Effective Boards

If a hospital cures its patients, it will be judged as being a good hospital. Other factors will of course be considered before forming this judgement, such as the quality of facilities, the ideological approach taken, and whether or not the staff are friendly and communicative. Notwithstanding these factors, the hospital is likely to be judged primarily on its effectiveness in fulfilling its basic core function, which is to heal the sick.

For the mainstream community, schools are appraised in the same way. The quality of facilities must be adequate, the philosophical approach must be acceptable and it helps when the faculty and staff are personable, helpful and caring. Irrespective of these factors, however, very few people would claim that a certain school is ‘good’ − or excellent, exceptional, or outstanding − if it is failing in its core purpose of achieving strong, sustainable student outcomes.

Different schools will prioritise ‘student outcomes’ in different ways. For some schools, academic results will be the primary focus. For others, it might be producing well-rounded students. For other schools, the priority might be highly ethical students, or students who follow a certain worldview or faith position.

Many Trustees (Board Members) believe that achieving excellent student outcomes is exclusively the task of the faculty and staff, under the direction of the Head. However, the research shows that Boards also have an important role to play.

This is not a new discovery. In a landmark study published in 1997 by Goodman et.al. data were gathered through 132 interviews to investigate the relationship between School Board effectiveness and student achievement. The study found that schools with ‘high quality governance’ tended to have higher student achievement as measured by lower dropout rates, higher percentages of students going on to university, and higher average aptitude test scores. Subsequent research has continued to reinforce these findings. For example, a 2011 study concluded that “effective school boards focus on policy issues that impact on student achievement and instruction”.

Given that high performing School Boards appear to raise student achievement, what can Boards do to improve their effectiveness, and thus help the students in their school?

Fortunately, the answers are quite clear.  Effective Boards understand the difference between governance (their role) and management (the Head’s role).  Effective Boards make decisions that focus on student needs.  They have efficiently conducted, focussed meetings that are supported by annual or biannual goal-setting retreats.  They have a supportive relationship with the Head.  Effective Boards work in a spirit of mutual trust and respect.

And importantly, effective Boards ensure that their effectiveness is sustainable by seeking regular external input and by evaluating their own effectiveness on a regular basis using neutral external advisors.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Goodman, RH, Fulbright, L & Zimmerman, WG 1997, Getting there from here: School board-superintendent collaboration: Creating a school governance team capable of raising student achievement, Educational Research Service & New England School Development Council, Arlington.

Johnson, PA 2011, ‘School board governance: The times they are a-changin’’, Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, vol. 15, no. 2, p. 98.