Guest Column

It Takes a Team To Raise Student Achievement


Recent surveys tell us that boards and superintendents are basically supportive of one another and that stability among superintendents is greater than the pundits would have us believe.

But to be honest, if you trusted the stories and anecdotes that you hear, you would get a different and not very pretty picture. Even commentaries in this publication sometimes have perpetuated a stereotype about school board/superintendent relations.

So for the last two years, the National School Boards Association in collaboration with AASA has been exploring the key roles of the board and the superintendent. We have provided the tools, publications and training we believe our two organizations must have to help boards and superintendents develop what we call the leadership team. The most recent result is a book, Team Leadership for Student Achievement, which defines these roles and offers a guide on how to create a leadership team.

Climate Control
Boards and superintendents have different roles, but they must act as a complete unit. They must focus on how they can complement each other. It’s important to look at the superintendent as the chief executive officer who provides the board with important data and the critical perspective of a professional educator. Probably the most important role the board has is to select and strategize with the superintendent.

Team Leadership for Student Achievement outlines how the board and the superintendent should go about working together in setting a vision for the schools, establishing standards and identifying the assessment process to be used to measure student success. Together they must recognize that this work forms the accountability system, not only for the board to assess the superintendent and for the superintendent to assess the principals and teachers, but also for the community to assess the board.

It’s also essential for the leadership team to create the right climate for schools, to provide an exciting, thriving learning environment for both teachers and students and to develop a collaborative relationship within the community.

In recent years, the number of board-superintendent teams making a positive difference in the quality of education in their districts has grown substantially.

One good example is the Fort Worth, Texas, Independent School District. To address the countless challenges the school system faced, the board and superintendent began building a culture and a system for change that after several years of hard work has resulted in high levels of student achievement.

In the mid-1990s the Fort Worth schools were in trouble. But by developing team-building skills, displaying mutual respect and cooperation and staying clearly focused on the needs of the district as a whole, the board-superintendent team turned the school system around. The district developed a five-year strategic plan and initiated an array of new programs to increase student achievement by meeting with a wide variety of business and civic leaders, as well as with parents and employees. The district understood the need for broad public support and developed alliances with business, the faith community, organizations representing minorities and neighborhood associations.

The school board and superintendent of Fort Worth, along with those in Owensboro, Ky., Minneapolis, Minn., Omaha, Neb., and a host of other school districts, exemplify the new leadership team of the 21st century. Their work is part of the transformation in school leadership taking place across the country.

This new story of successful board-superintendent teams needs to become the standard rather than that oft-repeated wailing about micromanagement.

Defined Roles
To maintain momentum in the new millennium, the roles of the board and superintendent must be very clear. The board, for example, involves the community in setting a vision for the schools and supports that vision at all times. The superintendent, for instance, leads strategic planning initiatives and proposes policies for increasing student achievement. It’s when those roles become confused that the board and superintendent can become distracted from the true mission of the school enterprise.

Success comes with leadership and communication, hard work and teamwork and putting aside personal needs and previous bad habits. Every person who assumes a leadership position as a board member or superintendent has both the opportunity and the responsibility to work as part of a team to create a successful school district. Our clients, the American public, have made it clear they will tolerate nothing less.

Anne Bryant is the executive director of the National School Boards Association, 1680 Duke St., Alexandria, VA 22314. E-mail: Paul Houston is AASA executive director.