Why it’s essential for school board members to be intentional learners

Dennis Sparks

First among many superb ideas to be found in A School Board Guide to Leading Successful Schools: Focusing on Learning by Stephanie Hirsh and Anne Foster is this one:

“Exemplary school boards are made up of members who come to the board for the right reason–to provide quality public schools for the children of their school system.… They are committed to serving and learning, and their example can become a model for the entire school system and community.…

“Each person on the school board brings a unique set of experiences and knowledge that can be valuable to the group as a whole. But regardless of the knowledge and viewpoint that each member brings, the entire board is on a continuous learning curve. Board members can grow together in their knowledge of public school issues, school system business, and their role as board members. How they go about learning and continually upgrading their knowledge will determine to a large degree how successfully they will work together and lead the school system. How deeply they are willing to learn about important issues will determine the quality of their decision making, their attempts to reach consensus, and their ability to support the superintendent and staff. (bold mine)

In my experience, a system of learning schools requires a school board and superintendent who are intentional and public learners.

There are no exceptions to this requirement if the goal is high-quality teaching for all students in all classrooms in all schools.

Do you agree?

If so, I encourage you to read and pass on Hirsh and Foster’s book to a school board member who seeks to better understand the importance of Board learning and teamwork. Better yet, if you are in a position to do so, provide copies for the entire Board and ask members to devote as many sessions as possible to its study.


5 Responses to “Why it’s essential for school board members to be intentional learners”

  1. 1 Chuck March 19, 2014 at 6:55 am

    As always, thanks for sharing excellent ideas and best practices in your posts. My challenge as a new superintendent is to know when and how to move our board in these learning directions. We have an excellent board who understands and embraces their defined roles, but “upgrading knowledge” has been largely confined to attending conferences and participating in required training. I believe the process needs to start with some informal conversations about intentional learning and move forward from there. Do you have any other recommendations for superintendents who will be starting from Step 1 in this process?

    • 2 Dennis Sparks March 19, 2014 at 7:04 am

      Informal conversations are a good place to start. Perhaps having a study session on the book and its implications for the Board’s work would be next. I have invited Stephanie Hirsh to comment, and am eager to see what she will have to say.

  2. 3 Stephanie Hirsh March 20, 2014 at 8:02 am

    Thanks for asking your question. I find some superintendents are concerned that too much professional learning may lead to board members who think they are members of the professional staff. All my experience has taught me the opposite. They recognize how important continuing to learn is to being an effective board member who understands their role and how they can be most helpful. Here are my ideas. Introduce professional learning as a component of your study sessions. In the beginning invite staff members to share something they have learned and are applying in their work and invite the Board to ask questions to learn more about it. Reinforce the value of the Board taking an interest in what the staff is learning and applying to help achieve the mission of the school. Introduce a similar approach at formal board meetings attached to staff presentations that “teach” not only the Board but the community as well. One again use the opportunity to reinforce the importance of everyone being a life long learner. Send articles to the Board on the role of boards and see who is interested in joining you for lunch to discuss the implications of what they are learning from the articles. Discuss chapter 12 and ask the Board to discuss the implications of being more deliberate about their own professional learning.

  3. 4 Anne Foster March 21, 2014 at 11:21 am

    I appreciate Chuck’s asking the question and wish all superintendents were asking it. I also appreciate both Dennis’s and Stephanie’s comments. I can relate to Stephanie’s point that some superintendents might think too much learning could tempt school board members to think of themselves as professional staff. But as fellow school board members, mine and Stephanie’s experience really was the opposite. The truth is that school board members make decisions that impact curriculum, standards, accountability, budgets, facilities, and many other areas. In order to make the best decisions possible, there is a level of knowledge and understanding that school board members need and that they can get only with intentional learning. This does not mean that they need to become a professional educator or expert in those areas, but rather that they need to understand the things that will impact their decisions and help them make the best decisions. I think if a superintendent understands this and therefore is not threatened by it, most school board members will respond positively when challenged to engage in intentional professional learning. The best possible outcome is if they then invite the community (the public) to learn along with them and give input as they learn. This kind of joint learning will help connect the public with public schools — and this is a key role for effective, successful school boards!

    • 5 Dennis Sparks March 21, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      My thanks to Stephanie and Anne for their helpful comments and for their professional learning as board members that lead to their commitment to strenthen school board effectiveness.

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