Toward Coherent Governance

The creator of the Policy Governance model describes a new role in which the superintendent operates like a genuine CEO by JOHN CARVER

The chief executive officer's role in public education is one of the key managerial responsibilities in a free society. The long list of stressors on public education and, in particular, on the chief executive are well known. Yet many today would argue that the most destructive stress for superintendents is their relationship with their board of education.

Working for a board can be harmful to one's health, as the longevity of superintendents may indicate, in part because boards are the least disciplined, least rational and most disordered element in any school system. The board is, in fact, the weakest link in the educational system. It seems obvious that administrators and teachers know their jobs immeasurably better than boards know theirs.

I have seen firsthand the damage done to the CEO role and to superintendents personally by board behavior we have come to accept as normal. School governance is fraught with the ironic combination of micromanagement and rubber stamping, as well as an array of tradition-blessed practices that trivialize the board's important public policy role. (My criticism of boards is not an argument for direct state control; in fact, much of the inanity in school governance is caused by states' Byzantine requirements.) Any superintendent in the country can recite horror stories of wayward and destructive actions by even prominent school boards.

But school governance is not alone in this befuddled state. Governance in all fields is woefully behind management in conceptual development and useful paradigms. Having dedicated, intelligent persons on boards does not correct the inadequacy, for the fundamental problem is one of process rather than people.

The concepts and practices of governance are hobbled together more by historical accident than by design. Management had much the same history until the acceleration of management study and particularly management theory in this century. Boards of business corporations, nonprofits and governmental organizations have lacked a theory of governance compelling enough to provide a framework for board decision-making, process, structure and general behavior.

By a theory of governance, I mean a conceptually coherent paradigm with both managerial and public policy respectability. My own model, known as Policy Governance, is arguably the world's only existing theory of governance applicable to all governing boards. The model requires as much discipline of boards as boards require of staffs, calls upon boards to be strategic and visionary leaders and imposes a set of carefully crafted principles to distinguish board decisions from managerial and professional ones. Because it is a conceptually coherent paradigm, the model differs radically from governance promoted for years by the National School Boards Association and other sources of conventional wisdom.

Wide-Ranging Effects
Because Policy Governance has become relatively familiar, having been described in more than 150 publications, including Boards That Make a Difference, this examination looks specifically at how this approach affects superintendents of schools. Let me precede a summary of those effects, however, by noting a few salient features of the model:

  • Governance is seen as a specialized form of ownership rather than a specialized form of management. That is, the board is more identified with the general public than with the staff and more akin to the phenomenon of owning than of operating. Hence, a school board does not exist to run a school system, but on behalf of those who "own" the system to govern those who do.

  • The board as a body is vested with governing authority so that measures to preclude trustees from exercising individual authority are crucial to governance integrity. This means that instructions and advice of individual trustees do not have to be heeded by staff. The board, on the other hand, exercises strong control, albeit control carefully couched in documents crafted especially for governance precision.

  • The board, on behalf of the public, specifies the nature and cost of consumer results ("ends"). This constitutes a careful description of the educational product--what results with whom is the public purchasing at what cost. The board does not specify the methods and activities ("means") required in system operation.

  • The board outlines boundaries of acceptability, within which the superintendent and staff are permitted free choice of means. Hence, maximum creativity, innovation and decentralization are allowed without giving away the shop. The proscription of unacceptable means tells the superintendent how not to operate rather than by how to operate.

  • The board monitors performance on ends and unacceptable means in a systematic and rigorous way. Because the board treats the superintendent as a true chief executive officer, all accountability for ends and unacceptable means rests upon the superintendent alone. For example, the board would not hold the chief financial officer accountable for poor accounting, but the superintendent.

  • Board meetings are spent largely in learning about, debating and resolving long-term ends issues rather than dealing with otherwise delegable matters. The consent agenda is used for those items that should be delegated to the superintendent, but upon which the law requires board action. Consequently, unless law directs otherwise, nothing goes on the board's agenda that does not require the working of board wisdom.

    In short, the school board neither rubber stamps nor meddles. It does not give up control of the system, but chooses what to control and what not to control according to carefully derived principles. The board is better able to hold the superintendent's feet to the fire while, at the same time, granting more superintendent authority to manage. Consequently, the environment in which a superintendent plays the CEO role is vastly different from conventional circumstances.

    However, because Policy Governance has gained a measure of popularity, more boards profess to use it today than actually do, so my comments apply only when a board actually sticks to the concepts of the model. (While it is designed as a universal governance theory, parts of the paradigm divorced from the integrated whole can be nonsensical or even dangerous. Precision systems work poorly when partially used.)

  • A New Way of Life
    How different life would be for a superintendent whose board faithfully complies with principles of the Policy Governance model. Consider the ways:

  • The superintendent would not be responsible for governance.

    Under Policy Governance, the board is solely responsible for describing and fulfilling its own job. The superintendent is used as a valuable resource, but always to assist the board in its responsibility rather than even subtly to assume that responsibility. This differs from the widespread expectation for superintendents to assume more responsibility for good board operation than the board does.

    For example, while standard rhetoric touts boards as strategic leaders, superintendents are expected to tell boards what to talk about (that is, to supply agenda content). Superintendents often have been criticized for not bringing their boards together, as if it is proper for a subordinate to be held accountable for behavior of the superior.

    Board meetings come to be truly the board's meetings rather than the superintendent's meetings for the board. Whereas the content of superintendent-fed agendas is understandably managerial in nature, the content of governance-driven agendas can be of a far higher order. Board meetings that consist largely of warmed-over administrative issues are a waste of both board and staff time. Yet in the absence of knowing what it should talk about, the ordinary school board has nothing on which to focus except decisions its staff is likely better equipped to address than it is.

  • The board doesn't run the schools.

    The school board does not compete with administrators in running the schools. The board's job is not to run schools at all, but to determine as the public's purchasing agent what the public is buying for the next generation. With the board playing this role, a superintendent might well be faced with tougher performance expectations, but he or she gets to be superintendent without having to battle board members for that position.

    The board, instead, takes on the difficult job of determining what results should be obtained, for which classes of learners, at what cost, as well as setting the boundaries of ethics and prudence within which the system must operate. Having described, in effect, what the system is for, the board can largely leave to qualified staff what the system does.

    From the superintendent's perspective, wide latitude is available without having to run the gauntlet of board approvals. Choosing administrative and programmatic means to achieve the expected student performance is left to the superintendent, so long as the system operates within ethics and prudence boundaries set by the board. Within this wide latitude, the superintendent and the superintendent's delegates decide tables of organization, job designs, teaching methods and a host of other factors of production.

  • The superintendent has one boss, not several.

    A board that chooses to give public education the governance integrity it deserves makes clear that the superintendent need never heed the demands of individual trustees, though instructions of the board are mandatory. In effect, the board as a body protects its superintendent from the board as individuals. This removes much of the political, interpersonal pressures to which superintendents are normally sacrificed. Speaking with one voice does not require trustee unanimity, but it clearly requires discipline--though no more than that required to teach math or keep the buses running.

    Because the board accepts its role as owner-representative, the superintendent works for the board, not for the public. Of course, the superintendent works for the public in the same sense an army sergeant serves his or her country, but there is no doubt the sergeant's direct responsibility is to the officer in charge to interpret what that country wants.

    For the superintendent, this means that it is the board's job, not the superintendent's, to resolve the powerful, conflicting desires of the public. In some ways, the superintendent becomes a less important public figure as the board becomes more responsible. Any practice that obscures the public-board-superintendent chain of command robs governance of its integrity and misconstrues the superintendent's job. If the school board uses the Policy Governance model, it, not the superintendent, struggles with the public.

  • Define-and-demand control replaces poke-and-probe.

    In Policy Governance, the board expects much of the superintendent, but only on criteria the board previously has established in writing. The board will not allow the superintendent to be judged against expectations the board as a body has not set forth. Therefore, the superintendent need never be worried about being blindsided or about keeping individual trustees happy. He or she is able to put single-minded effort toward those indices of system performance the board has soberly and deliberately established.

    Poking and probing into administrative and programmatic matters is a common counterfeit of responsible board stewardship. Boards typically exhibit the poke-and-probe behavior about budgets, plans, projects, curricula and any other segment of school life that interests them. Leadership, on the other hand, calls for defining carefully considered expectations and demanding their accomplishment.

    Poking and probing is far easier to do and gives the appearance of conscientious examination. Consequently, boards go over fiscal or other reports in great detail--with inexhaustible points of inspection--rendering or implying judgments of staff performance without having established criteria upon which these judgments are made. Not only does this behavior subject the superintendent to criteria never stated, but because the probing is done one trustee at a time, the unstated criteria are not even the board's, but those of single board members! This focus on group criteria does not prevent individual board members from access to information unrelated to board criteria, but it does prevent their making judgments of superintendent performance based on that information.

  • The superintendent is a true chief executive.

    School boards often treat their superintendents like either clerks or dictators. Dealing with them as CEOs requires a clear understanding that the board is in charge, yet an equal appreciation for staying out of the superintendent's job.

    While this approach allows the superintendent a great deal of latitude, it prevents the superintendent from using "reverse delegation" to avoid decisions. It burdens the superintendent with full accountability for system performance. Good governance saves a superintendent from board members' whims, but not from the board's corporate expectations--expectations expressed largely in terms of ends related to student achievement.

    The board delegates to no one in the system but the superintendent. There is no board instruction to associate superintendents, to financial officers or to principals. The board does not circumvent its chief executive, aware that to do so destroys the board's ability to hold the superintendent fully accountable for system performance.

  • Board committees are out of the way.

    As part of treating the superintendent as a CEO, the board does not create committees to help or advise in management of the system. While it is permissible for the board to create committees to help with parts of its own job, to create official organs of the board to get involved in staff issues interferes with appropriate superintendent prerogatives. To do so breaks the board's obligation to speak with one voice and impedes the carefully crafted freedom given by the board to the superintendent. Board committees on human resources, curriculum and other management issues disappear.

    Although this frees superintendents from the interference of board committees, it also means that superintendents no longer can disguise management choices by manipulating a committee process.

  • Superintendent evaluation is rigorous but fair.

    The superintendent has a job only so that the board can ensure system performance--that is, ends are achieved and unacceptable means are avoided. The board governs the system, not the superintendent. The board's expectations are of the system, not of the superintendent.

    In the long run, who the superintendent is and what the superintendent does is unimportant compared to the system's effect on students, fiscal prudence and other elements of the board's policies on ends-and-means limitations. Therefore superintendent accountability is defined in terms of system performance, not some additional, personal set of requirements.

    To fulfill its own accountability to the public, the board must evaluate whether the system is performing satisfactorily. But while the board's primary interest is not in evaluating the superintendent, the superintendent's CEO role is a convenient managerial device to fulfill the board's system focus.

    The device that gives rise to proper superintendent evaluation is simply this: The board evaluates the system, then pins that evaluation on the superintendent. In short, ongoing monitoring of system performance against the board's stated expectations is the superintendent's evaluation.

    It should be noted that the evaluation is driven by what the board has determined ahead of time the system should produce and avoid, not by a list of the superintendent's objectives for the year. The superintendent, in fact, will have personal objectives as any CEO would. But those are immaterial to the board as long as the board's expectations are met.

  • The superintendent works for a worthy boss.

    The chief occupation of the board under Policy Governance is an engagement with the long-term future of education rather than the petty, month-by-month inspection of (or worse, participation in) current operations. Agendas reflect the struggle with fundamental public values affecting the system rather than review and rehash of administrative issues.

    For a superintendent, this circumstance can be the joy of having a boss truly qualified and deserving to be the boss rather than an undisciplined body needing to be stage-managed. Such a board takes its servant-leadership role seriously and expects its superintendent to do so as well. A high-integrity governance model plus the discipline to stick to it are necessary ingredients for governance excellence.

  • Sound Theory
    Better governance of public education will save superintendents from having to do the board's work, but this means as well that boards cannot allow superintendents to do the boards' work. Only when the practices of boards of education are built on a sound conceptual foundation, will the opportunity and demand for superintendents to perform their proper chief executive role be realized.

    School governance, now caught in a hodge-podge of traditional practices and hobbled by antiquated state laws and regulations, is a perfect exemplar for psychologist Kurt Lewin's observation that there is nothing so practical as a good theory.

    John Carver is president of Carver Governance Design, a consulting firm for nonprofit, governmental and corporate boards. He can be reached at Carver Governance Design Inc., P.O. Box 13007, Atlanta, GA 30324-0007. E-mail: polgov@aol.com. Policy Governance® is a registered service mark of John Carver.