Wednesday / May 29

4 Traits of a Governance Mindset: How School Boards and Superintendents Can Create Effective Governance Systems

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? Its 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 jobThe 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 learnerTrustees 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 trusteesTrustees 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, 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 Corewhich, 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.   

Written by

Davis Campbell is the former Executive Director of the California School Boards Association and is Chair of the University of California, Davis, School of Education, Board of Advisors and a Senior Fellow. He also serves as a Trustee on the Stuart Foundation Board of Trustees. Campbell has a deep and broad background in public education. He served for 12 years in the California Department of Education, serving six of those years as Deputy State Superintendent of Public Instruction in charge of all education programs. In 1988, he was appointed Executive Director of the California School Boards Association, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 2001. He also served as an elected trustee on the Yolo County Board of Education. Campbell maintains an active consulting practice in effective governance in education as well as public and nonprofit agencies at both the state and international level. In California, in addition to trainings and workshops with school districts, most recently he conducted numerous workshops with nonprofit organizations as well as training sessions with cities, counties, and special districts. Campbell’s international governance work includes board support for the American School of Madrid (15 years), the American School of Barcelona, the American School of Paris, the American Cooperative School, Tunis, Tunisia, the American International School of Egypt, and effective governance workshops in Lisbon, Portugal, and Rome, and Milan, Italy.


Davis and Michael Fullan have published their book, The Governance Corewith Corwin.

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