Enter Micro-Managers. Goodbye Macro-Management – interference by school boards in site-based management of schools – Brief Article

Larry E. Frase

Exactly 175 years ago, the Massachusetts legislature required each township to appoint a school board to oversee the schools, but the legislators failed to define what they meant by “oversee” and the boards’ role.

Unfortunately, definition is still lacking, and school boards, either unwillingly or with intent, consistently wander into micro-management. Although we know some school boards have performed well, the reality is that the institution known as school board never has worked well.

Our claims are based on findings from more than 250 curriculum management audits sponsored by Phi Delta Kappa International. The Curriculum Management Audit uses a series of lenses to measure school districts, and one of the lenses deals with school boards and their conduct.

The CMA lens regarding management is rather conventional–the notion that boards should attend to macro-management duties and leave micro-management to the administration. Board macro-management is crucial: The board should hire and evaluate the superintendent; establish the curriculum, policies, long- and short-range plans and major strategies; and monitor progress. They should stay out of day-to-day management decisions, act only when authorized to do so by official board votes and avoid inflicting personal interests on any staff member. The administration’s job is to carry out the board’s intent as determined by official board votes on policy.

Series of Condemnations

School boards have failed with regularity to check their micro-management inclinations at the door. They have invaded the rightful turf of school leaders and don’t seem likely to retreat to macromanagement.

Two recent major studies of school board behavior–by the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance and the Institute for Educational Leadership–concluded that school boards often are dysfunctional. These studies found school boards lack willingness to work together for the common good of their students; fail to provide far-reaching leadership; have become another level of administration, often micromanaging the schools; are so splintered with special-interest groups that they cannot govern; avoid being accountable; and tend to make decisions in response to the issue of the day or simply to maintain the status quo.

This is a sizzling series of condemnations. Unfortunately, they are well substantiated. Here are just a few of the many examples of poor school board practices found in the curriculum management audit reports:

* Board members dispatched multitudes of directives via facsimile directly to school administrators without board or superintendent approval. For one board member, we estimated that the requests consumed hundreds of hours of administrators’ time. The audits determined the orders were intended to gather data for use in re-election campaigns.

* In one inner-city school district, just one of 65 requests for information sent directly from a board member to central-office administrators consumed 6,800 hours of their time.

* The board members in another large district reported, much to their dismay, no money could be found to fix leaky classroom roofs or buy books and other needed materials, yet they were spending $1.9 million on their salaries and salaries for their personal staff.

* In one school district, the board vice president issued a formal letter to the superintendent ordering him not to meet with two named members of the board unless a member of the majority was present. This effectively established the board majority as heavy-handed dictators with full power to establish gag orders and shut down the democratic process.

These are pathetic cases of board behavior gone wrong, and they are real.

Tough Enough

Many school boards have searched outside of the field of education to find an effective superintendent, thinking that professional educators simply do not make strong enough leaders.

They are mistaken. In the majority of cases we studied, the problem was the school board, not the superintendent. In fact, one board of a large inner-city school district turned to the military for help and selected a person who previously served as a lieutenant general in the U.S. Army. It did not work. Just 16 months after his appointment as superintendent, he declared the superintendency his toughest assignment ever because of “so many competing interests.” The politics and board in-fighting in this district wore down and humbled even a rough military veteran.

It is no wonder that the average tenure of big-city superintendents is less than three years, and the number of qualified educators aspiring to the job is sharply decreasing.

Boards must focus their energies on building the strongest possible curriculum, allow the administration to implement it, monitor the results and make the necessary adjustments in policy. This focuses the board on the right stuff, what students should learn.

Larry Frase is professor and chair of administration, rehabilitation and postsecondary education department at San Diego State University, 5814 Campanile Drive, San Diego, Calif. 92182. E-mail: Ifrasel@home.com. Fenwick English is R. Wendell

COPYRIGHT 2001 American Association of School Administrators

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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