At some point in its history, almost every Christian school deals with some form of board dissonance. Oftentimes the source of difficulty stems from the “traditional” challenges that school boards face: members not fully understanding their roles; failure of a board to “speak with one voice”; suboptimal communication between the head of school and the board; and so forth. However, there is another challenge that seems to be cropping up with more frequency in today’s climate: a board not understanding the changing educational landscape, and how those changes are impacting the strategic needs of the school and the instructional leadership with which the head of school is tasked.
Shifting Landscape, Changing Practices
It cannot be argued that the current period and rate of educational change is both intense and rapid. In order to respond to new technologies, diverse learning needs of students, and shifting family and societal demographics, schools everywhere—both private and public—are finding they need to enact innovational measures and dramatic shifts in business-as-usual (Swaner and Mecham 2017). These include online and hybrid education, altered school schedules that accommodate experiential learning, and portfolio and other forms of authentic assessment—all of which require retraining and retooling of faculty, as well as adjustments in parents’ and students’ expectations and routines.
All of these changes and school responses “buck” the traditional educational experience, which can be unnerving for nearly every school constituent. This is amplified in Christian schools, where some missional goals are rightly viewed as fixed and immovable—e.g., discipleship, spiritual formation, and servant leadership development—but the means by which those missional goals are accomplished may come to look different in a new educational era. For this reason, informing Christian school teachers, parents, and students about current educational shifts and the school’s responses to them can be one of the most challenging parts of the school leader’s job.
Bringing the School Board Along
Oftentimes, however, the school board is largely left out of that onramp process. This sometimes can be due to the head of school’s conscious or unconscious omission, but it also can be due to the board’s reluctance to “get into the weeds” of school operations. This concern is a healthy one, as by definition board governance involves delegating day-to-day management of the school to the head administrator. However, having an understanding of educational trends and practices, so as to inform strategic governance, is not the same thing as unhealthy micromanagement. In PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, a new book on trends impacting Christian schools, Paul Campey and Jim Wexler (2017) explain:
It is easy for a board to focus solely on its fiduciary role (i.e., approving budgets, reviewing actual results, and making sure compliance is up-to-date). If that is all a board does, it is not helping the school become more effective nor is it really governing the school in the full sense of the word. Boards also need to engage in strategic governance, where they react to current needs and look for prospective opportunities through strategic planning and action (52).
Failure of the board to engage strategically with the educational mission of the school can have significant consequences. For example, when long-term teachers or parents come to the board with concerns about the new direction in which the school is headed, the board may not have the “bigger picture” to understand the educational landscape and why that direction may not only be necessary, but also beneficial to the school’s sustainability and vitality in the long run. It also puts both the board and the head of school in an uncomfortable—and ultimately unproductive—position, where the board is forced to react with an “explain yourself” stance toward the head of school. By that point, it’s almost always too late: the most effective time to explain the changing educational landscape and the school’s response has passed. Instead, heads of school and board chairs need to be intentional about bringing board members along in these areas.
Benefits of Board-Level Engagement
An understanding of educational trends and optimal responses can help the board not only avoid the dissonance and conflict mentioned above, but also help them link its governance work to the school’s educational mission in three important ways:
The board can better gauge the success of the school in fulfilling its mission. A successful school that is fulfilling its mission doesn’t just have stable enrollment and a balanced budget; its students are also achieving the expected outcomes articulated on the school’s website and in its curricular documents. Board members need to know the educational impact of the school. This requires more than listening to teacher and parent anecdotes (which often take the form of either platitudes or complaints). Rather, it requires an educational primer as to what outcomes are, how they are measured, and how well the school’s students are attaining them. (It’s interesting to note here that in many states, public school board members spend hours of mandated training each year on instructional leadership and how to function as an instructional board; presumably, this is because of public schools’ high level of accountability for student outcomes [Swaner 2016].)
The board can maintain a healthier relationship with the head of school, as well as school constituencies. An understanding of educational trends and effective responses helps the board to better appreciate and support the head of school’s role, responsibilities, decisions, and actions. It also enables the board to discern rightly in instances of conflict between school stakeholders, in light of the school’s long-term educational vision. This is especially important as Christian schools become more innovative and nimble in responding to technological and market pressures, thereby transforming what business-as-usual looks like at the school.
Board members become more competent in their roles as trustees of an educational institution. Most school board members don’t have a background in education, which is a good thing: school boards need members with expertise in finance, management, law, and other fields who can contribute their knowledge in these areas. But regardless of their area of expertise, board members should feel a responsibility to understand broadly the “industry” of the organization they govern. Industry-level knowledge—including the challenges and trends, and available and optimal responses—is necessary for any board (public or private) in any field (education or otherwise). Boards need to intentionally and systematically educate their members in these areas.
To this end, four practical recommendations can be made:
- The head of school can “lead up” by proactively suggesting actions for the board to become knowledgeable about educational trends. This could include a yearlong book study, or splitting the board into small groups tasked with researching and reporting back on a different trend. (See the ACSI/Barna report and related ACSI blog post by Jay Ferguson for a good place to start, as well as other ACSI blog posts on teaching and learning.) The head of school can consider sharing this current blog post with the board chair as a way to start the dialogue about identifying intentional activities.
- The board should prioritize funding to send board members to educational conferences that address trends and innovation, and not just conferences that are specific to board governance. This will enable board members to broaden their understanding of the educational field, and prepare them to better strategize around field-level challenges faced by their school.
- The board should seek out training opportunities that address educational trends, innovational approaches, and change management principles. Many of the seminal works in board governance are from an earlier educational era (before Google, Twitter, RenWeb, Sevenstar, Khan Academy, and 3D printing) when schools and classrooms looked very different. While these works, and trainings based on them, are still highly valuable, they do not address the economic and societal challenges facing today’s Christian schools and how boards can respond in educationally effective ways. Conventional board training needs to be updated and augmented with information on how the industry of education is changing, and help board members to consider the impact on Christian schools and implications for strategic governance.
- Finally, when it comes to strategic planning, the board should not only be involved in the financial and physical plant side of discussions, but also in the instructional goal-setting and needs assessment side as well (cf. Pue 2016; Swaner 2016a). While important, buildings and budget are in service of the educational mission—they are not, in and of themselves, the mission. If the board delegates the instructional side of strategic planning entirely to the head of school, it will miss important opportunities to come alongside that leader in addressing educational challenges and opportunities facing the school and Christian education writ large.
The responsibility of a Christian school board is to first guard the mission, and then position the school to fulfill its mission into the future. By engaging with trends and responses in the field of education, boards can better link their governance efforts to the mission—which is, in and of itself, an educational one.
Campey, P., and J. Wexler. 2017. Governing and leading the Christian school: A community-based approach. In L. E. Swaner et al. (eds.), PIVOT: New Directions for Christian Education, 51–58.
Pue, A. 2016. Rethinking strategic planning for Christian schools. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications.
Swaner, L. E. 2016. Professional development for Christian school educators and leaders: Frameworks and best practices. Colorado Springs, CO: Association of Christian Schools International.
Swaner, L. E. 2016a. Needs assessment for Christian schools. In A. Pue, Rethinking strategic planning for Christian schools. Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications, 197–222.
Swaner, L. E., and J. Mecham. 2017. What is the future of Christian school education? Christian School Education 21, no. 1: 6–8.
About the Author
Dr. Lynn E. Swaner is the Director of Thought Leadership and Higher Education Initiatives at ACSI. Prior to ACSI, she served as a Christian school administrator and a graduate professor of education. A published scholar, her focus is on engaged pedagogy and creating cultures that foster student learning. She received her EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City. She can be reached via email at email@example.com.