Why “We Need Teachers on the School Board” is a Dangerous Fallacy

At every school board election, teachers unions and their allies tell voters that, “we need teachers on the school board.” Just as predictably, the candidates unions endorse are often former teachers, parents or spouses of teachers, or members of advocacy groups that are teachers union allies.

But is this claim valid? Do we really need teachers on the school board? Let’s take a deeper look at it.

I’ll begin with a critical point that is often either overlooked or misunderstood: Governance is not management.

Governance has been defined as “the set of responsibilities and practices exercised by the board with the goal of providing strategic direction, ensuring that objectives are achieved, ascertaining that risks are managed appropriately, and verifying that the organization’s resources are used responsibly.”

The fundamental governance duties of board directors are summed up in their duty of care and their duty of loyalty.

One definition of the duty of care is that it is “a requirement that a person act toward others and the public with the watchfulness, attention, caution and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would use”. The duyt of care can be further unpacked into a director’s five core responsibilities:

  • To set the critical goals an organization must achieve to survive and thrive, and examine and approve management’s strategy to meet them;
  • To ensure that the allocation and organization of human, financial, technical, and other resources is consistent with the strategy;
  • To ensure that management is mitigating and managing critical risks to the achievement of the organization’s goals;
  • To hire, coach, and evaluate the performance of the organization’s leader (whether a Superintendent or CEO);
  • To ensure that the organization’s results are fully and accurately reported to multiple stakeholders (e.g., parents, the broader public, regulators, bond investors, etc.).

It is very hard to see how the knowledge, skills, and experience required to become an effective classroom teacher equips a person to be an effective board director of a school district, especially a large, complex school district.

Let’s look at a specific example.

Located in Denver’s western suburbs, Jefferson County, Colorado is the nation’s 37th largest school district, serving more than 80,000 students through more than 150 schools over a district covering 774 square miles. Jeffco employs more than 12,000 people and has an annual operating budget of $1.4 billion dollars.

Consider just a few of the complex issues that the Jeffco Board of Education has recently faced:

  • The district’s $705 million, six year Capital Improvement Program is more than $100 million over budget after just three years, due to a combination of cost overruns and spending on projects that were not disclosed to voters during the 2018 bond campaign.
  • The board must decide on a proposal to spend more than $30 million of district funds on a new Olympic quality natatorium (i.e., a large fancy swimming facility) for one city in the district. Funding would come from Certificates of Participation, repayment of which would take money out of classrooms from across the district. While some, but not all district swim teams could practice at the new pool, it would mostly be used by residents of the city in which it is built. This would also set a precedent why which other Jeffco cities and Recreation Districts (and perhaps libraries) would logically demand that the school district fund their future capital projects.
  • Jeffco’s Career and Technical Education programs are weak, and its relationships with employers poor, particularly in comparison to nearby Denver Public Schools award-winning “Career Connect” CTE program. The school board must evaluate a range of proposals for improving Jeffco’s CTE programs and employer relationships.
  • Like other districts across the country, the pandemic has confronted Jeffco with a very different clinical mix and scale of student mental health needs. Management has yet to deliver to the board options for efficiently obtaining and effectively providing the mix of clinical mental health skills needed to address these needs.
  • The pandemic has also confronted Jeffco with the need to substantially revamp its technology strategy. Once again, the board will have to evaluate and decide from a range of options for achieving a complex mix of new technology goals.
  • COVID also made the shortcomings of Jeffco’s management of strategic risks painfully clear. Like other districts, it wasn’t prepared, despite years of warning from multiple sources about the possibility of a pandemic caused by a severe respiratory virus. The board must evaluate the root causes of this failure, and choose between a range of options for substantially improving the district’s risk management performance.
  • Even before the pandemic arrived, Jeffco was already losing students because of an accelerating decline in its student achievement results. Those losses are now increasing, which will soon confront board directors with an urgent need to take an in-depth look at how effectively and efficiently the district is spending its $1.4 billion budget.

The presence of teachers on a school board also raises questions regarding directors’ duty of loyalty. This requires a director to act at all times in the best interests of their organization, and not their own or any other organization’s best interest. Here are some examples of potential conflicts facing teachers on school boards:

  • According to the latest data from the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division, 1,219 out of Jeffco’s 4,987 teachers (24%) use more than 10 personal and sick days during their 187-day contract year. Ten days of absence is the point at which research has found significant negative impacts on student achievement appear. It beggars belief that teachers or union allies on a school board are going to raise, much less try to address this issue. The same goes for taking steps to get poor teachers out of district classrooms.
  • The underlying principle at work is the same one we have seen on other school boards during the pandemic — Teachers’ interests have taken precedence. COVID is a wicked problem that has confronted school boards with difficult decisions that involve tradeoffs between conflicting goals, like minimizing the risk of infection, minimizing students’ learning losses, and minimizing the loss of mothers’ jobs due to their need to stay at home with children learning remotely. Too many school boards dominated by teachers’ interests have focused only on the first goal, and neglected the enormous costs associated with failing to meet the other two.
  • Another painful issue is declining student achievement results. For example, in 2019 54% of Jeffco’s third graders did not meet state ELA standards, 65% of sixth graders failed to meet state math standards, 62% of eighth graders didn’t meet state science standards, and SAT scores were falling. COVID has made these problems much worse. And as you can see in the table below, there were also serious equity issues:
  • Regardless of these results, teachers union backed board directors in Jeffco have continued to support substantial pay increases for teachers.
  • In the face of accelerating student achievement declines, in reading, writing, math, and science, both in Jeffco and across the country, school board directors beholden to the teachers union have repeatedly proved themselves unwilling to seriously seek out the root causes of these declines, much less consider what must be done to remedy them (e.g., reducing teacher absences, getting weak teachers out of the classroom, improving the quality and consistency of curriculum, instructional materials, and professional development, etc.).
  • Instead, too many union-backed school board directors have attacked any assessment that highlights poor district achievement results, prefering instead to focus on teacher assigned grades, regardless of widespread evidence of grade inflation in recent years. Union allies have also sought to to shift the very purpose of K-12 education away from academics to an equal focus on students’ “social and emotional health” (see Robert Pondiscio’s recent analysis of this issue, “The Unexamined Rise of Therapeutic Education: How social-emotional learning extends K–12 education’s reach into students’ lives and expands teachers’ roles”).

In sum, teachers on school boards, especially in large, complex districts, usually lack the knowledge, skills, and experience needed to effectively carry out their fiduciary duty of care.

Just as important, teachers and other union-backed school board directors face significant conflicts of interest in the exercise of their fiduciary duty of loyalty.

For both reasons, the claim that “we need teachers on school boards” is a dangerous fallacy.

Tom Coyne is a Democrat and business executive. He is a former member of the Jeffco District Accountability Committee and former chair of the Wheat Ridge High School Accountability Committee, and has previously written about weak school board governance. His wife, Susan Miller, was elected to the Jeffco Board of Education in November 2019. These are solely his views.

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Co-Founder, K12 Accountability Inc. New book: "K-12 On the Brink: Why America's Education System Fails to Improve, and Only Business Leadership Can Fix It"

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Tom Coyne

Tom Coyne

Co-Founder, K12 Accountability Inc. New book: "K-12 On the Brink: Why America's Education System Fails to Improve, and Only Business Leadership Can Fix It"

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