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Charter Board Partners

Take It personally: redefining what It means to serve on a board

September 25, 2018 | by Carrie C. Irvin

There are 1.5 million nonprofits in the U.S.

Let’s say they have an average of 10 board members. That’s 15 million board members.

I want to talk to you about the power of these 15 million people. More specifically, I want to talk to you about the roughly 45,000 of them who serve on the boards of public charter schools—which are in fact nonprofit organizations with their own volunteer,  independent boards, just like other nonprofits. Even more specifically, I want to talk to you about…you. And I ask you: Please take what I say personally.

Quick spoiler alert: Here’s where I am going to end up at the end of this blog: Serving on the board of a public school is not about giving back. It’s about participating in. And being a good board member isn’t at the end of the day about showing up to meetings, taking good minutes, and following Robert’s Rules of order. I mean—it is; good governance process matters a lot. But ultimately, board work is people work and that’s what I am going to talk about today. And educating children is people work, too. That’s the magic of serving on a charter school board, right there.  

Sometimes when I am at a conference or a gala or dinner in support of a nonprofit, I listen to the speakers, I chat at the receptions, and I wonder how much better charter schools would get if every single person who’s taken the time to come to this conference or this gala, also committed to serving on a charter school board and to being a really awesome board member—to taking it personally? 

Let me be clear about something, I’m not really a board person, per se. My whole career has been in ed reform, not board recruiting. What drives me is the urgency behind making sure all kids get the education they deserve and need, regardless of where they live or how much money or power their parents have. So why do I sit around at conferences and imagine a world in which everyone there joins charter school boards?  

Because I strongly believe, and I have built an organization around the belief, that serving on the board of a public school changes lives. It changes the lives of the students in the school, and their families. It changes the lives of the adults who work in the school.

And here’s the thing: it changes the lives of the people on the board too—if you let it, if you take it personally. And I am going to go even further, and say that serving on a public charter school board changes the lives of communities, and maybe possibly even can change the direction of this country.

There are five reasons why I believe this.

1. Proximity.

Serving on a board provides an opportunity to work with, get to know, and make important decisions with people from different backgrounds, with different lived experiences, who bring different perspectives. This kind of proximity is relatively uncommon in many people's lives—think honestly for a moment about how diverse your networks are, because research tells us: probably not very. White people, for instance, have social networks that are 91 percent white; for Black people, 83 percent black; and for Latinx people, 64 percent Latinx.

Bryan Stevenson tells us so powerfully in his book Just Mercy that we cannot heal what so ails our society without proximity. Proximity, though, doesn’t really happen through one-off days of service or visits or conferences or galas.

Proximity needs time, over time. And proximity is personal. You have to take it personally.

Boards that include people from different races, backgrounds, perspectives, and neighborhoods offer an opportunity for real proximity. Board members work together over months and years to make important decisions about how the school will provide its students the best education possible—how the school will be a place that gives its students opportunities and shapes them into strong leaders and responsible citizens.  

As it happens, research is conclusive that diverse boards also make better decisions on a multitude of dimensions. And—to top it off, recent research shows that companies with CEOs that have more diverse social networks actually create more value for shareholders!

2.  Advocacy.  

There is so much work to be done in the fight to improve public education. The voices of business leaders, community leaders, and influencers matter a lot in that work, and can determine how successful it will ultimately be. Leaders can use their voices, their power, and their networks to advocate for high quality choices for all families, not just families with resources.

Serving on the board of a public school is a front row seat to how hard it actually is to run a great school, and gives board members unparalleled insight into what kinds of policies, authorizing, and resources schools actually need. Board members become more informed, more credible, and more effective advocates. Because it’s personal.

3.  Civic Engagement.  

We have a problem in this country, obviously. Our “civil society” is pretty uncivil. We bowl alone, we don’t talk to our neighbors, we don’t talk to anyone we don’t agree with or see their Facebook posts, we don’t vote, our society is fractious and fractured. 

Serving on a charter school board is a meaningful way to bump up civic engagement.  These boards bring together citizens to work on an important and challenging mission in (hopefully, and usually) a civil, civilized way, giving its members good practice at this. We form new and deep and genuine connections with people who we might not otherwise know and who probably don’t agree with us about everything. Board work can promote and foster civil discourse, compromise, and collaboration.

Strengthening these civic ties at this very grassroots level, times thousands, can help our society become more civil, board by board, community by community.

4.  Leadership development.

Generally, we think of serving on a board as a good thing for business leaders, right? Business leaders seek opportunities to serve on corporate boards and on the boards of high profile organizations. It’s good for network-building and meeting new people/opening new business opportunities. It’s good for branding—I care about this mission, about doing something good for the world. It’s prestigious to serve on the board of a big company or a well known nonprofit. I actually think these are good reasons to serve on a board.

I would like to add two ways that charter school board service is part of leadership development:  

First, serving on the board of a public school is, and should be considered, as important, worthwhile, and prestigious as any other board, if not more so, given the meaningfulness of the mission and magnitude of the challenge.

Second, serving on a board is actually good for leadership. It requires making decisions collaboratively, not hierarchically, and with people you didn’t choose and can’t decide on your own to replace. The issues charter school boards face are enormously high stakes, and require board members to interact with, and synthesize, all kinds of data, understand the perspectives of all kinds of stakeholders, operate within ambiguity while minimizing risk, and stand by the decisions of the board even if you disagree. All these things make leaders better leaders.  
And finally, and ultimately most importantly, and why this making-schools-better person spends her days helping boards get better:

5.  Great boards actually make schools better!!!  

We see this over and over and over again. Great charter schools tend to have good boards, and low-performing charter schools tend to have weak boards. A Harvard study looking at the boards of hospitals found that how effective the board is actually impacts the quality of clinical care in the hospital—as measured, in part, by mortality rate. In hospitals with stronger boards that govern effectively and focus on quality, fewer people die. 

Schools aren’t hospitals, I know, but the stakes are just as high, actually. The decisions boards make, the strategic direction they set, the hard and sometimes even courageous actions they take, the focus they bring to achieving results—these actions change the course of what happens in a school, and the lives of the people in that school, in the way that a great school can.

Boards bring resources, talent, expertise, experience, and knowledge into the leadership of schools that schools could not otherwise access. That’s part of what makes charter schools different from traditional public schools—educators can do what they do best, run great schools—and boards can provide oversight over, and expertise to support, the operational and financial, as well as the academic performance and health of the school.

Bottom line: School choice without quality and equitable access is no choice at all—no family needs more bad choices for where to send their kids to school. In charter schools, accountability for quality and equity happens at the school level, closest to the kids and what they need, not at the district level.

Accountability is in the hands of their boards. Boards hold in their hands the ability—the responsibility—to hold schools accountable for academic outcomes for students, and for being well run organizations financially and operationally. It’s a fantastic opportunity, a huge responsibility, and an enormously powerful lever to make schools better.  

So—as I said. It’s not about giving back. It’s about participating in. It’s about people. And it’s about change. Sitting in schools today are tomorrow’s employees, voters, neighbors, citizens, parents, and civic leaders. And sitting in conference rooms, corporate boardrooms, office buildings, community based organization, churches, universities, all over America, are the people who can help knit together our social fabric, can commit to being proximate and engaging in communities in authentic and sustained ways, can advocate for the policies and resources we need if we are going to have great schools, and who can make sure that every single child in every single classroom is attending a great school. It’s a challenge I offer to you, and I hope you take it…personally.


This piece was originally delivered as a TED-style talk, delivered by invitation at the America Succeeds EDVenture18 conference in Boise, Idaho on September 13, 2018. 

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