extreme.

Another reason that some boards don’t engage in performance reviews is that they are reluctant to spend money on themselves.  Although this argument may seem superficially noble at first (“the students need resources more than we need professional development”), it actually short-changes the students and the staff because it diminishes the board’s capacity to work effectively to provide the resources, the funding, the facilities and the environment for the school to flourish and reach its potential.  Under-investment in the board is actually one of the most savage forms of under-investment in many schools.

It may not be Derrida’s idea of deconstruction, but performance appraisals and reviews for school boards are essential tools in ensuring accountability, transparency, and continuous improvement.  These assessments help identify strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth, enabling school boards to make informed decisions and engage in a process of continuous improvement of adapting to the evolving needs of students, staff and the wider community.  By regularly evaluating their performance, school boards can enhance their effectiveness, demonstrate their commitment to educational excellence, and foster a culture of accountability that ultimately benefits everyone in the school’s community.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We help schools conduct board performance reviews that are tailored to each school’s particular circumstances and needs.  Please contact us by e-mail if you would like to explore the many options available.

Further information on board performance reviews is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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