A recent report conducted by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute concludes that school districts which are led by school board members with a focus on academic improvement are more likely to govern school districts that outperform others with similar demographics and funding. According to the Fordham Institute, this study is the first large-scale effort to attempt to gauge the capacity of board members to lead public school districts.

The Fordham report utilizes survey results from a 2009 National School Boards Association survey of school board members. This survey includes results from 900 board members representing 417 school districts and 49 states. The study then compares the responses of board members to the conditions of their school districts based on district data of academic and financial performance.

Based on an analysis of the responses of board members, the report concludes that school districts that are more successful academically have board members who assign high priority to improved student learning. In addition, districts with board members who work harder, as defined by spending more time on board work, are more likely to outperform districts with similar demographic characteristics.

Although the study concluded that the majority of board members possess accurate knowledge of their districts, the accuracy of this knowledge is significantly influenced by both political ideology and whether a board member is an educator or former educator. For example, board members who identify themselves as conservatives are less likely to state that funding is a barrier to academic achievement, regardless of the actual level of spending in their school districts. Conversely, members who identify themselves as liberals are more likely to say that collective bargaining is not a barrier to student achievement, regardless of actual collective bargaining conditions (note that the report does not indicate how it made its determinations about a school district’s collective bargaining conditions).

Interestingly, the report concludes that board members whose professional background is in public education are less knowledgeable about school district conditions than non-educators. These board members are more likely to claim that funding is a “major barrier” to academic achievement, regardless of the actual level of district funding, and are much more likely to state that raising teacher pay is “very” or “extremely” important to improving the district’s academic achievement.

In perhaps the most surprising conclusion of the study, board members who are current or former educators are significantly more likely to claim that academic expectations are “unreasonable” because of the challenges that students face.

Although this report is only an initial attempt to understand the impact that board members can have on the school districts that they govern, it suggests that it does make a difference who serves on school boards, and that collectively, school board members can have an important impact on how well their districts and students perform.