March 14, 2019

Six Lessons on Education Governance from Rhode Island, the Ocean State

By Bellwether

Share this article

This post is part of a series about Bellwether’s recent work on school governance and school board effectiveness.
Those who govern our schools (e.g., members of elected and appointed school boards) make and enact policies that are local in scope and potentially enormous in impact. They choose how resources are allocated to support staff and implement programs; they weigh in on decisions being made by district and school leaders that drive day-to-day activities; and they ensure the work being done for kids is aligned to federal and state policies and enacted in keeping with local priorities.
We assume boards make a difference for how our districts and schools function and ultimately, how well kids learn and develop. But what do we actually know about the link between board effectiveness and school quality?
Bellwether has conducted some important research on this very connection. In our 2016 study “Charter Boards in the Nation’s Capital,” we described the relationship between board characteristics, practices, and school quality in Washington, DC, one of the most robust charter sectors in the country. In collaboration with Colorado Succeeds, we developed an evidence-based framework for evaluating school board effectiveness. And in 2018, we received a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to help leaders at the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) understand if there was a relationship between its different governance models, their practices, and the performance of their schools across the Ocean State.
Rhode Island has six school governance models, described in the table below, which communities may choose from to suit their local contexts and goals. (For more detail on the state’s historical approach to education governance, see this new report from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.)
Bellwether’s mixed-methods approach to learning more about these models included researching state code and regulations on governance models, reviewing research on best practices for board governance, conducting interviews with RIDE staff and other state leaders, designing and administering a survey to governing boards and school leaders throughout the state, and analyzing student achievement results. Our findings include feedback from over one-third of the governing board (called “school committees” in Rhode Island) members and superintendents across the state, primarily representing the two largest governing models: traditional districts (52% of respondents) and independent charters (39% of respondents). We had few respondents from the other school types.
Six takeaways from this research, listed below, may provide insights for state education agencies, school boards, and charter boards both inside and outside Rhode Island about why people serve on boards, how governance is consistent and how it is different across districts and charters, and why observing boards in practice may be critical to understanding links between their decisions and consequences for families and children:

  1. Both charter and district board members serve because they believe in the importance of education and think they can make an impact. But governing can be challenging, and what keeps members, quite literally, “on board” varies across governing models. Charter school board members cite their belief in the mission of the school as the key motivation to stay, while district board members cite representing their community as a motivator. Traditional district board members who chose to leave stated a sense that they were unable to make a positive impact and/or did not enjoy the company of those with whom they served as explanations for their departure.
  2. Effective boards typically enlist several of the same key practices. However, contrary to our hypothesis, we didn’t find any practices that were particular to charter or elected school boards. At its core, it seems that good governance is good governance, regardless of whether it’s within a traditional or charter system. (We will cover effective board practices in more detail in a future post.)
  3. In practice, district and charter board members are more alike than different, but the differences matter. For instance, charter boards typically don’t provide the same degree of professional development to their members, including developing data proficiency. In spite of that, charter board members report that they review data more frequently than traditional school boards. This could be because charter boards attract or recruit members with data analysis and other requisite competencies and therefore don’t need as much professional development.
  4. Leaders in both traditional and charter systems value accountability and greater autonomy at the school level. However, charter leaders are more likely to feel directly responsible for student growth regardless of student circumstances. Furthermore, we saw greater consistency in this responsibility between charter board members and the leaders of their schools than between district boards and their superintendents (superintendents felt more responsible than district board members).
  5. Both district and charter leaders understand how autonomy can enable decisions. But charters leaders report having significantly greater levels of autonomy across key policy areas, such as budgeting, curriculum, and staffing. Furthermore, charter leaders told us they were more likely to actually act on some tough decisions, such as releasing staff members who are ineffective, than were leaders from traditional district schools.
  6. Since our respondents primarily represented two governance types (traditional districts and independent charters), we were unable to conduct a conclusive analysis of the relationship between the range of governing models in Rhode Island and student achievement. We did note, however, that boards which reported more evidence-based, “promising” governance practices did not oversee schools that performed better academically relative to their peers reporting fewer effective governance practices. That said, our study did not probe how long various practices had been in place, nor did it afford us the opportunity to observe the quality of these practices, which may have drawn more lines between what boards were doing, how schools were changing over time, and how students were ultimately affected.

RIDE ultimately wants to encourage the adoption of governance practices that shift decision-making power from boards to schools, since they are closer to the needs of students, families, teachers, and the community. This effort rests on RIDE’s belief that if schools are given greater autonomy, coupled with accountability for student outcomes, performance will improve. The concept is simple, but how it plays out across systems and communities will require both time and detailed evidence to understand and validate.

More from this topic