November/December 2022

Leadership Letter: Taking Steps to Meet the Challenge Ahead

By Thomas E. Bertrand

After the tumultuous past few school years, it was refreshing to see the return to in-person learning across our country.

Along with the excitement of the promise of a new school year, many students and staff returned to school this fall with invisible backpacks overflowing with needs. Perhaps it was the trauma of personal loss; the disconnect from friends, family, and dedicated educators; or issues of learning loss. The pandemic has and will continue to have a lasting impact on the needs of students and staff. The challenge ahead is to reconnect and recommit to meeting every child where they are — with no exceptions.

School boards believe in the shared moral imperative to meet every child where they are and to ensure that every child has access to high-quality educators, a safe and welcoming learning environment, and excellent academic and mental health programs and services. But belief is not a strategy, nor is hope. It is critical to connect these beliefs to concrete goals and measurable indicators of success that will improve outcomes for every child.

Many boards of education have responded to the impact of the pandemic and these “backpack” issues by resetting strategic plans and goals. A vital part of this process is to obtain clarity regarding two important questions. What do we want to accomplish? How will we know we have met our goals?
The Achilles’ heel of effective school board governance is often the lack of agreement or clarity about desired outcomes and the lack of trust in the data or evidence that will be used to support the board in its policy, decision-making, and monitoring roles.

In fact, disagreements on a board can often be traced back to a lack of confidence in the quality of information members receive. Mistrust in data or evidence provided can also lead to individuals seeking their own evidence — feeding a downward cycle of mistrust.

Clarity regarding expected outcomes and the measures of success that the board will use in monitoring the district’s progress are the critical initial steps to crafting an effective response to the lasting impact of the pandemic.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.