A couple of years ago, I had the honor of interviewing for a vacancy on my local school board. Working at an education think tank, especially one that supports school choice, leads many to assume I’m not supportive of traditional public schools. They are mistaken. My three kids have all attended their neighborhood schools, and my school district is a critical part of my community. So serving on the board seemed like an amazing opportunity to give back to that community and learn more about the challenges school boards face.
I didn’t anticipate receiving, and ultimately didn’t get, the position, but the interview process was positive and educational. Being a school board member is clearly hard work. Most members have full-time jobs, but they still spend a significant amount of time participating in and preparing for full board and committee meetings, attending other community-related obligations, and representing the board at school-sponsored events. And that’s only part of the work. Members also play an important role in contract negotiations and spearheading efforts to pass school levies—and do it all for shockingly little pay. School board service is not for the faint of heart.
My short-lived candidacy, and day job as an advocate for quality schools, got me thinking about what boards could do to strengthen the schools in their communities. What follows are my recommendations. They have the potential to increase both student achievement and public support for the district’s schools, so I hope school board members—to the extent the issues raised are problems in their districts—will discuss and consider adopting them.
Eliminate test prep
I made this recommendation to my own school board two years ago, and there’s no better place to start. I’m not talking about teachers going over test instructions the day before the exam and making sure that students know what to expect. As a parent myself, that’s not a problem. What shouldn’t happen, though, are days or even weeks (as suggested in this teacher survey from the Education Writers Association) of worksheets and drill-and-kill exercises aimed at eking out an extra point or two on a once-a-year state assessment. Media reports suggest that this type of test prep happens in far too many places, and the opportunity cost is huge. Time could be better spent reading great books, ensuring struggling students get extra help, and providing enrichment activities for high-flying students.
It is possible the lack of test prep could cause the district’s performance to drop a few percentage points, at least initially, on state assessments. If this did occur, it would be very unlikely to result in any sanctions or consequences based upon state accountability frameworks that leave 95 percent of schools largely untouched. For school board members, the shift could be a helpful barometer as to how the district is performing. After all, strong performance is supposed to represent excellent curriculum and instruction, not just effective test prep.
Require daily science and social studies instruction
Test prep might be the leading complaint against standardized testing, but it’s not the only one. Close on its heels is the crowding out of other subjects to spend more time and energy on the tested subjects—English and math, in most grades. The result, according to research (see page 5) summarized by the Washington State Board of Education, found that during the No Child Left Behind era significantly less time was spent on science and social studies instruction. School boards are uniquely positioned to stop this slide, at least in their districts, by requiring that elementary school teachers devote time every day to both subjects. Far from hurting schools on state test results, there’s a strong argument that the increased content knowledge would actually help students in the long term. Perhaps even more importantly, great science and social studies instruction can engage students and make school more enjoyable.
Provide funding and support for the arts
Another way that school boards could help make school more enjoyable is to strengthen arts programs. Research has found large systemic reductions to theater and dance programs, and news stories proliferate about districts finding arts programs to be easy budget cuts in tight fiscal times. Whether it is music or the visual arts, providing young people with an avenue for creative expression has been shown to provide myriad benefits, including increased critical thinking and attainment of background knowledge that contributes to improved literacy. Moreover, giving students an appreciation for art and music, especially in the early years, can lead to more satisfying and happier lives.
Require all elementary and middle schools to provide daily recess
Speaking of leading a happier life, remember returning from recess after playing red rover or freeze tag—still sweating—and listening to your teacher read aloud from Charlotte’s Web? One survey, admittedly a little dated, suggests that 20 percent of districts have reduced recess. Unfortunately, such reductions are likely pennywise but pound-foolish approaches to maximizing classroom time. A vast collection of research suggests that physical exercise can help with learning and social development. Go figure.
If you prefer an anecdote to research, Eva Moskowitz, leader of the Success Academy charter network, is also a firm believer in recess. And her schools produce some of the highest reading and math scores in the state of New York. Even if that wasn’t the case, in an era when children struggle with obesity and Type 2 diabetes, there are many benefits to ensuring kids get regular physical activity—likely leading to this persuasive position paper from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Ensure schools in the district are using a top-notch curriculum
As Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben would say, with great power comes great responsibility. So it goes with school districts. Districts have and deserve local control regarding how their schools educate students. One of the most important decisions is the curriculum that will be used in each subject and grade. There are a huge number of options on the market, and not all of them are very good. Board members, who usually don’t have the time or expertise to dig into the minutiae of particular curricular options, should require that all learning materials recommended by the superintendent or principals be high quality. More than ever before, experts at places like EdReports are digging in and evaluating the various options, making it easier than ever to rely on objective evaluations rather the flashy marketing materials or long-term relationships with textbook vendors.
School board members have hard jobs that entail many tough decisions. They have the responsibility to provide oversight and quality control that safeguard their communities’ interests. And these recommendations are right in line with those duties—even if they might feel risky to some members. I believe that most reject over-testing, want and value schools that offer a solid curriculum, and desire diversified school days with art, science, social studies, and physical activity. So I urge them all to have the courage of their convictions. One warning, though, to boards that publicly adopt these changes: Be prepared to start thinking about new school facilities because families from all over the area will want to move to your town.