Governing well is no easy task. It takes knowledge, skill and experience. It takes courage and character. And it takes teamwork.
— JIM BROWN: THE IMPERFECT BOARD MEMBER
Over the past 40 years the two of us have worked with the vast majority of school boards in Ontario. We have been very interested in what makes school boards and districts effective in improving board-wide student achievement. There is a growing knowledge base on this topic. We are especially pleased that the province is now placing greater emphasis on how governance can play an even greater role in ensuring success of all students.
School boards and the provincial government have been working hard to make Ontario’s publicly funded schools the best in the world. They have come a long way. In the next phase of this work school boards will be expected to focus more directly and deeply
on student achievement and well-being, and especially on the conditions under which students will become more successful. An important part of continuing to improve Ontario’s schools in this respect will be the leadership provided by the governors of the system. The Trustee Professional Development Program has been developed to assist trustees in providing that leadership.
Lessons from research and extensive practical experience have been thoughtfully incorporated into the 18 Modules of the Program. Modules were made available to trustees beginning in January, 2011, and there are expert trainer/facilitators available to work with elected boards and their directors to implement these practices over their term of office.
In this introduction to the modules, we make explicit a small handful of the obvious – and a few not-so-obvious - reasons why good governance of schools is important. We then provide a brief synopsis of what such governance entails, a synopsis substantially extended and deepened through the 18 Modules. Our perspective on both of these matters has been shaped by our experience and research about improving whole school systems, as well as the classrooms, schools and districts or boards within them.
This research and experience has taught us, quite clearly, that improvement on a large-scale requires coordinated and enlightened action by leaders at all levels and in all roles from the classroom to the boardroom; it has also taught us that such coordinated and enlightened action is much easier said than done. When leaders at one level fail to provide enabling conditions for leaders at other levels the outcome, invariably, is an undermining of the goals for improvement of the system as a whole. There are at least six important reasons why we should do as much as possible to ensure effective school board governance for Ontario’s schools.
SIX REASONS FOR RELYING ON GOOD GOVERNANCE FROM ONTARIO TRUSTEES
We know what good governance looks like and it is eminently learnable. With that knowledge, engaging in bad governance would be unethical. The 18 modules making up the Trustee Professional Development Program capture the best available
evidence and experience about effective school board governance. They will be available to all trustees in the province. While many trustees have a sophisticated understanding of the practices outlined in these modules, others have not had opportunities to develop such understanding. We believe that in the highly supportive conditions created by widespread access to the modules and other resources, it is vital to incorporate the insights and guidance they offer into ethical and informed governing practices.
The provincial school system has set very high standards for our students and professional staffs. Trustees as governors and leaders have a responsibility to model equally high standards in their leadership practice. Considerable evidence now points to “modeling” (or “walking the talk”) as a highly influential leadership practice. This practice is a key part of the Ontario Leadership Framework, for example, because of the weight of this evidence, in combination with the province’s commitment to evidence-based practices. When the leadership practices of trustees reflect the best available evidence, the importance of such commitments is reinforced for others.
In Strong Districts and their Leadership (2013), a paper commissioned by the Ontario Institute for Leadership and the Council of Directors of Education, Leithwood summarized evidence about:
- The characteristics of school systems, boards or districts that are successful at improving the learning of their students (“strong districts”)
- The leadership practices needed to develop and sustain such districts on the part of those in director and superintendent positions (“senior district leaders”)
- The personal leadership resources especially valuable for those in director and superintendent positions
- A possible vision for future strong districts, and
- The value strong districts add, over and above school and classroom contributions, to the achievement of their students.
Research extends and refines school district leadership practices described in the Ontario Leadership Framework to better reflect what is necessary to develop and sustain those features identified as “strong.”
In electing trustees, the public entrusts to them the responsibility to be effective school board leaders and to represent the public interest at the local level. In casting their votes for a particular candidate, the public is placing confidence in the governance capacities of the candidate. Every vote says: “this person, in the office of trustee, will do the best they can in representing my interests, as a key part of the board ”.
Good governance is fundamental to effective and democratic oversight of Ontario schools. A key purpose of elected school boards in Ontario is to ensure that the public has a direct voice at the local level in the making of policies that guide local schools. Public confidence that this level of local democracy is working well is directly related to public perception that trustees are governing effectively.
To provide the best possible services to parents and students, the school board’s professional staff needs the support of a school board that is governing well. In our introductory remarks, we spoke about the importance of leaders at one “level” creating the conditions that enable those at the next “levels” to do their best work. Trustees as leaders and governors of the school board need to be clear about their responsibilities. They need to be committed to providing the conditions that support their professional staffs in effectively implementing their policies and, thereby, serve parents and students to the high standards that the public expects.
Good governance creates a supportive environment for everyone in the school system. Given its crucial importance and given that we know a lot about what good governance entails, it is essential that leadership in the education sector includes recognition of the fundamental importance of the professional learning and support that trustees should have in carrying out their responsibilities as governors. In undertaking this professional learning, individual trustees are building their capacity to do the best possible job at meeting and indeed surpassing the expectations that their communities have for them.
A BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF WHAT GOOD GOVERNANCE LOOKS LIKE
For some time now we have been wrestling with the question: “How do we make publicly funded schools everything that they can be?” A big question, no doubt, and one which every elected trustee and educator asks frequently.
Our research and practical experience in working in hundreds of school systems across the world tells us that there are big, yet often deceptively simple, answers to this big question. They are explored in detail in Fullan’s book All Systems Go and are summarized here for this Introduction to the Trustee Professional Development Program.
The fundamental point about the impact of school board governance on student achievement and well-being is borne out by recent research: excellence in governance at the board table leads to excellence in the classroom. It is critical that school boards govern well because it makes a real difference in the results for students and for schools.
There are many demands on the time and attention of elected trustees. The question we want to address is: “When improving student achievement and well-being is the mandate, how does the elected board use its time and capacities most productively?”
We have observed many examples of elected boards that, having set policies in areas such as student accommodation and transportation, budgets, selection of leaders and collective bargaining with employee groups. Not only do these boards spend most of their energy on this non-academic agenda, they seem to get drawn into operational matters that flow from these policies. Unfortunately when this practice is the norm, their real job as leaders and governors of the school board is either abandoned or compromised, to the detriment of key goals affecting the achievement and well-being of students. While good policies and implementation of such to manage our schools is essential, recent legislation (and the behaviour of effective boards) points to the need for the primary focus to be on student achievement – ensuring that district leadership has a coherent concentration of the what and how of improving schools and the system as a whole with respect to the achievement agenda; and equally importantly monitoring the results of these efforts, taking corrective actions where needed.
Boards that govern well do their key jobs well:
Mission, Vision, Values and Strategy
The most fundamental leadership role of the elected board is to set the conditions for a highly performing organization. This role is proactive and strategic – it is focused on the present and its link to an improved future. Effective boards develop an inspiring mission and vision for their district and establish a small number of core priorities for the system, usually 3 or 4 that focus on the improvement of student achievement and well-being. These priorities form the foundation of a multi-year strategic plan that provides a roadmap for the system for 3 to 5 years.
Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario (2014) builds on the education system’s three current priorities: increasing student achievement, closing gaps in student achievement and increasing public confidence in publicly funded education. It encompasses these goals and reaches deeper and broader, raising expectations both for the system and for the potential of our children and students. Our renewed goals for education are:
Achieving Excellence: Children and students of all ages will achieve high levels of academic performance, acquire valuable skills and demonstrate good citizenship. Educators will be supported in learning continuously and will be recognized as among the best in the world.
Ensuring Equity: All children and students will be inspired to reach their full potential, with access to rich learning experiences that begin at birth and continue into adulthood.
Promoting Well-Being: all children and students will develop enhanced mental and physical health, a positive sense of self and belonging, and the skills to make positive choices.
Enhancing Public Confidence: Ontarians will continue to have confidence in a publicly funded education system that helps develop new generations of confident, capable and caring citizens.
A critical job of the elected board is to develop a concise and clearly stated focus for the district that is limited to the core priorities and is aligned with the provincial mandate.
It is important that elected boards review progress regularly (at least semi- annually), using relevant and objective evidence to guide their ongoing refinement of the vision, values and strategy.
Policy Development and Review
The elected board provides clear direction to the organization through its policies. A distinction is made between “policy” and “procedure”, with the task of implementation of policy delegated to the director of education.
Effective boards have policies that are aligned with their multi-year strategic plan and provide sufficient direction on matters important to the elected board that the board can entrust the administrative and operational implementation to the director and board staff.
There is a systematic plan for the regular review of each policy by the elected board.
Stewardship of Resources
The elected board oversees the allocation of resources to support the strategic plan; budget and staff allocations are in alignment with the plan and address identified needs to improve outcomes for students. These fiduciary responsibilities include effective risk management and ensuring compliance with relevant laws and standards.
In doing its job well, an elected board maintains a focus on progress rather than control. Effective boards establish mechanisms for gathering and reviewing appropriate evidence to determine how the system is doing in implementing its vision, strategic plan and policies. Boards that make most progress take a non-punitive, transparent approach to accountability. They expect progress, provide support, seek open explanations about results and insist on clear next steps in relation to results being obtained.
Elected boards hold their Director of Education accountable for the results achieved by the organization through the annual performance review.
The key strategy used by effective elected boards is the systematic development of the collective capacity of the organization. Continuous learning by all – students, staff, elected trustees – and continuous improvement are institutionalized; there is a constant focus on learning and improvement based on identifying the best practices available world wide, learning about them, and sensibly implementing them. Learning is the real work of all.
Board members take pride in their governance role and develop ways to assess their own performance as governors regularly and obtain external evaluations of their performance periodically. The results of these assessments are used to develop and implement plans to continuously improve governance performance, drawing on effective practices.
Doing these key jobs well is not an easy matter. It takes a willingness of board members to explore the very best governing practices available, to examine their own ways of doing business and, as necessary, to adopt practices that will make them more effective governors. This process is challenging and ongoing but is professionally rewarding.
The goal of the Trustee Professional Development Program is to support excellence in governance practices in Ontario’s District School Boards. Effective boards exemplify the mission, vision and values of their organization.