Several years ago, I witnessed a conversation between a new assistant superintendent in my school district and the superintendent. The assistant superintendent was mulling over a question posed by an elementary principal and asked for the superintendent’s advice.

Several years ago, I witnessed a conversation between a new assistant superintendent in my school district and the superintendent. The assistant superintendent was mulling over a question posed by an elementary principal and asked for the superintendent’s advice.

Instead of giving his opinion, the wise superintendent advised his assistant to let the principal make the choice. “Help her think through the various options, but she needs to decide,” he said.

Over and over, this superintendent led by allowing those who would be most affected by the decision to weigh in and make the decisions where appropriate. During this superintendent’s tenure, our district made great academic gains because teachers, principals and other staff felt empowered and were willing to explore new ideas and take risks.

Important Local Link

Our nation’s education system was designed so that decisions are appropriately made at different levels: the federal government, state legislatures, and departments of education have important roles to play in addition to local school boards. We should expect that their actions enhance appropriate local decision-making and don’t diminish the local role.

But we’ve recently seen a spate of partisanship, funding issues, and increasing competition for scarce resources in Washington. And I’m concerned that the top-down, command and control model of education, where Washington calls the shots, is overtaking our ability to encourage students and staff to be empowered and innovative.

There has been some discussion lately about whether we need school boards, whether there might be a better alternative to leadership at the local level. I am confident that school board leadership — which includes both elected and appointed boards — is overall working quite well, and here’s why.

School boards are the vital link between a local community and its public schools. Given that the vast majority of funding for schools comes from local taxes and the state, it’s important to have this robust connection to citizens’ and taxpayers’ oversight. School board members ensure that a community’s values, hopes, and dreams are alive in their public schools.

A Daunting Task

We also must keep in mind that the role of the school board is evolving. A recent report by the National School Boards Association and several other groups, School Boards Circa 2010, found that board members are increasingly focusing on student achievement, though they are rightly skeptical about the fervent drive to test, test, test and other No Child Left Behind Act mandates.

Well-known researcher Rick Hess and his assistant, Olivia Meeks, surveyed hundreds of school board members and about 100 superintendents across the country for this report, which is the largest and first national survey of its kind in almost a decade. They found that about two-thirds of those surveyed see an urgent need to improve student achievement, and nine out of 10 are concerned about an overly narrow focus on achievement.

We can’t ignore the impact of the economic downturn on our public schools. Declining revenues have led to program cuts and staff layoffs in most school districts by now, and this survey found that the major concern for school board members is dealing with the financial realities and decline in local real estate values and state revenues. More than two-thirds of board members ranked their funding and economic situations as extremely urgent. A report released in August 2011 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation noted that 20 percent of children are now living in poverty, and food insecurity is at its highest level in years, statistics that will no doubt impact schools and students’ learning. This comes at a time when our schools—and our country at large — are seeing increasingly diverse populations with special needs.

With all this on their plates, school board members have an important role to play in positioning our districts for a future that is in perpetual motion. To survive and flourish, we need to govern in ways that value creativity, dreaming, proposing, and risk-taking.

It’s a daunting task. But we know what works.

Characteristics of Effective Boards

Earlier this year, NSBA’s Center for Public Education analyzed the research that exists on school board governance. Without a doubt, we know that effective school boards have distinct characteristics. These include the ability to collaborate and create a shared vision of high standards with teachers, parents, students, business leaders, and community members. At the local level, we are capable and in a unique position to tap resources and engage with our communities.

Boards also should set tightly focused goals and rigorously monitor the district’s progress toward meeting those goals, use data to monitor and evaluate progress, ensure resources are allocated where they can make the most difference, and constantly strive to improve instruction and learning for every child.

The Center’s analysis found that the board’s relationship with the superintendent also is important. The most effective board members do not micromanage or delve into administrative issues, but focus on policy and setting the course for the school district. They create a trusting, collaborative relationship with the superintendent and other key administrators.

And this is taking place in school districts across the nation. Consider the Baltimore City school district, which with strong board leadership and a collaborative relationship between the board and superintendent, turned around a low-performing, large urban district. In less than a decade, the district made sizable increases in state test scores, significantly improved minority students’ achievement, and sharply cut its drop-out rate, making it a role model for success.

Facing the Future

In my own district, we saw student achievement climb through the roof when the board worked with the superintendent to set a vision of excellence and caring, ensured the direction was aligned with community values, and trusted our administrative and teaching staff to carry it out. Teachers and students alike developed a new love of school. In addition to excitement about learning, a pervasive spirit of caring overtook the schools. Test score improvement has been a consistent byproduct of this culture of excellence and caring, though never a target.

Our research and practices have shown us that improvement — and sustained growth — begins at the local level. If we are to generate innovative and creative problem solvers and ignite the potential in our students and staff, it will not be because state and the federal governments mandate accountability and testing. The seeds to creative problem solving are sown locally. The responsibility for improving student achievement and improving our schools must stay with the local school board.

Our School Boards Circa 2010 report showed that our school boards reflect our country’s extraordinary diversity and cultural complexity. We are able and willing to meet all the challenges our communities and school face now and in the future.

Dr. Mary Broderick is the 2011-12 President of the National School Boards Association. Dr. Broderick has served as a member of the East Lyme Board of Education in East Lyme, Connecticut since 1989, and her board service has included many leadership committee positions. Her service continues on a state and regional level, serving as a member of the Board of Directors of the Connecticut Association of Board of Education among other positions. Dr. Broderick completed her Doctorate in Educational Leadership at the University of Connecticut.