New book provides guidance on effective school governance
The Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together by Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan Book Cover
The Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together by Davis Campbell and Michael Fullan is an important read for school district and county office governance teams. It provides strategies and tools for district members, superintendents and school leaders to unify and face the complex challenges of school board governance together.
Campbell is a former CSBA Executive Director and currently serves as chair of the University of California, Davis, School of Education Board of Advisors and is a senior fellow. Michael Fullan is a former dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, professor emeritus of the University of Toronto and a co-leader of the New Pedagogies for Deep Learning global initiative.

California Schools posed the following questions to the authors to gain insights on effective school board governance.

What was the inspiration for The Governance Core?
The inspiration for the book was a little different for each author.

Davis Campbell has worked for 30 years in governance; 14 of those as Executive Director of the California School Boards Association. Effective governance has always been a passion for Campbell. Michael Fullan and Campbell met each other eight years ago because of Campbell’s involvement with the University of California, Davis School of Education and Fullan’s continuing work as a faculty member with UC Davis’ Center for Applied Policy in Education Superintendent Executive Leadership Forum. Campbell was inspired to work on the book because of his deep commitment to effective governance and its long-term impact on equity and quality education for all students. He believes that a governance system based upon collaborative and trustful relationships, board and superintendent together, is essential to sustaining long-term continuous improvement. Governance matters.

Fullan’s work on coherence and systems change has become widely known both in the United States and internationally. His work in California as well as Ontario, Canada, and Victoria, Australia, is recognized as transformative. One of the realties that became increasingly clear was that working with administrative staff and teachers in districts without addressing the issue of governance was not enough to create long-term, sustainable systems change. Systems change requires high-functioning governance. Fullan had studied many aspects of systems functioning, but rarely had come across good material on how local districts were governed.

As authors, it became quite clear to both that very little attention was being paid to this crucial domain that could have an enormous impact of schools.

The book is divided into three sections — can you describe them and tell us why it is structured that way?
The structure of the book reflects the recognition that governance is a primary organizational function of every public, nonprofit and private corporation. This is one of the most important messages of the book. Governance is a different job than administration, and curriculum and instruction. As such, governance in of itself is a system; a system that is composed of interacting parts, each representing an essential part of the governance whole. It requires different skills and a different mindset, both as an individual trustee and, collectively, as a governing board.

Thus, the first section of the book focuses on the characteristics of highly effective individual trustees. But as important as that is, that is not enough if these individuals cannot meld into an equally high-functioning governing team. Although some trustees have difficulty with the team concept, governance is in fact a team sport. Boards govern, not individual trustees. Trustees have no authority to take action on their own. So, the second part of the book focuses on the characteristics of highly effective governing boards. The third part of the book is an attempt to look forward to the challenges ahead. So, the flow is from individuals to the organization, and then to what the future could bring.

What are the characteristics of a successful trustee? Can you explain what a “governance mindset” is?
After over 30 years of working with governing boards, Campbell, in particular, began to notice a common characteristic with all high-performing trustees — all, not just a few. They all seemed to have a perspective, an understanding, that was different than other trustees. This was true regardless of size or type of district, geographical location or ethnicity. They all seemed to share a common understanding of what was necessary to govern effectively. What they found is that they govern with a profound commitment to quality education for all, combined with a deep understanding — sometimes learned, sometimes intuitive — of what governance is all about. In sum, the authors found that these board members had made a successful transition from campaigning to governing. They called this characteristic a “governance mindset.”

The governance mindset can be broken down into four different characteristics. It is important to note all four of these traits were present in these trustees, not just one or two.

The first was that these trustees were systems thinkers. They understood that a complex organization like a school district was a system and that governing the district required that they understand and connect all the interacting parts. Peter Senge is quoted in the book: “By its very nature, systems thinking points out interdependencies and the need for collaboration.” This, in essence, is the point of systems thinking. Also referred to in the book is an observation by David McManus, the former CEO of Xerox Canada, who provides a great metaphor related to systems thinking. He writes: “Peripheral vision: the ability to pay attention to the world as if through a wide angle, not a telephoto lens, so you can see how your actions interrelate with other areas of activity.”

The second characteristic is that effective trustees with a governance mindset have a strategic focus. They are forward looking. They understand that governance is a strategic job and they approach everything with a focus on the long-term strategic impact of their decisions on achieving strategic goals.

The third characteristic is that effective trustees are learners. They understand that to make high-quality decisions, they must spend the time necessary to fully understand the issues about which they are to decide. It is not possible to make quality governance decisions without a deep understanding of the programs upon which the board is making decisions. As one superintendent said, their most effective trustee, a leader on the board and in the community, “reads everything.” She makes sure she understands even the most complex educational issues.

Finally, trustees with a governance mindset manage their public manner. This trait is often underappreciated in the governance context. We often overlook the impact that the personal manner of trustees has on the ability of a board to create a positive governance culture based upon trust and collaboration. Above all, trustees with a governance mindset are very conscious of modeling the behavior they want the children in the district to emulate.

What are the characteristics of a successful governance team? What is a “moral imperative”?
The vision in The Governance Core is of a governance system — board and superintendent working together as a cohesive, unified team with a common vision, driven by a shared moral imperative. They function in a collaborative, cohesive manner, focused on achieving the district’s strategic goals. They are cohesive because they have a shared understanding of the nature and purpose of the work.

“Moral imperative” is defined by Fullan as a relentless commitment to the learning of all students, no exceptions. It is fundamentally student-focused. The words “imperative,” “relentless” and “commitment” are not used idly. Successful governance teams — board and superintendent — are highly driven by their shared moral imperative focused on achieving their specific strategic goals.

Because governance is a system, composed of individual parts, it is essential that all the parts work together if efficacy in governance is to be realized. Effective boards are coherence makers and supporters throughout the education system. They create a culture of collaboration and trust. And importantly, they establish a board infrastructure based upon governance principles, norms and protocols. Effective boards are consistent, stable, self-disciplined and committed to governing within these governance principles. Finally, highly functional governing boards share a clear understanding of, and govern within, their roles and responsibilities. They set the direction for the district, adopt policies that govern the district, provide support to the district, hold the system accountable, are transparent and communicate with and inform the community.

What is the difference between a unified board and a uniform board?
This is an important question.

Unified is not uniform. The easiest way to explain the difference is looking at the basic definition of uniform. Uniform is defined by Merriam Webster as “always having the same form, manner or degree: not varying or variable.” As is said in the book, “when we think of uniform, we tend to think of lockstep, everyone and everything the same.” This is the exact opposite of what is meant by a unified board. A unified board is a board whose trustees have found common ground, a unity of purpose around a shared moral imperative. It’s a board characterized by trust, collaboration and shared focus.

The difference is perhaps best illustrated by a quote from one of the world’s top medical institutions: the Mayo Clinic. It states in the cover of its clinic brochure: “Teamwork at Mayo Clinic: An experiment in cooperative individualism.” Cooperative individualism is a powerful description of a unified board.

Can you expand on “systems thinking” and how it applies to district governance teams?
The Governance Core tries to make it clear that education in general, and school districts in particular, are highly complex systems. A middle-sized school district will often be the largest or one of the largest employers in the community; will provide more meals in a day than any restaurant; will transport more individuals in a day than any transportation system; will have one of the largest budgets of any public agency. And, of course, all must interact to support the core mission of every school — educating the children of the community.

The key message is that governance is the glue that makes it possible for the entire system to work. Boards and superintendents must be systems thinkers. They must have peripheral vision; they simply cannot govern effectively unless they see how all of the parts interact all of the time.

Systems thinking and governance core go hand in hand. Boards that don’t have a systems mindset make decisions one at a time. They fail to connect a given decision to other factors. They miss how a decision can have side consequences that in turn cause other things to alter and so on. A governance mindset, and a collective moral imperative, keep boards on track and allows them to alter their practices when it is time to make adjustments, and/or consider new actions.

Kimberly Sellery is managing editor for California Schools.