Former U.S. secretary of education
September 25, 2011
No Child Left Behind focused educators on achievement gaps; now we need trustees to demand accountability
While policymakers have rightly paid attention to important issues in education, such as teacher and principal quality and school curricula based on sound research, they have too often neglected the role of school governance.
Let me explain.
The No Child Left Behind law — and the groundwork laid in Texas before its enactment — served to focus educators on the staggering achievement gap in our urban schools and to create a culture of expectation and achievement. But without leaders who govern our schools expecting more of themselves and our students, urban schools will continue to underperform.
Effective leadership in urban education begins with a school board guided by a focus on strong accountability for achievement. As such, transparent and actionable information like student test scores and graduation rates must be key determinants in crafting policy that serves all students. Policy made any other way is merely a guessing game.
School board members must confront lackluster student achievement head on. They must convey a sense of high expectations for our kids and help school employees keep their focus on meeting those expectations.
In far too many districts across the country, however, school boards have abdicated this responsibility. They would rather worry about peripheral issues unrelated to how well students perform and whether they graduate. For example, in 2010, the Los Angeles Board of Education found time to pass a resolution criticizing Arizona’s immigration laws, all while the district’s on-time high school graduation rate stood at a dismal 49 percent.
Make no mistake: School board members are not representatives of schools to the public, but rather representatives of the broader community to our schools. However, considering the lackluster participation in school board elections, the public hasn’t always made this clear to school board members. According to a recent survey, approximately half of school board elections are not held on the same day as national or state elections, which significantly lowers turnout. Low rates of public participation make it more challenging to hold school board members accountable for their work.
For certain, the role of school board members is not easy. They must ask the toughest questions and have the backbone to support the hard decisions that must be made if we are to educate our poor and minority students to much higher levels. Governance anchored in school accountability and data-driven decision making will help districts chart their course forward and stay on track over time.
Because school board members are often the only voice at the table not on the payroll, they are free to put student, parent and community interests over those of the system. As such, they can advocate for such policies as school choice, charters and teacher pay for performance that are not likely to be supported by public school educators.
For too long, school governance has been left to professional politicians and individuals who represent targeted constituencies, such as school employees or taxpayer groups. Yet everyone has a stake in getting the education of our young people right. As communities seek viable solutions to find their way back to economic strength and prosperity, the education of their citizens needs to be job one. In particular, our nation’s innovators and job creators need skilled and knowledgeable workers. If they can’t hire at home, they’ll look elsewhere to do business. Since schools districts are often the largest local tax levier and business their largest investor, that’s not an option.
Education is about collaboration. I’m not suggesting it’s going to be easy; in fact, far from it. It’s tough—just ask a teacher. But the goal of educating every child to his or her potential is worth it. So let the hard work begin. Our kids are counting on us.
Margaret Spellings headed the Department of Education from 2005 to 2009.