Soon after I completed my fifth and final Headship, I returned to Australia and was asked by a former colleague, “What is your number one take-away after a quarter of a century as a school Principal?” I had to consider not only the schools where I had served as Principal, but also the many others I had visited or evaluated as a member of various accreditation teams. I am by nature a positive person, and yet I eventually replied using an uncharacteristic double negative: “I cannot think of a single school that could not be improved with better Board governance”.
That does not mean that most Boards are disastrous any more than it implies that most schools are disastrous. However, it does suggest that most Boards are operating sub-optimally, probably unknowingly, and most likely because of inertia.
My answer surprised my colleague. School Boards and Administrators devote considerable energy and resources to improving student outcomes, raising teacher morale, developing facilities and ensuring sound management practices. However, unless they are deep in crisis, very few school Boards give sufficient time or attention to their own welfare, efficacy, operations or procedures. Even fewer Boards consciously consider the impact of their own ‘Board health’ on the operations and reputation of the school.
Are Board Members prepared to accept a sub-optimal level in their own operations that they would not tolerate in the school’s day-to-day operations?
Having worked directly with hundreds of Board Members, and having been a Board Member myself, I can count on the fingers of just one hand the few Board Members I have met who might place their own interests above those of the school. School Board Members rank among the most sacrificial, public-spirited and generous people I have ever worked with or known. And yet, even with that immense generosity of spirit, Boards can fall into the trap of blaming others when the reality is that their own policies, procedures and processes might be inhibiting the school’s effectiveness.
Boards know that they must accept responsibility for the school’s finances, legal obligations, risk management, mission, policies, safety, and the appointment and oversight of the Principal, as well as ultimately the school’s reputation and its viability. Yet too few Boards seem to appreciate how important their responsibilities to self-evaluate and to be evaluated are for the school.
Why is Board evaluation so important? Quite simply, effective Boards that operate according to best practices add value to their school. And Boards can only ensure that they are operating optimally if they can measure performance against clear, impartial criteria. Warm fuzzy impressions simply don’t make the grade in today’s competitive environment.
In the United States, school Boards routinely monitor their own performance, both through regular formal self-evaluations and independent external consultants. To date, such practices have been less common in Australia. However, as Boards appreciate the significant impact they have either to enhance or diminish their school’s effectiveness, it is imperative that regular Board training also becomes the expected norm here.
-Dr Stephen Codrington