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From the Archives: School Boards: Strengthening Grass Roots Leadership

From the Archives: School Boards: Strengthening Grass Roots Leadership

As the new Every Student Succeeds Act shifts more responsibilities back to the state and local levels, the roles of school boards continues to be paramount. In 1986, IEL authored the report School Boards: Strengthening Grass Roots Leadership, which offered strategies for making school boards more effective.

Today, as it was true three decades ago, school boards continue to face challenges regarding their role in the community and in education policymaking. They struggle with the public’s lack of understanding regarding their local school board’s purpose, but maintain the public’s support for local education governance.

In creating the report, IEL assembled a team of six education experts with extensive experience in school board leadership, including then-IEL-president Michael D. Usdan and California State Board of Education president Michael Kirst (1977-81, 2011-present) to conduct case studies on school boards in nine major metropolitan areas to better understand the role of school boards and how they are perceived by the public. The resulting report, School Boards: Strengthening Grass Roots Leadership, drew from literature on school board governance and questionnaires from more than 200 school board chairpersons.

Many of the report’s recommendations for and indicators of an effective board still hold true today, noting that school boards should

  • Believe that advocacy for all students is its primary responsibility;
  • Use the strengths of diversity represented on the school board and in the community to meet goals for the school system;
  • Deal with controversy openly;
  • Work out division of responsibilities with the superintendent;
  • Invest in its own development; and
  • Collaborate with other school boards to influence state policymaking and funding

As community demographics and student populations continue to become increasingly diverse, the role of school boards in ensuring equity in local education becomes more complex and requires additional support from communities. To maintain public support for school boards and to grow a widespread understanding of how they work, especially as new policies around more-debated issues like accountability and testing are discussed and implemented, school boards must continue to be transparent about their decision-making and openly address controversy and questions with the community.

School Boards: Strengthening Grass Roots Leadership is available for free online through the U.S. Department of Education.