Why are some school board trustees and their superintendents highly effective while many others are not? School district governance—how school boards and superintendents work together, or not—is one of those issues that everyone talks about but few actually know what to think. Governance is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated functions in education.
What we have found in working with hundreds of high performing, effective school board trustees is that, in every case, they govern with a profound commitment to quality education for all, combined with a deep understanding, sometimes learned and sometimes intuitive, of what governance is all about. We call this understanding a governance mindset.
What do we mean by governance mindset? It’s not so dissimilar in concept to what we expect teachers to have in classrooms: a strong, well-defined instructional, pedagogical mindset. It’s also not much different from what we expect managers to have: a strong, well-defined administrative mindset. So, since governance is a totally different organizational function than curriculum and instruction or administration, it is not unreasonable to expect that trustees should have a strong, well-defined governance mindset.
The governance mindset, in many ways, is about understanding the difference between politics and governance. Politics is what happens around elections and, in the case of ineffective school boards, often continues to happen on a daily basis, many times favoring narrow groups. Governance, on the other hand, consists of setting the direction and the ongoing oversight of the district between elections, and is intended to serve the needs of the whole community. Shifting from campaigning to governing is what the governance mindset is all about.
Shifting from campaigning to governing is what the governance mindset is all about.
Developing a Governance Mindset
1. Be A Systems Thinker
First, having a governance mindset means being a systems thinker. Trustees with a governance mindset understand that governance is a systems job, and that means ensuring that the school district, as one of the most complex organizational systems in most communities, is as effective as a system as it can be. The board cannot take action in isolation. Governance is a zero-sum game. Every decision made by the board has an effect, often an unanticipated one, on something else in the district. Effective trustees, either elected or appointed, connect the dots; they understand how all the pieces in the district fit together.
2. Have a Strategic Focus
Second, having a governance mindset means having a strategic focus. Trustees with a governance mindset understand that governance is a strategic job, not an administrative or tactical job. The secret sauce to effective governance is the strategic progression, in a coherent way, through the steps of defining and reaching an agreement on the moral imperative, creating a unity of purpose, and adopting strategic goals. The operational focuses of the board and superintendent have to be on the achievement of the strategic goals established to achieve the moral imperative. That is the essence of the governance job. Otherwise, the moral imperative is simply a wish or belief.
3. Be a Deep Learner
Third, having a governance mindset means being a deep learner. Trustees with a governance mindset realize their governance power through their knowledge and deep understanding of the issues surrounding the moral imperative and the actions and programs necessary to achieve it. It is not possible to make quality governance decisions without a deep understanding the programs upon which the board is making decisions. You cannot make quality decisions around something you don’t understand. Purposeful superintendents understand that the quality, accuracy, and truthfulness of information provided to the board are directly related to the ability of the board to govern effectively.
4. Manage Your Public Manner
Finally, having a governance mindset means trustees manage their public manner. This is one of the most important and often least appreciated traits of highly effective trustees. Trustees with a governance mindset always mind their manner. Such trustees model civic behavior and understand that how they govern as an individual is often more critical than what they say or do. Above all, they are very conscious of modeling the behavior they want the children in the district to emulate.
Not only trustees need a governance mindset. Superintendents also need to have a fundamental understanding of the principles of governance. The most successful superintendents with high performing districts are purposeful in their engagement with the board. They support a governance culture based on collaboration and trust, leading to a high level of coherence. Most importantly, they share a moral imperative with the board.
Having effective individuals on a board is not enough. It is the total group that must work well together. In virtually every organization, boards govern, not individuals. So how is it that some boards are consistently highly effective and others are not? The answer can be found in the collective awareness and culture of the board as an organizational unit; as a team; board and superintendent working together.
The dominant characteristic of most dysfunctional boards is their inability to find common ground. At the core of this lack of coherence is a lack of understanding and agreement about the nature and purpose of the work of the district. Virtually every highly effective board governs with a unity of purpose driven by a shared moral imperative. These boards are highly engaged in supporting the work of the district. They are, in Michael Fullan’s terms, coherence makers.
Because coherence is subjective, a lack of coherence, like a string of dominoes, leads to a breakdown in collaboration and trust. In turn, this leads to a toxic governance culture that makes the development of a shared moral imperative and subsequent commitment to strategic goals virtually impossible.
Michael Fullan and I have written a book, The Governance Core, which, as the name implies, goes to the heart of effective school district governance. This book is not a litany of lists (although there are a few), nor does it lecture about roles and responsibilities. Rather, it spells out the fundamental, non-negotiable elements of highly effective governance systems in school districts and why they work.