01/26/2021 by CS&A Guest | Thought Leadership
by Alden S. Blodget
As student, teacher, administrator, parent, and trustee, I have spent a lifetime in independent schools. I have always been interested in the relationship between trustees and heads of school, especially the effects of this relationship on a school's health, quality, and ability to innovate. During my 18 years as assistant head of a school, I became intimately involved with that board — participating in various trustee committee meetings, as well as the three annual meetings. After retiring, I became a trustee of a different school, serving for seven years and then for two more years as an advisor to the head of school. I have learned a lot, none of which was included in the trustee handbook that I was given when I became a trustee.
It matters that most trustees are not educators. Although a few may be former teachers or school heads, most come from other professions and pursuits. Some are quite wealthy and have been recruited for their capacity to offer essential support to capital campaigns as donors and as skilled or connected fundraisers. I have witnessed many incidents when these trustees actually saved schools from collapse. The trustees I have known have been generous, altruistic, intelligent people who cared deeply about their schools. Many were either alums or parents of current or former students. All of them had busy lives outside the school, so they had to make real sacrifices in order to fit committee and annual meetings into their schedules.
As a result of the lack of background in education, boards tend to adopt a largely laissez-faire approach to oversight — an approach that is unintentionally codified in their job description. Great emphasis is put on “good governance,” which mandates that trustees focus on the school's mission and strategic planning and leave the day-to-day management of the school to the head. This obligation to focus on the future and to leave the present in the capable hands of a trusted head is well suited to people who have no real time to study education or to assess decisions about teaching, learning, and curriculum. So laissez-faire governance often becomes the norm — with two exceptions, both connected to finances.
New trustees quickly learn that their primary responsibility is the financial health of the school — both now and in the future. And most of the trustee discussions in my experience, indeed, focused on aspects of finances (monitoring the current year's budget and creating the next year's, developing strategic plans for new buildings and endowments). The boards that I observed and on which I served were careful to monitor admissions figures, often grilling admissions directors on projections and recruiting efforts and even criticizing the directors' decisions and strategies — very much encroaching on the head's prerogative. The second exception was also connected to the board's fiduciary responsibility: any crisis that might affect the reputation of the school (and, hence, admission numbers or fundraising) brought the board's swift attention and involvement in management.
This emphasis on the financial aspects of the trustees' role also contributes to the predisposition to laissez-faire governance in other areas. If the numbers are solid in admissions and development, if the head is an effective fundraiser, if the operating budget balances, if there are no public-relations crises, all must be well.
School heads manage “up.” The combination of little or no background in education with a laissez-faire approach to oversight means that trustees are likely to rely on the head for their sense of reality beyond the financial realm. I have constantly marveled at the ability of school heads to control what trustees know and don't know about a school: the practices and decisions that affect the quality of the education, the culture and climate, the morale and professional caliber of the faculty. I have watched heads spin reality into the airy sweetness of cotton candy, and the trustees love it. The hype is always upbeat and positive. Problems are converted to challenges — opportunities for endless visions of further greatness.
The result is that trustees rarely peek behind the pink puff in which heads shroud the daily life of students and teachers. Trustees are instructed to “respect boundaries” separating head and board responsibilities. National Association of Independent Schools guidelines warn trustees to respond to complaints that reach them with some form of, “We have no authority to manage personnel or disciplinary or any other day-to-day operational matters, all of which lie exclusively within the realm of the head of school, whose authority in such matters we not only respect but support.” While it's certainly reasonable for trustees to expect that the head will manage daily operations and to refer back to the head people who approach them with complaints about managerial decisions, it is dangerous for the board to ignore its responsibility to provide meaningful oversight of the head. They have direct authority to manage the head.
The trustees have only one employee, and given the work and money that go into hiring this employee, the board has a powerful stake in the head's success. Trustees are often recruited by the head and are good friends. Psychologically, the head becomes a reflection on the judgment and ability of the board, so it's hardly surprising that trustees are predisposed to trust the head. However, the emphasis on delegating to the head all daily managerial functions that are essential for ensuring educational quality should not relieve a board of its responsibility to assess the leadership and management skills of the head in action. It's one thing to respect and support the authority of the head to make decisions; it's quite another to abdicate responsibility for assessing those decisions.
The need for accurate assessment is particularly important when a school is moving in new, innovative directions. In addition to the pressures for adaptations caused by the pandemic, researchers continue a 20-year trend of making transformative discoveries about how people actually learn — providing insights that suggest a need to rethink and redesign comfortable traditional assumptions and practices. This need presents real challenges to trustees. On what basis will they make sound judgments about a head's choices and decisions? To meet their responsibility, the trustees must develop additional strategies and tools to gain a clear and larger sense of a school's educational philosophy and daily reality.
Here are some suggestions:
- Recruit more educators to serve on boards. Boards of directors of corporations tend to come from the business world. Seems logical. Can you imagine the reaction of shareholders in the business world if their corporate board were a group of educators? A school's reputation — its measure of worthiness for applicants, parents, and donors, its deep health — depends on the quality of the education it provides, especially today as tuitions soar and COVID disrupts. Ensuring that reputation is aligned with reality requires careful oversight by trustees who understand education.
- Provide trustees in-house workshops and reading to help them understand and remain current with research into how people learn so that they can examine teaching practices, curriculum, and school policies and structures in the context of the biology of learning. Of course, this need suggests that boards hire heads who, themselves, study this research. At the very least, the board should create an active Education Committee, one of whose functions is to educate the full board. A key responsibility of the board is keeper of the school's mission, which embodies its education goals. Trustees need a deep and nuanced understanding of learning in order to assess the degree to which policies, structures, and daily practices support that mission.
This responsibility has become even more critical today. Responses to COVID, especially the move to various forms of online learning, have dramatically affected the quality of education. At the same time, new insights from researchers into the biology of learning and the emphasis on social justice continue to suggest a need to rethink and fundamentally redesign schools. We live in a time of crisis and discovery that requires informed leadership — heads and trustees — that can offer meaningful oversight to guide innovation. The key to successful innovation is creating the structures to support its sustainability. Tinkering with what goes on in the classroom, the usual approach to innovation, will not be sufficient. Schools need leaders who understand this principle.
- Ensure that as many trustees as possible visit classes and talk informally with teachers and students to get a sense of their daily lives and the climate and morale of the school. It's possible to observe boundaries — to distinguish between siding with teachers and listening to them — and to gain insight into their experiences and perceptions.
- Conduct regular and frequent full 360-degree evaluations of the head. Surveying parents, teachers, students, other administrators, and alumni can provide valuable diagnostic data to assess the health and vitality of a school.
The purpose here is not to change the fundamental job descriptions of trustees and heads. The head remains the board's only employee and is responsible for the daily management of the school. My purpose is to suggest that the trustees become more knowledgeable about education and gain multiple perspectives on the reality of school as experienced by the various constituents. The goal is for trustees to become more able to assess the head's decisions in the context of a deeper understanding of education and of the school itself. The sooner problems are detected, the sooner the board can work with the head to improve leadership and avoid the upheaval of searching for a new head. Undetected issues can fester and do considerable damage over time. A trusting partnership between board and head is essential; so is meaningful oversight. Trust, but verify.
Alden S. Blodget is a retired independent school educator and trustee who writes often on issues related to school leadership. He also volunteers as a writing tutor at LEAP for Education (Salem, MA).
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