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The Path to School Board Effectiveness (Part II)

In a series of blog posts, School Perceptions will look at what, exactly, makes a school board effective.

In our last post—which you can find here—we demonstrated that school boards could

improve their effectiveness by focusing on four categories:

  • Goal setting

  • Training and professional development

  • Focused governance

  • Community outreach and inreach

Here, we will examine two of these, goal setting and training and professional development.

Goal Setting

School boards in districts with higher student achievement levels adhere to a regularly referenced vision that establishes clear, easily understood, and non-negotiable learning-focused goals. These goals are identified and defended with objective student data and evidence-based decision-making, not members' hunches, personal agendas, or unsupported anecdotes. Board, administration, and school-level efforts are aligned with the goal and require in-depth and detailed knowledge of the district's needs, successes, and challenges. High-achieving districts also produce goals that intrinsically reflect learning for its value and not extrinsic goals tied to state mandates or avoiding sanctions.

Once established, board members should be able to explain the purpose of the goals, the mutually agreed-upon accountability processes needed to fulfill them, actions teachers and administrators are taking to improve learning, and the adequate support the board will provide. School boards must keep these goals as their primary focus and avoid situations where other initiatives could detract attention or resources from accomplishing these goals.

School boards in high-achieving districts monitor progress for their goals with objective student data, even if the data is not flattering or portraying satisfactory numbers. In fact, board members can use negative data to improve teaching and learning and better shape how goals can be met.

These goals require a commitment to high student achievement expectations for all students. Board members must believe that all students can learn. Poverty, struggling parents, or lack of motivation are never excuses for not reaching goals; they are challenges with plans that do not impede student learning.

Training and Professional Development

The goals for all students are privately and publicly supported by professional development for staff and the school board itself. Ineffective boards in low-achieving districts denigrate professional development and brush it off as an ineffective strategy for meeting goals. On the other hand, effective school boards continuously realign and preserve funding for professional development that serves student achievement, can identify the characteristics of high-quality professional development, and believe in the efficacy of professional development.

School boards must lead by example in this area. Most school board members have little to no background in education regulations, reforms, or practices. Effective school boards must themselves seek out and participate in development and training as a team to build shared governance knowledge, values, and commitments for their improvement efforts. This means avoiding “good old boys” clubs and, instead, building camaraderie through retreats accessible and welcomed by all board members.

Ineffective boards, meanwhile, do not respectfully listen and/or pay attention to members when they speak, experience one board member besides the president dominate speaking time, and put little effort into obtaining educational content knowledge and school board procedural knowledge.

Professional development should also focus on productive conflict, building working relationships among board members, and best public communication practices. Conflict is not inherently bad. It can be a mechanism that reduces groupthink and allows constructive contribution without damaging the task-at-hand work. Conflict can impair board functioning when it becomes regular, when it’s personalized, when previous conflicts continually resurface, or when it consistently forms along predictable lines (men vs. women, old vs. young, etc.) And no board is immune.

Rural school boards are more prone to conflict relative to boards in more urban districts. School boards with "bad" conflict are less likely to be on the same page with their accountability targets, endanger the learning-centered vision, and reduce students' performance outcomes. Other district attributes can result in conflict, such as student body demographic makeup. However, professional development does not change students’ demographics. Professional development can impact what boards can control, and that is the degree of conflict among themselves and the superintendent.

In the next blog post, we will take a closer look at the next two elements that effective school boards use: focused governance and community outreach and inreach.

In the meantime, we recommend taking a closer look at the School Perceptions Annual Board Development Tool. This yearly inventory assesses school board members’ beliefs about and adherence to measures related to The Key Works of School Boards.

The Annual Board Development Tool is updated, improved, and free for all Wisconsin school districts. Developed in partnership between School Perceptions and the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, the tool is designed to help you:

  • Quickly discern where your board is aligned and where additional dialogue is needed.

  • Educate new board members regarding the scope of their powers and responsibilities.

  • Build trust and credibility with the community.

To learn more about the Annual Board Development Tool, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at or 262.644.4300.


The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Rob DeMeuse, Project Manager & Strategic Communications Specialist.


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