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Communications and Marketing

School boards matter

A “laser-like focus” on student achievement by a local school board can contribute to positive academic results, according to new research.

 A national study of school boards across the country found that boards that prioritized student academic achievement above other goals for their district were, all else equal, more likely to oversee better student performance outcomes in their home districts. 

“Simply by focusing their energies squarely on raising academic achievement and making policy decisions that were directly based on what was good for kids in the classroom, boards saw a strong academic return on investment,”  said Michael T. Hartney, assistant professor of politics at Lake Forest College, who conducted the study with Arnold F. Shober, associate professor of government at Lawrence University. 

The two studied data from a national survey of 900 school board members from 417 unique U.S. school districts, along with those districts’ demographics and pupil achievement records. They focused primarily on school board “capacity”— i.e., whether boards demonstrate accurate knowledge of actual district conditions, believe that improving student learning is important, and engage in a particular set of work practices while overseeing their districts.

“The study is, to our knowledge, the first large-scale effort to gauge the capacity of board members to lead America’s school districts effectively,” explained Hartney. The research was supported by a grant from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

The professors shared their results at the Maine School Management Association’s annual meeting of some 600 school board members and superintendents across the state, in October.