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March/April 2014

Education reform: what board members should know
By Howard Bultinck

Howard Bultinck , is associate professor and department chair for Educational Leadership and Development at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, a search consultant with HYA Executive Search Division of ECRA Group, Inc. and a retired superintendent, Sunset Ridge School District 29 in Northfield.

As a school board member, you are part of a corporate entity charged by law with governing a school district and as such you sit in trust for your community. You are in good company with nearly 6,000 other school board members who are all searching to define and understand their role and purpose as board members, from ensuring fiscal accountability to employing the right superintendent. With so much to do and so little time, the notion of educational reform may seem a subject best left to district staff. While a 1993 research study from the Illinois Association of School Boards showed that this was true two decades ago, that was a time when Illinois school board members focused on rules, regulations and the maintenance of the status quo. It would be a huge mistake to think that way today.

As a concerned, dedicated board member, what thought have you given lately to any of the following educational reforms: Common Core, Response to Intervention ( RtI), No Child Left Behind (NCLB), The Illinois Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA), value added assessment, grade level restructuring, full day kindergarten, pre-school for all, technology infusion from laptops to Ipads, ubiquitous Internet access to extending the school day and/or school year? So many reforms and so little time! So what’s a board member to do?

Understanding and defining educational reform is a good place to start. Educational reform means different things to different people. Dana, a former school board member, recently told me that to him reform meant an overhaul of some major aspect of educational programming. Others may view educational reform as an attempt to improve a district’s financial position, upgrade its buildings, to improve relations with the community, to enhance staff or to change part of the district’s curriculum. Still others may think it involves anything from a moment of silence to year-round schools.

Most recently the discussion and definition of modern school reform surrounds improvement of student achievement. Critical components of school reform — such as standards development, assessments, and accountability provisions — must be aligned to achieve comprehensive and sustainable progress. “School reform is thus characterized by systematic schoolwide improvement strategies that include the entire range of a school’s activities from management and professional development to curriculum and instruction,” according to Michael Usdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington D.C, and a former school board member. The focus is improving student achievement. School board members have a pivotal and crucial role in making comprehensive and sustainable progress through school reform measures. They also have the responsibility to act responsibly and within the parameters of a school board member’s role.

How to act responsibly and within those parameters are best guided by the National Association of School Board’s eight interrelated action areas that reflect the “key work” of school boards in improving student achievement. These include: vision, standards, assessment, alignment, climate, collaboration, community engagement, and continuous improvement. These areas help define a school board member’s role and are all enhanced by, related to, and/or can be impacted by school reform measures.

“The purpose of this key work is to help school boards engage their communities and improve student achievement through effective governance,” according to the NSBA. Once again the critical focus is on student achievement.

Also, keep in mind that there are no quick fixes when it comes to educational reform. Sustained comprehensive reform requires a significant investment of time, frequently years, and is best enacted with the involvement of all stakeholders. The road to long-lasting successful school system improvement can frequently be navigated by using tried-and-true, commonly known measures of school improvement, coupled with a hard and steady work ethic. By documenting the success in an urban school district, David Kirp, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at U-C-Berkeley and author of Improbable Scholars— The Rebirth of a Great American School System and Strategy for America’s Schools demonstrated that the solution for transformation lies in implementation of sustainable, researched, easily recognizable and replicable measures that are commonly known, such as a challenging consistent curriculum tied from one grade level to the next, analyzing student test scores to diagnose and meet children’s needs, creating a high expectation for all along with a culture of caring, engaging parents in the schools as well as high-quality full-day preschool for all starting at age 3. Does this sound familiar?

It should also be noted that reform measures are frequently best implemented from within and not imposed from the top down. “Changing Schools from the Inside Out — Small Wins in Hard Times” teaches us to focus on small changes — changes that work and can bring about success for all students. Small-scale incremental change employs tried and true researched-based methods for school improvement and functions from the inside out with everyone working together to benefit students. The realization exists that change is complex and complicated, schools need collaborative efforts to make change succeed and the essence of long-term meaningful change should be from within the schools and within the staff. If improvement is the goal, reaching it in small increments and taking those small wins along the way is the way to go.

Helpful tips
Whether the reform is implementing “Common Core” or making improvements to existing programs, the following 10 tips should be helpful as you contemplate and deliberate your role and responsibility as a board member:

1. Ensure that the board has up-to-date policies that require a vision, mission statement, goals, and district strategic plan to guide administrators and all school reform participants in planning and implementation.

2. Ensure that the board also has up-to-date policies that support sound, structured educational reform by ensuring that collaboration among all school and community stakeholders is expected.

3. Keep informed on district opportunities for sustained educational reform from meetings with staff as well as reading sources such as The Illinois School Board Journal, American School Board Journal from NSBA and others recommended by your district’s administration.

4. Listen to the superintendent and administrative team and ask questions during reports on reform measures in the district. They are the professionals employed by the board to investigate, study, recommend and implement reform initiatives.

5. Use district and school functions as opportunities to learn more about how reform movements are being implemented and progressing.

6. Seek first to understand the issues and components of a reform and once understood, use time to an advantage by obtaining as much information as possible from reform measure terminology to details of successes and challenges before taking a position or making a recommendation.

7. Embrace change as an opportunity to move the district forward.

8. Try to understand the complexities and nuances behind change theory and remember that sustained meaningful change takes several years to be realized and become permanent.

9. Set the tone in your district for collaboration and cooperation among all stakeholders by modeling collaboration at board meetings, school events and places where people know you are a board member.

10. Communicate regularly and truthfully about reform successes, challenges and even failures; as we tell students, people learn from failures as well as success.

There are numerous challenges to successful school reform and a school board member’s role is a most important one. The road to improvement can be long and bumpy, filled with ups and downs and potholes, Success can come in bits and pieces. In the end though, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you worked to create a better place for students through reform measures that increased achievement.

Illinois Association of School Boards (2013). Foundational Principals of Effective Governance.

Kirp , David L., Improbable Scholars — The Rebirth of a Great American School System and Strategy for America’s Schools. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Larson, Robert L. Changing Schools from the Inside Out. Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011.

National School Boards Association, The Key Work of School Boards: Student Achievement, Retrieved from, 2014

Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL, 2014), The Board’s Role in Educational Improvement. Retrieved from

Usdan , Michael D., Usdan, “School Boards A Neglected Institution in an Era of School Reform,” Phi Delta Kappan, March 2010.

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