About the ESB Framework | Effective School Boards
Why A Framework

Student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change. These words describe the commitment that effective school boards make to the students they serve — a commitment that obligates the school board to constantly evaluate its own behavior and to make whatever changes are required to better fulfill on what’s possible for its students. This is the intention of the effective school boards framework: to provide a clear, national standard school boards can use to interrogate the extent to which there is alignment between their adult behaviors and improvements in student outcomes — what students know and are able to do.

This framework, designed as a continuous improvement tool to support a school board’s implementation of effective practices, is based on the accumulated research literature on effective governance practices and the accumulated experiences of dozens of school board members and superintendents from across the nation. That research and experience reveals five continuous improvement practices of effective school boards:

  • Focus Mindset: operating from a student outcomes-focused mindset that inspires adult behavior change
  • Clarify Priorities: clarifying the community’s priorities — both its vision for what students know/are able to do and its values
  • Monitor Progress: monitoring the progress the school system is making relative to the community’s priorities
  • Align Resources: aligning the school system’s resources with the community’s priorities
  • Communicate Results: transparently communicating the results the school system created relative to the community’s priorities.

While these five practices sound like they would be normal, common sense behaviors for school boards, the reality across the nation is quite different. After coding hundreds of hours of school board meetings from every corner of the US, our findings suggest that most school boards behave — unintentionally — in the exact opposite manner. Rather than being intensely focused on improving student outcomes, the vast majority of school boards have become obsessively focused on tinkering with adult inputs. For the average school board, it is likely that most months less than 5% of its time is invested into monitoring progress relative to what students should know and be able to do.

In practice, it requires tremendous effort to transform adult behaviors — everyone loves the idea of change, but most people prefer that others do the changing. The more clear and simple the path is to student outcomes-aligned behaviors, the greater the likelihood that school boards will invest the required effort to change its practices. This is the benefit of a framework that allows school boards to score where they are today, and to quarterly re-score themselves to identify areas of growth and areas for improvement.

It’s also important to clarify what this framework is not good for and not trying to do. This framework doesn’t tell school boards what their vision should be, just that it should have one, that it should make it plain, that it should monitor progress toward it, that it should align resources to it, and that it should communicate the school system’s results relative to the vision. This framework doesn’t tell school boards what their values should be. This framework doesn’t identify what the school boards legal obligations are — those vary too broadly from state to state — only that it should accomplish its legal obligations in a manner that is as aligned with the vision and values of the community as possible. This framework doesn’t advocate for or against state-imposed accountability systems, but instead argues that school boards must create their own performance monitoring systems aligned to the community’s vision and values — regardless of whether those match or contradict statewide systems.

About the Framework Practices

Understanding the framework’s five practice areas is an important step toward implementing them. Each practice is accompanied by a set of school board behaviors that exemplify that area. To be of maximum utility, the behaviors associated with each practice area are generally observable during school board meetings – even members of the public should be able to easily identify whether or not the practices are being put into action.

To Focus Mindset requires that the school board leads from the stance that school systems only exist to improve student outcomes and that student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change, starting with the school board. Inside of these two views of the world, the school board becomes so intensely focused on improving student outcomes by changing its own behavior that it becomes impossible for the school board to be distracted by unaligned adult inputs or be seduced into creating a culture of blame. By definition, if a school board is not engaged in continuous improvement routines or spends its time blaming anyone for lower than promised student performance, it is not doing the work to Focus Mindset.

To Clarify Priorities requires that the school board listens for the community’s vision for what students should know and be able to do, listens for the community’s non-negotiable values that must be honored while in pursuit of the vision, writes down the vision in the form of SMART goals about student outcomes, and writes down the values in the form of guardrails that are prohibitions on superintendent authority. By definition, if the school board has not adopted 1-5 goals and 1-5 guardrails for which the community experiences a sense of ownership, it has not done the work to Clarify Priorities.

To Monitor Progress requires that the school board work collaboratively with the superintendent to develop a multi-year calendar that describes which data for the goals and guardrails will be discussed during which months, that the superintendent brings forward reports in accordance with the calendar, and that the school board invests at least 50% of its time each month into having a conversation with the superintendent about what worked, what didn’t worked, and what’s happening next. By definition, if the school board has not adopted a monitoring calendar, has not received monitoring reports from the superintendent, and isn’t increasing the percentage of its time invested into progress monitoring up to a minimum of half of its total meeting minutes each month, then it is not doing the work to Monitor Progress.

To Align Resources requires that the school board minimize its time focused on anything that is not directly related to the goals, the guardrails, or legally required, and that when actions are required of the school board that those decisions only evaluate the extent of alignment between the the decision being made and the goals/guardrails. By definition, if the school board has not redesigned its meetings to focus at least 50% of its time on monitoring progress toward the goals, and if the school board uses any criteria other than goals/guardrails to determine adoption of budgets, policies, superintendent evaluation, and everything else, then it is not doing the work to Align Resources.

To Communicate Results requires that the school board makes school system operations transparent and observable, and that the school board regularly arranges time for two-way conversations with the community about its vision and values, identify dates each year when it will report back to the community about progress toward the vision-aligned goals and adherence to the values-aligned guardrails, and provide training to the community regarding the school board’s use of goals and guardrails to govern the school system on its behalf. By definition, if the school board has not adopted a community interaction calendar that includes listening dates, reporting dates, and training dates, then it is not doing the work to Communicate Results.

About the Framework Instrument

It’s one thing to understand the behaviors associated with each practice, but for school boards to have the best shot at continuous improvement over time, they need an integrity of implementation instrument that they can use to score their performance as a school board. In the absence of an integrity instrument, assertions about school board performance typically devolve into political rhetoric: if you like what the school board is doing at the moment, you might say that the school board is, “effective and functional” and if you don’t like what the school board is doing right now, they’re “ineffective and dysfunctional.” But this subjectivity both obscures actual school board performance and inspires school board members to calibrate their behaviors around whatever adult inputs are popular, not around what research and experience actually identify as effective at creating the context for improved student outcomes.

This phenomenon – school board members being incentivized to focus on adult inputs rather than student outcomes – is at the heart of why an effective school board framework is needed and why an integrity of implementation instrument is needed to help school boards measure their improvement against that framework.

The five practices of effective school boards are most beneficial when they are initially implemented in chronological order. For example, there’s limited value to having great goal monitoring processes in place if the school board has never adopted goals to monitor. For that reason, the five practice areas are presented in chronological implementation order – first Focus Mindset, then Clarify Priorities, and so forth – and within each practice area, the behaviors are generally organized in chronological implementation order from the left to the right.