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School Boards

Vital Issues for School Board Members

  • Say what?
    School board members need to learn the buzzwords of the education industry, to be able to discern the meaningful from pretty-sounding but possibly dangerous babble. To start, go to our page, Eduspeak - Learning the Lingo.

  • This important article should be read by all school board members:
    "Nurturing The Life Of The Mind: If Schools Don't Value Intellect, Who Will?" American School Board Journal (cover story), National School Boards Association, January 2001. This is a wake-up call for school board members, alerting them to the anti-knowledge mentality that pervades education. Excerpts:
         "Our schools, with their high academic standards, high-stakes tests, and performance bonuses for improved achievement scores -- surely our schools are bastions of intellectualism? Not necessarily. Your parents and community, even your teachers and administrators, perhaps even you, might unwittingly be holding back your schools from cultivating intellect in your students and exposing them to the joys of the life of the mind. ...
         "Symptoms of pervasive anti-intellectualism in our schools aren't difficult to find. ... The idea that children must be entertained and feel good while they learn has been embraced by many well-meaning educators. In many classrooms, as a result, students are watching movies, working on multimedia presentations, surfing the Internet, putting on plays, and dissecting popular song lyrics. The idea is to motivate students, but the emphasis on enjoyment as a facile substitute for engagement creates a culture in which students are not likely to challenge themselves or stretch their abilities. ...
         "Project-based learning always has the potential to be based on fun rather than content, says former teacher and administrator Elaine McEwan. ... She uses the example of a class of academically struggling elementary school students in Arizona that spent 37 hours -- more than a school week -- building a papier-mache dinosaur. The local newspaper even ran a photo of the students and their handiwork. 'Those kids couldn't read well, and they spent all that time messing with chicken wire and wheat paste,' says McEwan."

  • "You Can Always Look It Up ... Or Can You?" by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., "American Educator" magazine (American Federation Of Teachers), Spring 2000. This is a powerful and dramatic article by Hirsch defending the role of knowledge in education. The question is whether a "skills" curriculum that emphasizes "projects", "research", "webquests", "reports" and the like is an adequate alternative to learning a rich core of knowledge.
    This article is highly recommended!

  • Lost In Action: Are Time-Consuming, Trivializing Activities Displacing The Cultivation Of Active Minds? by Gilbert T Sewall, "American Educator" magazine (American Federation Of Teachers), Summer 2000. Another powerful article from the AFT's magazine, this time calling into question the trend of extended projects in place of real learning.
    This article is highly recommended!

  • The Other Crisis in American Education by Daniel J. Singal, Professor of History at Hobart & William Colleges, Atlantic Monthly, November 1991. (The link is to another source that has posted this important and influential article.)
         "Two crises are stalking american education. Each poses a major threat to the nation's future. ... The first crisis, which centers on disadvantaged minority children attending inner-city schools, has received considerable attention, as well it should. ...
         "The second crisis, in contrast, ... involves approximately half the country's student population--the group that educators refer to as 'college-bound.' Although the overwhelming majority of these students attend suburban schools, a fair number can be found in big-city or consolidated rural districts, or in independent or parochial schools. Beginning in the mid-1970s these students have been entering college so badly prepared that they have performed far below potential, often to the point of functional disability. ...
         "Our brightest youngsters, those most likely to be headed for selective colleges, have suffered the most dramatic setbacks over the past two decades -- a fact with grave implications for our ability to compete with other nations in the future. If this is true -- and abundant evidence exists to suggest that it is -- then we indeed have a second major crisis in our education system."

Curriculum and School Boards

    It's the local school board, not the hired administration, that has the authority to approve curriculum
    What role does the school board have in approving curriculum?

    A step further: What responsibility does the school board hold when a lousy curriculum innovation infests the school?

    There often is confusion about the role of the school board in setting the direction for education in the district. Obviously, the board hires the superintendent, so it exerts great influence on this direction at that time. The exact duties and responsibilities of the school board vary from state to state.

    In Illinois at least, the role of the board in setting educational goals goes further. Here are some items from the Illinois School Code that relate to this:

    • "The school board shall direct, through policy, the superintendent in his or her charge of the administration of the school district, including without limitation considering the recommendations of the superintendent concerning the budget, building plans, the locations of sites, the selection, retention, and dismissal of employees, and the selection of textbooks, instructional material, and courses of study." (105 ILCS 5/10-16.7)

    • Moreover, the role of the superintendent regarding curriculum is legally restricted to making a recommendation to the board: The district superintendent is required to "make recommendations to the board concerning ... the selection of textbooks, instructional material and courses of study." (105 ILCS 5/10-21.4 )

    • Textbooks can only be adopted in the full light of day, and with board majority approval: "... textbooks and courses of instruction shall be adopted or changed only at the regular meetings of the board and by a vote of a majority of the full membership of the board ..." (105 ILCS 5/34-19)

    The Illinois Association of School Boards maintains this policy statement in support of local school boards in curriculum matters:

    "The Illinois Association of School Boards shall support the right and responsibility of each local school board to determine its curricular content."
    (Adopted 1981; Amended 1983, 1988, 2001)

    The school district in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania has formal statements of policy on their board's authority on curriculum. These make fairly good models for consideration by other boards, including here in Illinois. Here are some key excerpts:

    • 105. Curriculum Development (PDF):
      • "The Board is responsible for the curriculum of the district's schools."
      • "A listing of all curriculum materials shall be made available for the information of parents/guardians, students, staff and Board members."
      • "With prior Board approval, the Superintendent may conduct pilot programs as deemed necessary to the continuing improvement of the instructional program." [Emphasis added]
      • "The Superintendent shall report periodically to the Board each pilot program, along with its objectives, evaluative criteria, and costs."
    • 105.1. Curriculum Review By Parents/Guardians and Students (PDF):
      • "The Board adopts this policy to ensure that parents/guardians have an opportunity to review instructional materials and have access to information about the curriculum, including academic standards to be achieved, instructional materials and assessment techniques."
    • 108. Adoption of Textbooks (PDF):
      • "It is the responsibility of the Board to adopt all textbooks used for instruction in the educational program of this district."
      • In this district, the Board has the final say, just as in Illinois, but it takes a two-third vote for the Board to override the recommendation of the superintendent: "The Superintendent shall be responsible for the selection and recommendation of textbooks for Board consideration. No adoption or change of textbooks shall be made without the Superintendent's recommendation, except by a two-thirds vote of the Board."
      • "In considering the approval of any proposed textbook, the Board will evaluate its: ... (2) Freedom from bias."
      • "A list of all approved textbooks shall be prepared and maintained. It shall be reviewed periodically by the Superintendent or designee and made available for the information of the professional staff, Board members, students, and parents/ guardians."

    Bias and Curriculum

    We find it very ironic that the Illinois School Code encourages the adoption of something called "Anti-bias education" (105 ILCS 5/27-23.6) yet there is nothing in the code to require Boards or administrators to seek classroom textbooks that avoid bias!

Goals and Functions of School Boards

  • The Summer 2004 issue of Education Next magazine featured a compelling pair of articles arguing the relevance of school boards:

    • Introduction: The Future of School Boards: Agents of reform or defenders of the status quo? Excerpt: "Across the nation, urban officials are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the performance of elected school boards."
    • Steering a True Course by Sarah C. Glover. Excerpt: "Have school boards outlived their usefulness? Are they an anachronism? To answer these questions, we must consider why most school districts consistently perform at mediocre levels -- and why some districts fail children in vast numbers. ... Are school boards to blame for this state of affairs? No. But can school boards help to change this state of affairs? Absolutely."
    • Lost at Sea by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Lisa G. Keegan. Excerpt: "Cities across America are beginning to recognize that the traditional school board is no longer the embodiment of participatory democracy it was intended to be. The romantic notion that local school boards are elected by local citizens has been replaced with the reality that these elections are essentially rigged."

  • Are School Boards Accountable? by Bill Carlson, Education News. This school board member in California recalls, "Newly elected school board members [were] encouraged to attend a basic training session ... The training, when I attended, also included instruction on proper mindset imperatives that new board members were expected to assimilate and other survival-skill information [including these:]
    1. ... should [a] final vote not favor your position, support the majority decision anyway. "An essential quality of a good Board Member is a deep sense of loyalty to associates and to group decisions cooperatively reached." (Board Bylaw 9010)
    2. Support your administration.
    But ... over the past decade nearly all public school administrators in California advised their school boards to adopt deeply flawed reading and math programs for students in elementary grades. Apparently without accountability, trusting school boards were misled by ill-advised administrators."

  • "I could be advocating the next nuttiness in your life."
    Believe in Government, Believe in Me by Jim Fedako, June 30, 2006. An Ohio school board member writes, "one of the easiest ways to end a family reunion in anger is to begin telling siblings how to raise their children," but despite that, "I get to make decisions that affect the lives and future of other's children. All it takes is for an article in an education periodical or posting on a web site to catch my attention and I could be advocating the next nuttiness in your life."

  • Local schools? Don't make me laugh! by Alan Caruba, August 20, 2001: "As parents prepare to send their children back to school, more and more of them at some point discover that their local school board has no control whatever over what is taught in their schools."

  • A Misesian on the School Board by Jim Fedako, May 05, 2006.
         "The irony is that as the public school system slips ever further into disarray, more interventions are proposed and implemented. Each new program simply adds more layers of regulations, which then require new interventions, ad infinitum. ...
         "The problems are large and getting larger, though the solution is as simple today as it was over two hundred years ago. Why then can't the officials find the solution? Simple, they refuse to admit that they themselves are the problem. ...
         "I started my intellectual journey toward economic truths after I was first elected. At the time I believed in the system. Sure there were failures in the past, but I was going to be the one to set the right direction, I would be the omniscient one. But as Mises showed decades earlier, and Rothbard confirmed, there is no rational way to direct a government bureaucracy . In fact, it's impossible. It does not even matter if the elected or appointed board member or administrator is skilled in the market or knowledgeable about economics; all members of a bureaucracy are flying blind. ...
         "Bush proposes federal initiatives, state education departments add new programs, and local school boards pronounce missions and goals, but each can fix nothing. They simply form the current version of the Soviet Gosplan, creating five-year plans of improvement that will only create more havoc, more chaos. ... Two questions beg answers: What are the solutions? And, what am I doing serving the beast."

Rules, Laws, Elections

"Board Packets"

    Materials to be distributed to board members at their meetings are available for public access. This is often an excellent source to discover facts about a district, since these board materials often go into far greater detail than public releases.

    Rules on access vary by district. Typically, citizens can request copies of the board packet prior to a regular school board meeting. Some districts (e.g., Glenbrook High Schools, Niles Township High School) have simplified the process by providing all of the materials in the board packet on their websites.

  • Board Packets, comments by Lennie Jarratt on Education Matters: "It is a shame that a taxpayer has to continually FOIA these documents and provide them to public instead of the schools themselves. They continue to ask the taxpayers to provide money for education and yet they refuse to trust the taxpayer with information that would show how well they are spending the money we provide and how effective this money is utilized to increase student performance."

Information a School District SHOULD Provide

School Boards vs. Parents

  • "The concerned parent addressing the local school board has no power to influence any decision, nor do the taxpayers"
    Why Parents and Taxpayers Have No Say In Education by Tom DeWeese, May 14, 2001, Excerpt: "Parents across this nation are always astounded to discover they have no say in the education of their children. They may, if sufficiently stirred with concern, attend and even speak at a meeting of their local board of education, but the reality of who actually controls the education of their children is far more complex and distant. ... [Author John Taylor] Gatto points out that control of the education enterprise is distributed between more than twenty interest groups, each of which can be subdivided into warring factions. This removes the actual decision-making process affecting every single child from either their parents or the taxpayers called upon to underwrite the billions involved. 'The financial interests of these associated voices are served whether children learn to read or not,' says Gatto. ... Little wonder, then, the concerned parent addressing the local school board has no power to influence any decision, nor do the taxpayers who must ultimately pay the costs of an educational system everyone agrees is failing to prepare students to read, to write, to master the basic elements of arithmetic and mathematics. The broad-based knowledge of the liberal arts, history, literature, and science, necessary to make informed decisions, is so lacking that entire generations of Americans are at risk of knowing little of what they require to maintain and protect the nation."

  • Accountability Lost: Student learning seldom a factor in school board elections by Christopher Berry and William G. Howell, Education Next, Winter 2008.

  • Cartoons from "Weapons of Math Destruction":

Are School Boards Needed?

  • School Boards: Democratic Ideal Or A Troubled Anachronism? By Teresa Méndez, Christian Science Monitor October 21, 2003. "Resolved: 'School boards should be abolished.' This was the subject of a ... debate recently held at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. ... Both those who champion public school boards and those in favor of abolishing them argue passionately that schools must maintain a high standard of cost-effective education. And they must be accountable to taxpayers, students, and families. But are school boards the best body for achieving these goals? Chester Finn resoundingly replied 'no.' From behind a podium in Harvard's Taubman Building, the Fordham Foundation president called school boards the worst kind of anachronism. With wit and fervor, he likened them to 'middle management.' They are ripe for corruption, a springboard for aspiring politicians, and a venue for disgruntled former school employees to air dirty laundry, he said."

  • What's So Sacred About a School Board? by Fred Hiatt, Washington Post, Page A21, May 6, 2002. "Do we really need school boards? It's not a politically correct question -- anti-democratic, and all that -- but it's not an outlandish one, either. ... We don't elect our city police chief, or our county health commissioner or a board to govern road work. Yet no one sees that as a terrible denial of democracy. We elect mayors and city councils, or county supervisors, and expect them to balance the budget and deliver the services. If they fail, they get voted out. Why shouldn't the people who make the budget take similar responsibility for public schools?"

  • Who Needs School Boards? by Chester Finn, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, October 23, 2003. "None of the civic reformers who dreamed up public education's governance system in the late 19th century pictured such a creature. What we have today in the local school board, especially the elected kind, is an anachronism and an outrage. A dinosaur indeed. We can no longer pretend it's working well or hide behind the mantra of "local control of education." We need to steel ourselves to put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery and move on to something that will work for children."

  • Why School Boards? by Chester Finn, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, March 21, 2001. "There's a big debate in Cleveland about whether mayoral control [of school boards] should continue. Other American communities are weighing the merits of elected versus appointed boards. ... But that begs the truly interesting question, which is why do we need school boards at all? ... Too many school boards are scenes of bickering, log-rolling and vanity ... When elected, they often wind up being pawns of the teachers union. When appointed ... they mainly work to secure the interests of their patrons. ... Better still, let's face contemporary reality and redefine 'local control' of education. Matching it to municipal boundaries may have made sense in the 19th century but it doesn't today ..."

Observations

    From our page on education quotes, here are some items regarding school boards:

      "The [school district system] seems impervious to reform from within. In my experience, those who join district boards, even those who start out reform-minded, eerily become co-opted and wind up defending the system tooth and nail. It's just like watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
      -- Lisa Graham Keegan, former Superintendent of Public Instruction, State of Arizona

      "The traditional school district is one of the biggest obstacles to improving the public schools. Today's district is a rigid command-and-control system that offers dissatisfied parents no choices except, if they don't like the district school, to send their kids to private school or to home-school them."
      -- Lisa Graham Keegan, former Superintendent of Public Instruction, State of Arizona

      "...it has continued to amaze me that the concept of customer service doesn't seem to have ever sunk into enterprises like school boards in general."
      -- Scott Hochberg, Texas State Representative

      "In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then He made School Boards."
      -- Mark Twain (1835-1910), "Following the Equator," ch. 61, Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar (1897)

      "School boards are an aberration, an anachronism, an educational sinkhole ... Put this dysfunctional arrangement out of its misery."
      -- Chester Finn, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education

      "Contract restrictions are something about which school board members often complain. But, wait. How do these provisions get into the contract? Why, of course. The school boards agree to them. But they don't talk about that."
      -- David W. Kirkpatrick

      "Many conservatives cling nostalgically to the notion of 'local control' of education. ... But local school boards ... provide perhaps the greatest example of the inefficiency and dysfunctions of any government entities in the United States ..."
      -- Clint Bolick, Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government and the Erosion of Civil Liberty, p. 144.

      "If education isn't our mission and if we don't have anything worthwhile to say, then school boards are the managed living dead and we can hardly ask the public to see us as necessary."
      -- a school board member, writing in the American School Boards Journal, October 2001

      "The near-impossibility of true educational reform has been documented in a number of studies ... Now that I'm off the board and able to think more calmly, it is even clearer to me that the system can't be rehabilitated, only replaced."
      -- Howard Good, "Losing It, The Confessions of an Ex-School Board President"

      ""'Nature,' as H. L. Mencken so insightfully put it, 'abhors a moron.' The same obviously cannot be said of school boards who often hire them."
      -- Charles Sykes, 50 Rules Kids Won't Learn in School

      Definition of "micromanagement": asking about details that the superintendent wants to keep quiet.

      "In 1930 there were 200,000 school boards in the United States. Today, with twice as many citizens and three times as many students in our public schools, we have only 15,000. Once one of every 500 citizens sat on a school board; today it's one out of nearly 20,000. Once most of us knew a school board member personally; today it's rare to know one."
      -- Deborah Meier, writing in American School Board Journal, September 2003

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