The case for an unlikely designer

Why do school boards exist? And what exactly is the role of a locally elected member? Despite there being over 20,000 school boards nationwide, this isn't a question the average person asks themselves. But I've grappled with since I was elected to the Board of Education in San Francisco almost a year ago.

(Photo via Flickr user Renato Ganoza)

Much has changed in education policy over the past 150 years, but local school boards have been a constant. The role of a school board is unusual with few close analogues. School board members are neither legislators nor lawmakers. We can pass policies, but unlike city councils, we don’t have the power to make laws per se. We have a much larger mandate than a standard corporate or nonprofit board, and it would be an oversimplification to say our role, as outlined, is simply “advisory” or “oversight.”

We are, on paper, responsible for establishing educational goals and standards, approving curriculum, setting the district budget, managing superintendents, and approving purchases and contracts. But here’s the real question: why should we have locally elected citizens run our school systems?

Why don’t we just get out of the way and let the school superintendent and educational professionals deal with problems facing our schools? What do elected community members know and/or have access to that professional educators and state legislatures do not?

These are the introspective questions I've been asking myself during my first year on the  board. I've also been a fellow during much of this time, and have embraced a new way of understanding and describing what school board members do. I have now come to the conclusion that school board members are designers.

Our role, above all, is to develop a deep understanding of and empathy for the people we serve, and to make sure our systems are designed in support of their needs and interests. When performing at our best, we're practitioners of human-centered design, and that's the source of our legitimacy.

Educational professionals, whether administrators or teachers, care deeply about students. They also have unparalleled, direct knowledge of how to serve them. These professionals do incredible work for students everyday. But they exist within a system which, based on where they're positioned, informs and constrains what they can do. Educators may, at each level of the system, seek greater flexibility and less oversight. Or they may find themselves forced to align their work to the incentives and constraints that others have created.

School board members, on the other hand, have the sole responsibility to ensure that the needs of individual students are paramount and that every level of the system -- from the classroom to the district to the larger community -- keeps the student’s needs in mind. If there are constraints that prevent students from being well-served, school board members are responsible for removing them while understanding the impact their actions could have on other parts of the whole.

A school board member must see the forest, but never forget the trees. We must make connections, re-align incentives if necessary, and establish an overall design that works for students.

It doesn’t always go this way, of course, and there are major challenges. Most school board members serve part-time, are unpaid, and do not have the time to visit schools and talk to students on a regular basis. But if school board members are ever to claim their role as designers, we have to have extensive access to the people we serve. We need to be able to build empathy and understanding with students, parents, and educators.

I’ve been afforded the unique opportunity to visit extensively with these constituencies and engage in this empathy work, thanks to my fellowship at the I've come to realize that if board members’ information about students continues to be indirect and primarily accessed through administrators, our jobs become more difficult.

In light of this, here’s the question I'm asking now: How might we empower school board members to better serve in their essential role as designers? Though board members cannot and should not try to be a teacher, a principal or superintendent, they should be allowed to be designers. Because that's what we need them to be.

You can follow Matt Haney on Twitter at @MattHaneySF.