If you ask one hundred people “what is the purpose of public schooling?” you will likely get a range of responses.  But, if you boil all those responses down, you will arrive at something to do with intellectual development, social-emotional development, and career development, the stated goals of education in British Columbia. 

The Purpose of Public Schooling

Where you will quickly get agreement from those hundred people is on a shared expectation that public education will achieve its stated purposes.  In other words, the public holds its schools accountable for the ultimate educational value – student achievement.

So, where do boards of education fit into that expectation?  In British Columbia, the legislation is clear: “A board is responsible for the improvement of student achievement in the school district”.  Beyond responsibility, it turns out that there is considerable evidence that boards of education can and do positively affect student success and well-being.

Research Supports the Claim: Boards of Education do Make a Difference

There have been many studies over the last two decades to determine if boards of education make a difference. Researchers conclude they do, but not simply because they are in place.  The studies demonstrate that boards make a difference when they are collectively focusing on student achievement and governing in ways that support that focus.  By studying school districts where students do well and other similar districts where students are low achievers, researchers have been able to isolate practices that are important for boards of education to follow.  There are several such studies and they agree on what is important.

The original Lighthouse Study conducted in Iowa, along with follow-up studies that use the framework developed in the original study, are particularly influential given the extent of their work.  Other studies conducted more recently in Canada and the United States continue to confirm the factors identified in Iowa.  While not concluding that the boards cause student achievement, studies do suggest that boards of education that behave in certain ways have an observable and positive impact on student achievement.  The practices include the following.

Effective boards of education:

  1. Commit to a vision of high expectations and high-quality instruction for all learners and align district goals towards that vision.
  2. Share strong beliefs about what is possible for students and their ability to learn and the system’s ability to teach all children at high levels.
  3. Spend more time focused on policies to improve student learning.
  4. Commit to collaborative relationships and actively engaging staff and the community in the goal of improving student achievement.
  5. Expect evidence and embrace data, even when negative, to continue to strive for continuous improvement.
  6. Align and sustain resources, especially professional development, to meet district goals.
  7. Lead as a united team across the district with strong collaboration and mutual trust.
  8. Actively engage in their own learning to build shared knowledge, values and commitments.

In Practical Terms

The list above is widely used by boards across North America as guidance for their work.  In fact, the Iowa Association of School Boards has developed a set of standards for effective boards based on these practices and offer them for use by local boards as a common framework for excellence in board governance: visionary team, student learning, district culture, policy and legal, fiscal responsibility, and advocacy.  But in practical terms, what does all this mean?

Focus – The most important point in all the studies is that in high achieving school districts, the board of education deliberately and determinedly focuses on student achievement.  The board makes it clear to everyone in the community that they have high expectations.  In one study researchers found that when the board was not focused on students learning and achievement, teachers and administrators were equally diffident.  Similarly, in school districts where the board accepted that student achievement was the responsibility of teachers and administrators, there tended to be lower levels of achievement. And a factor that separated the higher achieving from the lower achieving districts was the board’s belief that all students could achieve at higher levels.

Align – In higher achieving school districts, the board of education not only has a clear vision and high expectations, the board supports the vision with alignment of their work. The board monitors student achievement, and focuses decisions, policies, and resources on realizing their vision.  They demonstrate to the schools and community members that they have student learning as a priority.  They engage the community, communicate with them, keep them apprised of progress.  They accept that they are accountable to the community for student achievement.  A study showed that in school districts where boards seldom discussed student achievement results and did not base financial and other decisions on good information about student learning and improvement, achievement levels were lower.

Team – Hiring the superintendent is one of the most critical decisions that a board can make.  And, many studies confirm that a strong board and superintendent relationship is a crucial component of a successful school district reaching its goals.  There needs to be trust between the board and the superintendent.  In districts where achievement levels are high, the board expects information to assist in decision-making from the superintendent and in turn, the district staff leader supports the learning of board of education members and helps to build their capacity to govern.  Trustees are usually not educators and they may not be entirely knowledgeable about pedagogy or curriculum.  Fortunately, these are not the strengths that trustees collectively need to make a difference.  They rely on the superintendent to be an educational leader, but they do not become a rubber stamp for decisions the superintendent makes. There is a clear understanding of the different roles of the board and the superintendent, and a collaborative culture that enhances the leadership and operations of the district.  Researchers found that in school districts where trustees felt left out of the information flow and where they generally deferred to the superintendent, achievement levels were lower.

A Local Example

Vision, alignment and team are present in the Sea to Sky School District (SD 48).  In 2013 the school district, along with the community, embarked on the development of a strategic plan.  They note “Our Strategic Plan is intended to inspire and guide great learning, and you can hold us accountable for that. The principles in The Plan guide all decision-making, including budget development, facilities management, staffing, and professional development.”  The elements of the plan focus on student achievement and the activities of the board are aligned with that focus.  The board collaborates with the superintendent and the community is kept apprised of progress.  As a way of keeping community informed and celebrating success, the school district recently posted the following student achievement results:

Sharing Success: Our Latest Six Year Completion Rates

We’re pleased to share our graduation completion rates from the 2017-2018 school year. We’re proud of the amazing work of our graduates and grateful to all members of our school community who all contribute to the success of our students.

The Ministry of Education provides data on the percentage of students who graduate from high school within 6 years of entering grade 8.  The following table shows our results since the 2012-2013 school year:

Year Resident Aboriginal Total
2012-2013 88.4% 72.8% 82.1%
2013-2014 92.9% 81.1% 81.7%
2014-2015 92% 77.9% 75.2%
2015-2016 89.9% 81.7% 79.8%
2016-2017 96.9% 86.1% 93.3%
2017-2018 100% 95.3% 97.3%

A demonstration of the collaboration between the trustees and superintendent was a joint presentation at the CSBA National Aboriginal Gathering in Whistler in July 2017.  Needless to say, the board is proud of the achievements of the students in the district.

British Columbia enjoys considerable success in student achievement levels on international assessments.  Could it be that even higher levels are possible? Boards of education have it in their power to aim for exactly that.  By doing the right things, boards of education do make a difference.  Some maintain it is a moral imperative that they do.