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Toward Redesigning School Board Governance

reviewed by Kenneth K. Wong - 1995

coverTitle: Toward Redesigning School Board Governance
Author(s): Jacqueline P. Danzberger, Michael W. Kirst and Michael D. Usdan
Publisher: The Institute for Educational Leadership, Washington
ISBN: 0937846562, Pages: 108, Year: 1992
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We are in the midst of serious rethinking about the design and practice of local educational governance. The last time governance was the focus of change occurred during the civil rights era of the 1960s. To promote greater access, reform efforts of the 1960s were directed at institutional responsiveness, racial representation on big-city school boards, and procedures and rules that would broaden citizen participation. In part because of the federal role, equity became a major concern in local resource allocation. Current reform efforts, in contrast, are primarily directed at the overall quality of educational services for all students. As Patricia Graham observed, "In addition to attendance and access for our children, we have now added a third and absolutely new goal, academic achievement for all our children."[1] Replacing the equity language of the 1960s in a subtle way, current reform is framed in terms of better outcomes. To improve schools' accountability to higher academic standards, reformers have proposed strategies that range from site-level management, parent empowerment, and choice, to professional development. Taken together, these reforms tend to reallocate power downward within the school district.

Efforts to promote shared decision making within districts raise a key policy question that so far has not been systematically addressed. What are the proper functions at the district's top leadership level in a system that allows greater decision-making power at the school sites? At issue is the role of the districtwide school board. Until now, policy reformers have rarely directed their attention to the proper role of the school board in the decentralized context. To a large extent, waves of reform in the last three decades have bypassed the board, which is securely situated between the schools and higher-level agencies.

But this is no longer the case. The three books reviewed here, among other recent publications, have placed the board in the forefront of the reform agenda. The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance, based on a thoroughly researched background paper written by Jacqueline Danzberger, observed that the school boards "are facing a serious crisis of legitimacy and relevance."[2] The study conducted by the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL), which is jointly authored by Jacqueline Danzberger, Michael Kirst, and Michael Usdan, "seriously question[s] whether the institution of the school boards can reform itself."[3] The volume edited by Patricia First and Herbert Walberg consists of nine chapters that offer a mix of scholarly works and opinion pieces on school board governance from diverse perspectives. Together, these studies raise questions about the current practice and design of the school board, issues that are critical to educational administration and governance.

This essay review will address three issues. First, I will examine the ways different studies define the nature of the problems in the current system of local governance. In this regard, I will briefly summarize the evidence that the studies presented. Next, policy recommendations will be considered. Finally, I will propose a few suggestions for further research in governing institutions.


In an op ed piece that appeared in the New York Times, Robert Wagner, Jr., a former president of the New York City Board of Education, warned that "local control of education is out of control." School reform will remain an "illusion," according to Wagner, unless school boards stay away from micro-management and focus more on setting policy.[4]

Wagner's comments succinctly capture the central argument of the report issued by the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance, whose members included Wagner, Ramon Cortines (now chancellor of the New York City Schools), and Adam Urbanski (president of Rochester Teachers Association), among others. The task force report and the background paper by Jacqueline Danzberger constitute a thorough examination of the problems and challenges that confront today's school boards. To put this study in proper perspective, there are about 15,000 local school boards governing over 90,000 schools across the nation (in the 1920s, there were 130,000 school boards). Although four out of five school boards are responsible for fewer than 3,000 students, the average size of each board has grown over the years. Today, one-third of the boards are located in five states: California, Texas, Illinois, Nebraska, and New York.

According to the task force, school boards are deficient in meeting today's major educational challenges. A restructured school board is needed to address three goals that are critical to the nation's future: that all students meet world-class academic standards, that schools are accountable for student outcomes, and that there is closer collaboration between schools and other services for children. The ineffective board is caused by several factors that are closely related to the formation and development of districtwide governance over the last century. First, the board inherits an ambiguous structure of authority. On the one hand, the centralized corporate management practices that were adopted by school districts during the Progressive era remain pervasive today. On the other hand, concerns for diverse representation that began in the 1960s have created constituent politics. Consequently, school boards become the most contentious public institutions in many cities. Second, the public has not questioned the board's power, in part due to popular beliefs that equate local control with districtwide board authority in the constitutional-legal framework of school governance. Finally, due to the progressive tradition of taking politics out of schools, school boards are largely isolated from other lateral institutions (e.g., health care agencies) in various areas that affect children.

Much of the argument presented in the task force report and its background paper is supported by the survey findings presented in the Institute of Educational Leadership study. The IEL conducted two waves of surveys. During 1986 the IEL collected information from more than 400 school board chairs in nine major metropolitan areas. Another survey covered school board members in 128 districts in 16 states during 1988 and 1990. The 1988/90 responses were based on self-assessment on sixteen sets of indicators concerning school board effectiveness. The overall picture is clearly troublesome for those who are concerned with educational improvement. Even school board members perceived themselves as least effective in "the core elements of governance--leadership, planning and goal setting, involving parents and the community, influence on others, policy oversight, board operations, and board development."[5] For example, the survey shows that boards use "inconsistent performance" measures to evaluate their superintendents. Further, less than one-third of the boards engaged in any form of self- evaluation. Not surprisingly, urban board members rated themselves as less effective than their counterparts in suburban, rural, and smaller districts. Clearly, as an institution, the school board lacks the organizational capacity to meet the new policy demands.

Although the IEL survey findings raise important questions about board effectiveness, the survey's reliance on the perception of a relatively small sample of board members may caution against overgeneralization. First, the urban versus nonurban differences merit further specification of the kinds of governing challenges encountered in the big-city setting. Perhaps readers would benefit from more case studies on big- city boards. Second, the use of a self-assessment questionnaire as a data-collection instrument can be restricted by whoever happens to be in the office at the time. In this regard, the IEL study does not report the distribution of the scores (i.e., standard deviation) on the indicators. We do not know how closely the responses clustered around the mean. We also do not know whether respondents interpret the question items in the same way or differently. Finally, responses from the school superintendents in the big cities should be disaggregated from the overall mean in order to provide more specific guides for reform.

The National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) volume, edited by First and Walberg, consists of a collection of papers that offer diverse perspectives on the changing roles and forms of the school boards. These papers deal with a wide range of important issues, including the legal and constitutional basis of the board (Charles Russo), problems in urban districts (Joseph Cronin and Sally Pancrazio), how board members see themselves (Michael Usdan and C. Emily Feistritzer), and the future of the board (Louis Miron and Robert Wimpelberg and Patricia First). However, the most provocative exchange centers on the question of abandoning the existing structure. At one end of the spectrum, Chester Finn, a former Reagan official in charge of educational research, calls for the abolition of school board. He sees local control as "a legacy of our agrarian past" and no longer an appropriate governing tool for the "high-tech" future. This "middle management" is seen as "superfluous" and "dysfunctional" because it is largely detached from the interests of the clients and the tax-paying public. Instead, the board is dominated by various service-provider interest groups. At the other end of the spectrum is the view that the board is doing a commendable job. Deeply concerned about Finn's argument, Thomas Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, counters that the board serves several indispensable functions. The board implements federal and state laws, evaluates educational programs, arbitrates complaints from citizens and employees, and represents the entire school population of the district. The middle management is needed, above all, as a buffer against powerful state and federal bureaucracies.[6]


The Twentieth Century Fund Task Force and the IEL study, however, conclude that boards are neither captured by special interests (as Chester Finn suggests) nor involved in strong leadership (as Thomas Shannon argues). Based on a thorough review of the literature and on the IEL surveys, the task force report takes a more balanced approach. It proposes the creation of a local education policy board, which will be free from all current state laws and regulations that specify "the duties, functions, selection, and role of school boards."[7] The new policy board differs from the current board in several aspects. First, the primary function of the new board is to develop strategic policy, establish overall curricular objectives, approve contracts, hire the superintendent, and provide broad guidelines on purchasing and contracting. The board, however, is not expected to engage in implementation details, such as negotiating contracts, hiring and firing principals, curriculum development, and approving purchase of school supplies. Further, local boards are expected to be free of their "quasi- judicial responsibilities," so that they no longer handle grievances from students, parents, and employees. Finally, to better integrate services for children at the city level, the task force proposes to form Children and Youth Coordinating Boards.[8]

To be sure, these proposals seem radical, as they require major revision in the current state legal-judicial framework that governs schools. But, as Danzberger argues in her background paper, the least the state should do is "to allow local communities to experiment with different governance models."[9] Perhaps this is one critical step that would give the school boards a real opportunity to move from the current structure to a new coherent vision advanced in the task force report.

The proposed restructured system is not without risk. If the task force recommendations were put in place, we would see a more diffused system of authority over school policy, perhaps even threatening our goal of promoting greater policy coherence. Various mini-boards with specialized tasks and legitimacy would be established. The mayor and other local/state agencies would have greater direct influence in schools and school-related matters. While coordination would require skillful leadership (which is rare), various boards and commissions might grant broader access to organized interests and citizen groups to the extent that a seemingly hyper-form of constituent politics could emerge. We do not know if the reconstituted board would have the political leverage over the many specialized mini-boards to forge consensual decisions on educational change. Educational goals and priorities could be compromised under intense pluralist bargaining when the central authority is weakened.


Taken together, these studies mark the first step toward more systematic research in educational governance in the new accountability climate. Let me suggest three preliminary ideas for further research--(1) the selection of criteria in evaluating institutional design and structure; (2) linking macro policy to classroom practices in a multilayered organization; and (3) specifying the proper functions of various governing institutions at the districtwide level.

First, researchers must decide on the appropriate criteria in evaluating institutional design. On what basis do we determine that one form of board governance is superior to another? Our judgment may vary in terms of the specific criteria that we choose. For example, criteria can range from (following the Parsonian scheme): (a) institutional functions (e.g., racial and ethnic representation, equity concerns, maintenance of a stable revenue base); to (b) managerial functions (e.g., reduction in the size and inefficiency of the central office bureaucracy); to (c) technical functions (e.g., making decisions that have direct bearing on teaching and learning). Using different criteria, the strengths and limitations of different sets of governing systems can be more critically assessed. Equally important, given the differences between city and suburban schools, we may want to consider using different benchmarks in evaluating the design of school governance. In other words, reform of any institution must not be evaluated in terms of a single variable, but ought to be assessed in terms of multiple purposes that a school governing system entails.

Second, the reform proposals discussed in the three publications generally lack a clear linkage to teaching and learning. Regardless of how well governance is designed, the ultimate objective has to be directed at the task of producing learners. Even the task force report has not addressed this important issue in a systematic manner.

Even in an increasingly decentralized climate, the board still maintains crucial functions--selection of the superintendent, disbursing funds according to various formulas, and evaluating students. The question is whether board decisions at the districtwide level can create the conditions for more productive processes at the school and classroom levels. With the policy impact on schools in mind, a 1987 report issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development(OECD) suggested several useful questions in assessing board performance. They include whether the board sets quality educational goals, provides the necessary means to achieve the goals, monitors the implementation process, and conducts regular appraisals of student performance in the school context.[10]

These concerns about the macro-micro linkages call for a more systematic understanding of the nature of resource allocation and utilization in a multi-level, complex organization such as the school system. As Barr and Dreeben suggest, labor in a decentralized school system remains divided and differentiated by tasks across different organization levels in a hierarchical arrangement.[11] Managerial functions performed at the districtwide level tend to define the kinds of fiscal and personnel resources that have a substantial bearing on school and classroom activities. Indeed, how the school operates is directly affected by such systemwide decisions as staff development, assessment standards, administrative promotion, interpretation of and compliance with state and federal mandates, and integration of school and other social services in the city. The top of the system, for example, exercises direct influence over the quality of middle-level administrators in charge of curricular development, program operation, and application of state and federal assessment standards to schools. An administrative cadre with strong professional training and aspiration can be both responsive to contingencies at various school sites and responsible to systemwide policy goals, thereby highlighting the importance of recruitment practices developed by the top of the system. Clearly, a realigned governance system would have direct bearing on teacher recruitment, staff development, curricular coordination, and other activities that affect the students at the school level. In short, the macro-micro linkage needs to be mapped out in a systematic, detailed manner.

Finally, researchers must clarify school board accountability in the broader institutional context where multiple powerful corporate actors make decisions that may constitute important constraints on educational policy. Indeed, these studies on the school board raise a broader challenge for researchers who approach the public school system as an institution. This latest round of thinking about the board must be expanded to include other governing institutions at the districtwide level, namely, the mayor's office, the central office bureaucracy, the superintendency, the teachers union, the media, and other organized interests. Specifically, we have not seen systematic studies on the role of the mayor in the appointment of school board members since Paul Peterson's analysis of how Mayor Daley balanced the interests between his political machine and the reform faction on the Chicago board during the 1960s and early 1970s. Peterson's frameworks of pluralist versus ideological bargaining remain an original contribution to the literature.[12]

Few empirical studies offer the kind of detailed account of the way the school bureaucracy operates produced by David Rogers and Robert Havighurst.[13] Likewise, we have not conducted a thorough examination of the superintendency in the tradition of Larry Cuban's research on the three urban school chiefs.[14] Finally, empirical research is needed on the changing power relations between the teachers' union and the school board,[15] the media, business, local colleges and teacher training institutions, foundations,[16] and other organized interests in the current context of school reform. In short, we need to reconceptualize the role of key institutions in local school governance.


1 Patricia Graham, "What America Has Expected of Its Schools Over the Past Century," American Journal of Education 101 (1993): 86.

2 The Twentieth Century Fund, Facing the Challenge: The Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance (New York: The Twentieth Century Fund Press, 1992). p. 1.

3 Jacqueline P. Danzberger, Michael W. Kirst, and Michael D. Usdan, Governing Public Schools: New Times, New Requirements (Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Educational Leadership, 1992), p. xi.

4 Robert Wagner, Jr., "Can School Board Be Saved?" New York Times, April 30, 1992, p. A23.

5 Danzberger, Kirst, and Usdan, Governing Public Schools, p. 56.

6 Thomas Shannon, "Local Control and Organizacratz," in School Boards: Changing Local Control, ed. Patricia F. First and Herbert J. Walberg (Berkeley: McCutchan, 1992), p. 31.

7 Twentieth Century/Fund, Facing the Challenge, p. 9.

8 Ibid., p. 118. v9 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Quality of Schooling: A Clarifying Report Restricted Secretariat Report. ED (1987): 13.

10 Rebecca Barr and Robert Dreeben, How Schools Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 9.

11 Ibid., p. 12.

12 Paul E. Peterson, School Politics Chicago Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

13 David Rogers, 110 Livingston Street (New York: Random House, 1968); and Robert Havighurst, The Public Schools of Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Board of Education, 1964).

14 Larry Cuban, Urban School Chiefs Under Fire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976).

15 Charles Taylor Kerchner and Julia Koppich, eds., A Union of Professionals (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).

16 William McKersie, "Philanthrophy's Paradox: Chicago School Reform," Educational Evaluation and PoliCy Analysis 2 ( Summer 1993): 109-28.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 3, 1995, p. 569-576
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 74, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 6:11:11 PM

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