Can This School Board Be Saved? Author AJ Crabill Has a 5-Point Plan

In this 74 Interview, the Great City Schools director talks about his new book on refocusing school boards from adult inputs to student outcomes.

A portrait of AJ Crabill, in an illustrated red speech bubble
AJ Crabill

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I’m a school board skeptic. It’s a position with deep, hard-earned roots: I have been attending — and attending to — school board meetings since I was a high school student. Now, as a reluctantly middle-aged dad, the only remarkable thing about those decades of meetings … is how similar they’ve always been

Boards erupting in chaos over censorship and assorted culture wars? Same as it ever was. Rancorous board debates over various opportunity-hoarding privileges — tracking, selective magnet schools, adjusting neighborhood enrollment boundaries, etc — distracting boards from real school governance? Standard operating practice. 

So when I read AJ Crabill’s book, Great on Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective, I nodded when he wrote, “It is common that school boards are professionally ineffective.” (Click here to read a sample chapter.)

He would know. He’s a former board chair for Kansas City, Missouri’s public schools, and has worked with numerous boards as the national director of governance at the Council of the Great City Schools. 

Spring is school board election season in 13 states where voters cast their ballots for Board of Education members in April and May. I chatted with Crabill shortly before his book’s March 28 publication. In it, he  argues that this sorry state of school board affairs need not be permanent. He provides an incisive account of the strengths — and most common flailings — boards bring to their work, as well as a five-step approach towards making them effective. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: Let’s start with the backstory — how did this book come to be? Why did you decide to write it?

Crabill: So the intention is pretty straightforward: to accelerate the transition of school boards across the nation from focusing on adult inputs (things like staff, books, programs, and facilities) to focusing on student outcomes. That is the central premise. That’s the beginning, middle and the end. Everything else is just details. 

It does start with an account of how school boards get stuck focusing on adult inputs, and some of the harms of that. But the rest of the book is really focused on getting school boards intentionally and unapologetically focused on growing what students know and are able to do.

That’s presumably rooted in some of your time on — or working with — school boards, right? 

Certainly. And my experiences, and everything I’ve read, and the research literature also point in the same direction: the things that school boards focus on actually do, in fact, matter. When school boards focus on student outcomes, they’re more likely to create the condition from improvements in student outcomes. If school boards focus on the color of the cheerleaders’ uniforms, we’re more likely to have the proper color of uniforms. 

Or your anecdote in the book about a board that spent a meeting obsessed with a potential change to the color of their school buses, right? That was arresting. 

Yeah, I mean, one member was saying, “I’m philosophically opposed to non-yellow school buses.” I mean … look, I don’t have to make up stories. They’re all true — sadly, all true.

I believe you. I’ve sat through enough of these that I no longer have to suppress what used to be shock at what privileged families will say in school board meetings

In fact, let me ask you about a related tension. You suggest that the board improvement process starts with clarifying a vision and setting priorities. That requires something like a board and community consensus, but right now, there’s ample discord around American visions for public education. Boards host a lot of arguments about things that aren’t student outcomes. What if the process of electing school boards is in tension with getting members on the same page long enough to improve them, no?

Yeah. All of school boards’ natural incentives are aligned with a focus on the adult inputs. You have to acknowledge that and figure out how to solve both sides of the equation. There has to be some realism here: School boards are never going to be able to escape all of the incentives around them. Whether it’s the training they receive, mandates from the state, the demands from neighbors who want their pet interests attended to, all of that is going to have to be wrestled with. 

But that’s why I suggest boards spend half of their time on priorities around student learning, which still leaves the other half free for other priorities, whatever else the community values — finances, yellow school buses or anything else that comes up. We want board members to leverage the amount of focus that is beneficial for students, but also sustainable, given the realities of their circumstances.

A number of education reformers over the years have seen exactly what you’ve just described and they’ve concluded that school boards aren’t salvageable. Could we do more for kids with an entirely different model of governance?

This question’s been brought up repeatedly over the years. The problem is, we don’t have any evidence of other governance models that significantly outperform elected school boards. Go from an elected board to one appointed by the mayor, or a hybrid model, and all of it winds up with the same propensity for becoming focused on adult inputs. They fail for different reasons and in different ways, but they fail all the same. 

Charter school boards are wildly susceptible to becoming focused on their founder rather than on student outcomes. Appointed boards are wildly susceptible to becoming vehicles for patronage rather than focused on outcomes. So they wind up failing in very different ways, but failing nevertheless. Add up all the data and there doesn’t seem to be a compelling argument that, if we just select members in a different way, that that will solve governance problems. 

My answer is more nuanced and more practical. It’s this five-step continuous improvement process that offers a practical thing that we can do tomorrow. We don’t have to wait for legislation. We don’t have to wait for the “right” superintendent or the “right” children, the “right” parents, or the “right” teachers. We need to focus, set priorities, monitor our progress towards them, align resources with our goals and then share our progress with the community. 

The cover of AJ Crabill's book, which is called Great on Their Behalf. It's red with white and black letters; the subtitle is Why school boards fail, how yours can become effective.
AJ Crabill’s book (AJ Crabill)

How can elected boards manage controversies like the recent spate of book censorship arguments?

This is like the difference between debating the placement of a single stop sign versus debating about safety. The job of the board isn’t to pick and choose where to put stop signs. The job of the board is to get underneath arguments about stop signs and figure out, OK, what is the community value that is really at stake here? Safety. 

The same principles apply to the books’ example. The board should be very aggressive about codifying community expectations to protect the values beneath. These are what I refer to in the book as “guardrails.” On certain books, communities will differ. One might say, the value that we have around book selection is: We want them to be inclusive. We want all of our curriculum and learning materials to be representative of the diversity of our student body. But another community might say, the thing that we value about books is how they represent and lift up a view of American exceptionalism. If they don’t match that, we don’t want them in our libraries. 

These are two competing sets of values, and they’re entirely appropriate for their respective communities. The job of the board is to represent the vision and values of their community, and those values are going to differ wildly by place. So, codify the values and then let the district’s professional education team figure out what it looks like to honor these values in the daily practice of the school system. 

And I think that variety is great. Part of what’s awesome about America is that, whatever your thing is, there’s probably a geographic community somewhere for you, and you have the freedom to pack up and move to that community. When you get there, the local school board should represent the set of values you sought out. 

This gets tougher in places where the vision is contested, right?

Yeah, and you’ve got a lot of these more purple places. A lot of school districts across the country are countywide systems, and so you wind up with this mashup of urban, suburban and rural, all in the same school system. It gets a lot more challenging in those places, because you wind up with boards that have this kind of bell curve distribution of ideology with left partisans and right partisans — all serving on the same board together. Usually most people are somewhere in the purple middle.

But the work is the same. They have to go out and do a lot of listening — and then accept the reality that the final product, the final set of goals isn’t going to look like someone on either political pole might want. Their job is to represent the values of the full community.

How is it that boards get so far off track?

One thing that I often say while working with school boards across the nation is, “The student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change.” What can most drive changes in adult behavior? The three things that we’ve identified, the most potent levers for adult behavioral change are knowledge, skills and mindset. 

Knowledge. What do I know? 

Skills? What can I do with what I know? 

Mindset? What is my view of the world? How do I make meaning of the things that are occurring around me?

Knowledge-based board failures are basic things. Do we have goals? Are we spending time on things that are actually about what students know and are able to do? Can we distinguish between an adult input and a student outcome? These are solvable through training on state requirements and best practices. 

Skill-based failures happen when we don’t deploy time efficiently and impactfully. What skill set do we need to transition from the status quo behaviors to the behaviors that could make the biggest difference for students? 

Mindset is by far the most impactful driver for behavior changes. It’s about seeing the world differently so that I can behave differently.

What makes mindset so powerful?

Here’s an example I used in the book: Imagine a school board that believes that “this kid AJ just doesn’t want to learn.” That gives rise to one set of adult behaviors, one that can legitimize efforts to push little AJ out, because obviously anytime  AJ doesn’t perform, it’s taken as proof that he just doesn’t want to learn. Whereas if I adopt a different mindset, “AJ does want to learn, but there’s a gap between where he is and where he wants to be,” then my commitment is to help him bridge that gap. 

Nothing about little AJ has changed. My knowledge and skills haven’t changed. But now I see the universe as one in which AJ wants to learn and I am the bridge for him. Now all of my knowledge and skills can be deployed in a powerful and transformative way that actually makes a difference. And when, for whatever reason, AJ still doesn’t learn, I still know that he wants to and I’ve got to look for the next thing that I’ve got to change about my adult behavior to set him up for success. And then the next thing. And so on. 

It confers a sense of resilience in the face of the inherent challenges that come with education. Teachers work so hard because education is such a hard process, and they have to stay resilient. An empowering mindset supports that resilience, a disempowering mindset undermines it. That is just as true in the boardroom as it is in the classroom.

But it’s tough to shift to that mindset, no? It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot, because I’ve done a lot of work in early education, and we have this compelling research base around investing in very young kids, in the birth to 5-years-old range. The evidence shows that this is the most impactful time to shift children’s trajectories, because their brains are uniquely plastic — they’re still developing. But we don’t talk about the less-sunny implication there: We should intervene early because adult behaviors are way harder to shift. How can boards make those shifts — and sustain them?

I highlight research on this in the book. It shows differences in outcomes between school boards that got no training or coaching, boards that got training on being more student-focused and boards that got training and coaching on that focus. The training helped! The boards that just got the training saw some slight increases in student achievement compared with the boards that got nothing. But the boards that got both training and coaching saw something like twice the growth. So training is necessary, but coaching is essential. 

So it takes boards having a willingness to be coached and supported, and to ultimately change behavior. I’ve certainly had the privilege of watching school districts do this work and show real improvement, put real points on the board. I had the privilege of working on this during my own years of board service in Kansas City. Over a six-year period, we were able to double the percentages of students on grade-level reading, grow graduation rates by 15 points and then — for the first time in decades — gain full accreditation from the state. 

The book is full of stories like these. And they make one thing clear: When school boards get intensely focused on improving student outcomes, great things happen for the students.

Obviously, the book’s full of concrete ideas for improving a school board … but if you could share one piece of advice with elected members out there, what would it be?

Work with your board chair to identify to what extent your meetings even look at student outcomes. I conclude the book with this — telling readers that if they’re ready to take the next step, here’s a link to a time-use evaluation. Actually evaluate your recent board meeting to see where you spent your time. Then sit down with your board to ask one another, with sincere curiosity, if this is what we want. Do we want to continue this pattern? Or do we need to focus more on student outcomes to actually move the needle on student performance?

School board members want great things for their students. My experience has been, when board members are confronted with this, the conversation opens them up to an urgency around action. 

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