07/12/2012 02:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2012

In Search of the Elusive Reform-Minded School Board Member

I have just finished a five-year school board term, which I have written about on my Board's Eye View blog for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (here, here, here, here). It has been a wild ride.

Are there others like me out there?

Much current thinking among school reformers is that school boards should go the way of the Edsel. Our own Checker Finn, head of TBFI, has not liked school boards for some time and as recently as 2010 wrote, in National Affairs, that "it seems increasingly clear that our revered system of 'local control' by elected municipal school boards cannot cope with today's realities of ­metropolitanization, ­mobility, and interest-group politics."

True or false?

If you are -- or were -- a school board member who believes in school reform, I would like to hear from you. What is it like trying to turn around a tanker with a paddle? Are you a flamethrower or consensus builder? Did you win any fights? Were you able to improve your district? Have you come away from your experience as believer in boards of education or a determined skeptic?

I have been trying to "fix" my little district (2,300 students 15 years ago, less than 1,900 today) ever since my son entered first grade (he is now finishing his third year in college). A third of its students can't pass basic proficiency tests and 40 percent don't graduate in four years. I ran for the board in the late '90s, won, quit, helped start a charter school (which crashed on the shoals of racial politics), started an email listserve dedicated to watching the district, and ran again for the board in 2007, winning another five-year stint -- and a warning from my wife: don't quit again. I didn't.

On June 25 I attended my final meeting as a member of the board, after five years and some several thousand meetings. I had outlasted two superintendents and a good half-dozen board members. But despite being the senior person on the board, I leave sitting in the same seat, literally, as when I began -- the very last place in the always awkward line-up of tables and chairs stretching across whatever room we were in; seven board members, the superintendent, the assistant superintendent, the business manager, the student representative. In a line-up where power radiated from the center -- the board president and superintendent sat in the middle -- I remained an outcast.

And the district remained in the same place, based on student academic achievement, as it was when I joined the fight, more than a dozen years ago. Though I can't prove a causal relation, I do think that the system discourages reform-minded people from running for board and, should they win a seat, defeats their best efforts to improve things.

I still have a printout of Jay Greene's early email counsel about my school board enthusiasms (expressed in this Education Week essay in 2009) taped to a long-dead computer screen:

Even if, by some miracle, a dissenter can slip onto the board, there are tricks that the status quo uses to neutralize that person. And eventually they'll organize a challenger who will unseat you.

I unseated myself, choosing not to run again. It had nothing to do with weighing my chances of winning; it was simply time to move on. I was satisfied that I at least helped establish a new dynamic and, most importantly, helped bring a new superintendent to the table. Leadership change always brings hope. Will it bring improvement? The challenges, especially in districts that have been failing for some time, are daunting.

During my first (brief) stint on the board (recounted in Education Next), I recall one elderly member of the community, mother of a board member, who would sit in the front row at board meetings and knit. She took to calling me "Mr. No!" and so addressed me, with a scowl, whenever she saw me, in the supermarket, the newsstand, church. I laughed, but what was interesting was that she had dubbed me "Mr. No!" not because I was saying "no" to everything, but because I kept making proposals to change the district, to improve it. She was one of the nicer ones. As I became more militant in my reform efforts, the local paper once editorialized so brutally that a friend remarked, "I've seen them say nicer things about murderers."

What most people don't understand is that managing failure is just as hard as managing success. And this is, I believe, part of the reason school boards don't improve schools. Stability and coherence are watchwords in both the high-achieving and low-achieving systems. Administrators want to keep their staff happy and their board at arm's length. In both successful and failing districts, "micromanaging" by the school board is considered a no-no. I recall a woman addressing our board not along ago. "We're not supposed to rock the boat," she said. "But the trouble is that the boat has tipped over and we're lashed to our seats." Rocking the boat is exactly what must be done to effect change -- change, one hopes, that leads to better student outcomes.

I spent most of the last 10 years, on and off the board, pushing for a rigorous curriculum, stopping the disproportionate disciplining of African-American students, and complaining about the over-identification of special ed students (almost a quarter of our student body). But, for the most part, no matter what I proposed -- a new bus route, a paint job for the flag pole, or a curriculum -- I was mostly ignored. In order to get a pile of old lumber and rusty nails removed from the edge of a playground I had to threaten to dump it in the superintendent's driveway! For me it was one pile of rusty nails after another and life on the board seemed part barroom brawl and part waterboarding torture -- to most of my colleagues, I was a nut.

So, the existential question of school board membership is this: can you suggest improvement without appearing to criticize the current administration, the current system? The answer is no. The truism is true: everyone thinks the education system is broken -- except in their school. My district is rated 83rd out of 86 in the region, a position it has pretty consistently held since such lists have been kept, and yet one of the most common comments I hear when the subject of school failure comes up is, "We have good schools here; you just have to take advantage of them." Then, of course, the conversation turns to the "lousy parents" and the "kids who don't care."

For better or worse -- mostly, if you are a reform board member, it's worse -- change comes hard. My experience is that school board members trying to improve their schools face a harsh reality about change agents. They are it. Le change, c'est moi. And it's lonely when you step out of the foxhole.

I would love to hear from fellow reform board members. Are you out there? I'd like to hear about successes as well as failures. Post your comments here or email me at

Spread the word.