Board-Savvy Superintendent

Keeping Board Members in Touch With the Classroom

by David W. Gordon

An elected member of the school board — I’ll call her Jeanne — entered the kindergarten classroom at Morse Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., to find 20 eager 5-year-olds engaged in a reading lesson. Earlier, she had heard concerns in the community and among staff that the material now being taught to kindergarteners was “too academic, too difficult to master,” the books were “too scripted” and “all the fun had gone out of kindergarten.”

Jeanne watched intently as the children moved swiftly from sounding out letters to oral reading. “They seem to be having fun,” she whispered to me during our visit. She walked around the room as the lesson proceeded, looking over each child’s shoulder and examining their workbooks.

After the direct instruction phase of the lesson ended and one of the two teachers in the room took the children for story time, Jeanne approached the other teacher. “I’ve heard from some teachers and parents that our kindergartens have become too academic,” she asked. “I’d like to know your thoughts.”

The teacher was honest in responding. “Yes, kindergarten is more academic because the state’s standards for elementary grades are far more demanding than in years past. But the children here (a Title I school) will need all of these skills and more just to keep up, and we’re determined to get them ready for 1st grade.”

As Jeanne probed further, the teacher shared with her how the district had adopted materials in collaboration with instructors and how the materials were fast-paced and held the children’s interest. And as for fun being squeezed out of kindergarten, the teacher conceded that while less time existed for developmental activities, in no way were they gone altogether.

Up-Close Learning

Now that states and school districts are enacting ever more rigorous standards, instructional materials and assessments, school board members are asking more questions, as they should. Superintendents would be wise to have strategies ready to help them learn more about the new standards-based environment.

I use these practices:

  • Arrange opportunities for board members to visit classrooms, observe teaching and talk to teachers and other staff. It is one thing to have a study session in the board room to review instructional materials or tests, but it is much easier to learn by watching a hands-on lesson and talking to participants.

  • Don’t steer board members to a particular school or classroom. Let them choose. When Jeanne asked about the state of kindergarten, I blocked off my schedule for a full morning of kindergarten classroom observations. When I picked up Jeanne, I asked, “Where would you like to visit?” The schools in my district knew that the superintendent’s style was to show up without prior notice, so my appearing with a board member was not a huge surprise.

  • Encourage board members, if they have time, to visit multiple schools. Our new board president, a veteran of the board, asked for a “refresher course” on the recent changes in elementary standards, materials and teaching techniques. She asked my office to help her schedule morning sessions in the elementary schools where the principals would take her on classroom walk-throughs. This gave her a chance to get our principals’ perspectives on how their roles had changed in the wake of a more demanding curriculum.

    I’ve also encouraged board members to work with principals to observe parent-teacher conferences. This gives board members without children in the school system a firsthand view of how skillfully teachers share information with parents.

  • Find ways to take board members through schools as students and staff prepare for standardized testing, as well as on days when testing is conducted. Of course, you don’t want board members to disrupt the testing setting, but it is helpful for them to see firsthand the care taken in preparing for and administering tests. It is also helpful to let board members see how teachers use test data to guide instruction. Set up a time for board members to observe teachers conferencing about standardized and interim classroom assessments. This will help the board respond to parent questions about the value of student assessments.

  • Schedule time as the superintendent to debrief board members about what they observed during their visits and to solicit suggestions they might have for strengthening the program. You will gain feedback from a different perspective than if you had gone on the visit alone.

Routine Observations

Discussion of curriculum, instruction and assessment should be at the heart of school board deliberations. After all, teaching children is why we are in business, and all of our financial and operational departments should work in support of quality classroom instruction. Be sure to spend time at each board meeting on these issues.

I’ve found it helpful to provide board members with briefing books on each program area and to conduct study sessions several times a year. These sessions last about two hours and focus on a particular instruction or assessment issue. It is important to have a few principals and teacher leaders on hand to provide site- and classroom-level examples to respond to board members’ questions. But no boardroom study session can replace hands-on school site visits and firsthand visits to classrooms. They should be a regular part of your board members’ schedules.

David Gordon is superintendent of the Sacramento County Office of Education, 10474 Mather Blvd., Sacramento, CA 95826. He previously served as superintendent in Elk Grove, Calif. E-mail: