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Is it a good idea to evaluate school boards using test data?

Education Secretary Arne DuncanEducation Secretary Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: Crazy, or crazy like a fox?

Buried in the fine print of the proposed guidelines for the next round of federal Race to The Top school grants is a shot of schadenfreude for teachers: The same student achievement data that states are under pressure to use to evaluate teachers must be used by districts hoping for a slice of the $400 million in funding to evaluate principals, superintendents and school boards.

Yes, school boards. Which probably vary in their levels of competence, professionalism and vision more than any of the other players in the proposed evaluation pipeline, never mind the outsized ugly sticks they are empowered to wave unpredictably at pretty much any target they choose.

Leaving aside for a moment the big question — namely, is tying student test data to the tenure of an elected official even possible? — is it a good idea? I don’t know, but I think it’s an interesting one.

It is widely believed that great board members hire dynamic, visionary superintendents and create conditions in which they can implement their ideas. If it works, they renew the supe’s contract. If it doesn’t, they need the spine to acknowledge a poor fit and retrench.

Many burn out

Unfortunately, given that so few have formal preparation for board service by the time they figure this out, many members are burned out by what is, after all, a really, really hard and typically unpaid job.   

By contrast, broadly speaking the least skilled school-board members have an annoying tendency to misunderstand their highest-potential roles, to micromanage the business of the educators and administrators they oversee and to launch big initiatives that languish the second they quit.

Bad board members also have an irritating propensity for firing good superintendents, who are then doubly hard to replace because they are rare as hen’s teeth and, thus able to be selective about their postings, loath to work in districts with notorious boards.

The next round

Let’s back up a moment. Last week in an interview with MinnPost, among other places, Duncan started talking about the next round of competitive RTTT grants, which he hopes to hand out by the end of the year. This time the money will go directly to individual districts or district consortia that are engaged, among other things, in labor-management collaborations and that propose to use the funds to engage in providing individualized learning opportunities that show promise for replication elsewhere.

States competing in earlier RTTT grant rounds and applying to Duncan for waivers from compliance with the rigid testing schemes prescribed by No Child Left Behind had to agree to use student performance data as a part of teacher evaluations. The rules for the newly announced round stipulate that by the 2014-15 school year, districts must implement evaluation systems for principals, superintendents and school boards that take student outcomes into account.

In addition, to win one of the new grants districts must promise to track student performance from preschool through postsecondary education and have a system for linking student performance to individual teachers.

Many districts have long evaluated superintendents on a regular basis, and during the recently concluded legislative session Minnesota passed a law mandating principal evaluations based in part on student achievement data.

The issue of evaluating boards

But boards? We tend to assume that their rightful evaluation happens at the ballot box. And true though that is on one level, the average voter may have no idea whether their elected representatives are empowering district leadership and staff to do great things or hamstringing them. Indeed, the list of innovative superintendents who stood up to corrupt or obstructionist board members only to find themselves suddenly deemed poor performers is too long to print here.

I don’t know how Duncan imagines rewarding or sanctioning poorly performing boards, but there is some support for the concept of regular board self-evaluations as a matter of course. The Minnesota School Boards Association helps anywhere from 12 to 20 boards voluntarily engage in this process each year.

Boards can hire the association to assess members’ views of their performance in five areas: Vision, structure, accountability, advocacy and conduct and ethics. Members, sometimes in conjunction with the superintendent, fill out anonymous reports, which the MSBA then compiles into a presentation on the group’s overall performance and steps it can take to shore up weaknesses.

Reluctant — but often pleased with feedback

Boards are often reluctant to take on a self-assessment, but typically very pleased with the feedback they receive and the suggestions for improving the way they do business, according to MSBA spokesman Greg Abbott. The association would be happy to talk about the process and its potential with any district that is interested in preparing a RTTT application, he added.  

Will any? This, I think, is as dicey as the notion that Duncan’s 360-accountability dream is just around the corner. Simply put, the red tape-to-cold hard cash ratio will make applying pretty hard to justify. To qualify, districts or consortia must have 2,500 or more students and at least 40 percent must be impoverished.

The largest districts are most likely to have the requisite grant-writing capability and the newly required data-tracking systems, but the maximum award of $25 million spread out over four years isn’t likely to inspire a stampede. An exception among the biggest of the big: Houston, which boasts 203,000 students and is located in the Republic of Texas, whose state government is opposed to virtually any kind of federal role in education, including RTTT.

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Comments (8)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/05/2012 - 03:11 pm.

    This is just another attack on Democracy, and a wrong-headed one at that. Even the *makers* of these tests say they weren’t designed to judge teachers. So we’d expand that wrong-headedness? Duncan, Gates, Broad, HATE democracy. Gates has said publicly that he only works with “strong mayor” school boards, i.e. where they only have to coopt one person to gain control of an entire district. Elected school boards are the core of democracy. Locals primarily pay for the education of students in their communities, but more and more they are losing local control. This will have disastrous results.

  2. Submitted by Ross Williams on 06/05/2012 - 04:11 pm.

    Ill informed nonsense

    “broadly speaking the least skilled school-board members have an annoying tendency to misunderstand their highest-potential roles, to micromanage the business of the educators and administrators they oversee and to launch big initiatives that languish the second they quit.

    Bad board members also have an irritating propensity for firing good superintendents, who are then doubly hard to replace because they are rare as hen’s teeth and, thus able to be selective about their postings, loath to work in districts with notorious boards.”

    Broadly speaking, this is a collection of complete nonsense. Its the sort ill-informed rant you would expect to hear from, well, bad school board members. The notion that legislators, governors, congressman, senators or presidents are any better equipped than local school boards to manage our children’s education is the stuff of elite cocktail party chatter.

    There are any number of things we should be doing to help school boards do their jobs better. But the first thing is to get the professional politicians and their media acolytes to butt out.

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 06/05/2012 - 04:11 pm.

    Gates & Mayors

    I feel the need to tiptoe in here, Rob, and point out that Minneapolis Public Schools, which has no element of mayoral control, is the recipient of a Gates grant to fund ongoing district-charter community collaboration.

    • Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 06/06/2012 - 08:28 am.

      Well, yes, we do still have an elected school board. As to Gates – he’s on record as favoring mayoral control – which is why they were heavily invested in both New York and Chicago. If you’ll remember, there was even a bill introduced – for for the first time this year – in the legislature to give mayoral control to St Paul and Minneapolis. So Gates might be involved in places where there is no mayoral control, but that’s only because they have so much money they’re involved EVERYWHERE. The notion of judging school boards is the first step in de-legitimizing elected school boards.

  4. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 06/06/2012 - 12:34 am.

    IF this idea was extended to evaluating school boards with the data, the equally logical step would be to use the same to evaluate the legislature, which has been increasingly micromanaging schools.

    I agree with Rob above in the portion where he says the the tests are being misused. Remember the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, where student progress was tracked individually from year to year in several areas, and results were used to guide attention from school and teacher? And not used as a political club and realtor marketing tool?

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/06/2012 - 08:32 am.


    Man, the hostile comments are funny. The same people who thought No Child Left Behind was a great Republican Idea don’t want any meaningful accountability for local school boards.

    I don’t see any rants here other than in the comments. Hawkins is simply observing a fact, school boards all over the country have been hijacked by fundamentalists who have pushed political and social agenda at the expense of education for decades now. How can it be that everyone BUT the school board is responsible for poor education outcomes? Yes, these people are elected but it’s the weakest link in our system besides judges and county commissioners.

    This animosity goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, he wanted to establish national curricula but ran into the first Great Awakening of religious fundamentalism. A fourth Great Awakening began in the late 70s and in education it was expressed by the “back to basics” push that combined with a charter school movement to produce a truly effective assault on the public education system. School boards were the weak link that agenda driven candidates exploited to get into the system. The results are now history, text book wars that had nothing to do with state of the art instruction or knowledge, prayer wars, evolution wars, labor wars, etc. The result has been dysfunctional system that has been immobilized by ideological dogma and consumerism.

    There’s a rant for ya.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/06/2012 - 10:51 am.


    Well, yes, I’d love to see some school board members put on the figurative hot seat. Having been on the receiving end of year-long harassment from a fundamentalist board member, I wouldn’t have minded seeing her squirm at the time, or even now.

    Do I think this good educational policy?


    In most districts, the school board is as much out of the loop of what’s actually happening as the CEO of most big corporations, who similarly have no idea what’s going on in the factory or warehouse or cubicles of the company.

    Yes, school boards hire superintendents, but superintendents – at least in my experience – are almost as clueless as many board members. The people who know what’s going on in classrooms are classroom teachers and, in some cases, building-level administrators. Once you get above that level on the district’s organizational chart, it’s far more about rhetoric and buzzwords than it is about the success or failure of today’s lesson.

    Holding school boards accountable for student achievement makes no more sense than holding the president accountable for job creation in the country, or the Governor for job creation in the state. They’re not the people holding the reins, as it were, and they play no direct role in the eventual outcome.

    Student achievement is largely the responsibility of students. Yes, good teachers make a huge difference, as do reasonably up-to-date materials and facilities, but it’s not the teachers, or the principals, who have to demonstrate that they’ve learned the principles of Algebra II or Biology or American History, or who have to be able to conjugate a verb correctly. As licensed professionals in their fields, they’ve already demonstrated that they know what’s appropriate to those fields.

    I don’t know ANY genuine professionals in education (i.e., teachers, building principals) who think micromanagement by the school board is a fine idea, and evaluating school board members on the basis of student achievement strikes me as a sure way to encourage just that sort of micromanagement. It’s an idea whose time should never arrive.

  7. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 06/06/2012 - 06:09 pm.

    Related commentary

    So, it is hard not to sound like a disgruntled teacher, so I will let the most recent editorial speak for me, from EdWeek:

    “Simply put, we’re using the wrong instrument. Evaluating teachers through multiple-choice-based tests of student learning is like using the rules of Go Fish to assess poker skill. Instead of learning how to evaluate complex hands like flushes, straights, and full houses, we’re asking teachers if they have any sevens. It’s a much simpler and, ultimately, much less interesting game.”


    “In the meantime, firing teachers based on deficient measures of effectiveness is a reckless proposition, and educators are right to oppose it. ”

    It is a short read, backed by research. I recommend it. Thanks.

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