Do school boards who play nice improve student learning?

I sit next to columnist Kyle Wingfield in the AJC newsroom, and we have been discussing the SACS report on APS.  Wingfield has a post up today echoing a commentary I ran a few weeks ago questioning the focus of SACS on school board politics rather than on the CRCT cheating scandal or the disputed graduation scores. Take a look at his column.

When I read the AJC story on the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and its parent organization AdvancED, I wondered about the stated purpose of the accrediting agency — to improve student achievement — and its efforts of late — to sanction rambunctious and bickering school boards.

As someone wrote about the SACS report at the Get Schooled blog: First, the report seems to be premised in part on a questionable basic assumption that any board which divides itself by a close vote on important issues is somehow dysfunctional and deserving of sanctions.  (Are not sharp and close differences to be expected occasionally on democratically elected bodies?) In fact, the report expressly warns the board not to elect the new superintendent by a 5-4 vote.  While this is probably a very wise policy recommendation, how and why it possibly relates to whether the system should be accredited is difficult to fathom.

In the Sunday AJC story on the accrediting agency,  AdvancedED CEO and president Mark  Elgart said, “Although leadership issues appear to get the most attention in the media and community, most of our work centers on helping schools and school systems improve conditions for student learning. In fact the vast majority of our accreditation sanctions and required actions relate to teaching and learning.”

Do we have any evidence that school boards influence student achievement and student learning? I certainly believe that a strong superintendent can affect achievement. I will point to J. Alvin Wilbanks in Gwinnett and Andre Alonso in Baltimore as proof. And school boards hire the superintendent.

But once the superintendent is in place, how much of a role does a school board play in just how good or bad the schools are or become?

I wonder how much payoff there is to focusing energy on whether the school board plays nice or whether it plays politics? (By the way, applying the SACS standards for conciliatory and cohesive school boards to city councils or the Legislature would put many government bodies in the state on probation.)

Yes, the Clayton board was a mess, but the schools were slipping into atrophy and under achievement long before that particular set of rogues ran for office and took over. I admit they were a distraction, but were they the main problem with Clayton’s slow march to under achievement?

Are there examples of school systems that soldier on even while their school boards duke it out? And aren’t there school boards that vote unanimously a lot and still have weak schools?

And to the question I ask again and again: Are elected school boards still relevant when school systems are now massive entities with budgets in the hundreds of millions? Would schools lose any ground if there weren’t elected school boards?

–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog.

24 comments Add your comment

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Neil Sullivan and Lisa Dubernard, Maureen Downey. Maureen Downey said: Do school boards who play nice improve student learning? [...]

Bruce Kendall

February 3rd, 2011
11:52 am

We are going through the SACS accreditation process this year and SACS no longer spends measurable time looking at schools. As a school Council we were asked to complete seven “Stakeholder Review of AdvancED Accreditation Standards,” documents. All of the questions were System level questions.

They were titled, Vision and Purpose, Governance and Leadership, Teaching and Learning, Documenting and using results, Resource and Support Systems, Stakeholder Communications and Relationships, and Commitment to Continuous Improvement.

I have been observing my Board twice a month since October 2008. To answer your question — “Do school boards who play nice improve student learning?”

The answer is Yes and No. The person impacting learning most at the system level is the Superintendent. There are ethics issues that encourage board members not to get hands on involved in the learning, teaching, and assessments of students.

School Board Members are not the hands on players in this game, they are more like owners, or General managers who let the coaching staff do their job.

They have a negative impact when they start taking the hands on approach and try to do someone else’s job.

They also have a negative impact when they do not hold the Superintendent accountable.

There job is to be professional, and not take, or make everything personal. When they violate this, they have a negative impact as well.

To answer your question succinctly – if they are incompetent, and/or uninformed they have a negative impact.

My apologies for being so long winded.


February 3rd, 2011
11:53 am

“Playing nice” is not the issue. Respecting each Board member’s opinion realizing he/she is coming from a different prospective than you are, listening to their reasons for seeing an issue as he/she does, and not letting egos get in the way of doing what is best for students are the keys to being a good Board member. (Kyle’s grandmother would give me an “f” for that sentence.) Doing your research in order to be as knowledgeable about an issue as possible is another “key” to being a good member. You cannot just walk into a meeting and vote with your emotions.


February 3rd, 2011
12:03 pm

The boards are necessary to keep superintendents in check. Without them, you could have a dictatorship in the making. There does, however, need to be some checks and balances for them. Split votes aren’t the problem; it’s what the votes split over and what role or motivation board members have in a given issue. As a Clayton veteran, I can tell you the schools were already in decline, but the stress and confusion caused by a bickering and tampered-with board hastened that decline as qualified, devoted veteran teachers, many of whom had served years and years with the system, left as fast as the wheels would carry them.


February 3rd, 2011
12:31 pm

No they do not improve a students education; although some level of cooperation is important.

The last thing we need on a school board are people who think and believe the exact same thing. In my opinion, if they are inclined to “group think”; I would prefer an opposing board to counter that perspective.

We have two political parties for a reason; we probably need a few more. How would any of you feel if we truly had only one ruling party in this country; who all have the exact same beliefs?

A board who always agree is just like a dictatorship to me.

Just Wondering

February 3rd, 2011
1:13 pm

At issue was compliance with the state charter, which sets the guidelines for governance. What made this dysfunctional was that all decisions became majority decisions and the Board President began operating like a dictator appointing committees, holding press meetings, referring to issues as facts without accurate information, etc. without the full board input.

Effective boards impact learning by insuring the conditions for it can occur without being impeded by policy or member interference. Have we forgotten that in the old days, boards controlled superintendents and members asked for favors and contracts. This distraction created the conditions for a SACS and others to ensure that Boards stayed out of the way but provided guidance and oversight. That’s why the Charter was adopted in 2003.

The APS Board gets a lot done, when its not about who’s in the center chairs. I never felt is was truly “dysfunctional” but because the 5 invited SACS in, where are where we are.

BTW – SACS does not accredit APS K-8 only the high school, which is why the CRCT was not a review point for the organization. Can’t wait to see the bill we get for the GBI and Special Investigator. It better be worth it.


February 3rd, 2011
1:16 pm

If boards have to be agreement, why elect a board at all? Just have a single person who dictates everything. Dissent and debate are healthy components of any type of voting. Revoking a system’s SACS accreditation on boards that disagree is pointless and wrong. It is supposed to be about the quality of education going on in the schools.Clayton schools were sub-par before they lost their accrediting, while they were without it, and after they got it back.

Lake Claire Boy

February 3rd, 2011
1:34 pm

@Just Wondering Your point that SACS only accredits high schools and APS, and the CRCT is only given K-8, is a good one. But still, the main reason for the divisivenes on the board over the past year is over how to deal with the CRCT cheating scandal. You cannot address the board’s divisiveness in a vacuum.

No Dictator

February 3rd, 2011
1:37 pm

In Cobb we have a dictator named Fred Sanderson and before him was General Redden. Why nowhere in this discussion of school boards and Superintendents are the PARENTS. We provide the product (our children) to these school systems and yet we are treated as stupid, ignorant, pests. Unfortunately, because many parents have been made to feel unwelcome in our schools, we have let our school systems become these large expensive monsters with educrats that love to earn their big paychecks by reinventing the wheel. I believe that definitely we need elected school boards and I believe we DO NOT need a superintendent. One of the top high schools in this nation and state, Walton, is a charter school and let me be very clear….it is the parents that run this school, not the superintendent!


February 3rd, 2011
1:42 pm

I personally feel the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) has lost its focus. This agency has recently been focusing on governance more than the educating process. Our school system uses a SACS evaluation for the purpose of accreditation, but a GAPPS analysis of school climate to identify weak areas of instruction. (sorry I do not know what the acronym stands for)

Using the GAPPS analysis, our school leadership and instructional teams develop a “road map” of continuous improvement. There are seven “strands” of each school evaluated and once the results are presented, a 45 day action plan is developed and implemented to strengthen any identified weak areas. The system leadership evaluates the results of the action plans and reports these findings to the school board. The board then holds the superintendent accountable to produce evidence of continuous improvement.

DeKalb Educated

February 3rd, 2011
1:51 pm

The Leadership of the School Board does set the tone for the system. They are the ones that are the face and voice of our school system. Wonder why we do not attract businesses to DeKalb these days? Listen to our School Board members speak. Listen to their grammar. Then listen to our acting superintendent. Then let’s examine the decisions they make. Any confidence in their leadership. Their impact upon morale? DeKalb is a mess and Maureen you urged everyone to vote and make changes last November. Few changes were made but not enough. Now, the county is losing more money in a law suit against the contractors who lost their work due to the corrupt leadership of the people hired by the BOE! It’s a circus and it is not a well run school system. Play nice? Play with some rules, ethics and integrity – all would be a breath of fresh air!

What if

February 3rd, 2011
2:15 pm

Without having the time to read the posts this stop, COMPETENT boards likely at least don’t DAMAGE student learning by helping to keep the system running while providing public oversight to the process. SACS, on the other hand, likely has little influence one way or the other – other than when they show up to make extra work for the minions.

Of course!

February 3rd, 2011
2:44 pm

“Do school boards who play nice improve student learning?”

Of course they do! Just look at our own example. The Atlanta Board of Education members were getting along nicely, and everything was peachy. Then those 9 started to squabble, and *presto*, what happened? 58 schools started to cheat, and the super started whitewashing the whole thing.



Do I have my time line wrong?

Seriously, Wingfield’s column nails it.

At this point, yes, under the threat of a gun, the BOE has to do “whatever it takes”, make nice, or make it look like they’re making nice, and residents, especially parents of high schoolers, are right to be anxious that that happen.

But it surely looks as though SACS has taken sides in a political fight … and it’s taken the wrong side.


February 3rd, 2011
2:46 pm

While the bickering of some school boards is clearly a distraction from learning, having lazy school board members can potentially be worse. There is one school board in which I NEVER saw some members speak, even after I attended a number of meetings. Two members of this particular school board simply did nothing or very little to contribute. I agree with EnoughAlready that a school board that is in constant agreement is about as bad as a dictatorship. I’ve seen some silly, damaging decisions come down from both types of groups.

Just too much

February 3rd, 2011
2:58 pm

I don’t think it’s so much that a good board makes a system better; it’s that a bad board can destroy a system. I am also of the opinion that no school district should be as large as DeKalb. We have at least 4 reasonably-sized systems in our county alone. I guarantee if the system split into 4, even with repetition of leadership positions, there would be a huge cost savings. In smaller systems where there are, say, 5-7 high schools, the central offices have maybe 25 employees and school boards with 5 members who represent the entire district – not one particular area. I don’t know that there is anyone who actually wants to take on a system this size in this bad shape.

Bruce Kendall

February 3rd, 2011
3:57 pm

SACS Accreditation is for systems including all schools. GAPSS is for Georgia Assessment of Performance on School Standards


February 3rd, 2011
5:24 pm

Local system, about 5 years ago, had a school board member who kept pointing out problems, making known his reservations about things the board was okaying. The superintendent and one of the other board members ran to SACS, who threatened the system with dis-accreditation. It stepped in to silence the board member who disagreed, and he resigned.

Now, this same system is finding out that the things he warned against, the things he loudly disagreed with, have come home to bite them to the tune of millions of dollars. Yet, because SACS was willing to insert itself in the local board votes (requiring that the board member shut up to keep accreditation), the harmful policies continued to be followed. I hope someone remembers this!

SACS needs to be critically examined; it has overstepped its authority. Perhaps it is time to audit it, and clip its wings.

Top School

February 3rd, 2011
6:02 pm

That’s why they don’t really care if there is cheating…misuse of funds, and unethical people working with their children.

If anything…being able to manipulate and influence unethical leadership could open some opportunities for their children…that’s how these folks work.

Top School

February 3rd, 2011
6:10 pm

A sad set of RULES TO PLAY by…
And all the same people are running this show. They are all friends to the system…and “HOW IT WORKS”

PSC / Warren Fortson / Reich / Cesspool of Inequity
Who? helped who?…in this political cesspool of inequity. Before helping, did anyone research the information provided??? or Did those in power fall for the manipulation in Reich’s Rhetoric? Did she deceive everyone?…or Was this another neighborhood political favor?


February 3rd, 2011
6:40 pm

If schoolboard members do their job then they absolutely could have an influence on improving student learning. I have known for way too many years, had just one Gwinnett County School Board member listened to all the shady goings on at our alternative school, we would have about 14,000 students better off today. The problem is those that play nice-nice are probably not standing up for policy violations that they know exist. Otherwise, getting those schools on the right path would not have taken 7 years.

Hannibal Hamlin

February 3rd, 2011
8:34 pm

Cobb’s Board Chair has such a vendetta against the Leadership and Administrators of Cobb; she is going to run everyone off. Only 12 people even bothered to apply to be Superintendent, 12! SACS needs to look into her leaking information about the Superintendent search and going outside of the process and seeking out her own candidates.


February 3rd, 2011
9:19 pm

Do away with the local BOE and elect the Superintendent.

Dr. John Trotter

February 3rd, 2011
9:42 pm

Maureen: I noticed that I said a lot on the link of January 20 (I believe that this was the date). There’s no sense in saying it again. But, in a capsule: SACS is a money-grabbing organization that feeds at the public trough by simply threatening school systems with the loss of its almighty accreditation which is full of fluffy, feel-good standards which are unrealistic in Real Politick. A school board, by design, is a democracy in action. Mark Elgart and SACS are apparently not comfortable with democracies but prefer oligarchies. For the self-perpetuation of this institution, SACS tends to allow itself to be used by the powerful elite in this state. Its focus in Atlanta is entirely off the mark. Entirely. Mark Elgart and SACS, I believe, are willing pawns of the Big Business Mules in Atlanta. This accreditation stuff is all about power, control, and money. It doesn’t have a hill of beans to do with what actually goes on in the schools. As Mr. Norreese Haynes described a similar SACS Report in Clayton County in 2008, I too will call this current SACS Report “a sham and a farce.” Read it. It is a joke.


February 6th, 2011
7:13 pm

Those who complain about the effectiveness of GCPS school board and superintendent have personal agendas. Readers, be cautious.