Needed: Better Local Governance Orientation

We do our fair share of orientation sessions for new trustees in independent and international schools, but one missing component has always bothered me. Our rather generic orientation to governance, steeped in compendia of good practice, orients new governors to the general work of governing, but it does not inculcate an appreciation for the uniqueness of their own schools. Every school has (or should have) a unique mission that sets it apart in its market; many translate the mission into an animating idea that imbues K-12 education with a purpose beyond merely getting students into university. Explicating this purpose, as well as the myriad other local aspects of governance, can only be done by people at the school.

This is why we usually allocate responsibility for new trustee orientation to a board committee, but it is also why external facilitation by a consultant is necessary but not sufficient to imbue how governing works at your school. A recent opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by David W. Miles, Chair of the Board at the Association of Governing Boards (AGB), details what new governors need to know:

  • A data-driven analysis of the contributions of [independent] education to society and to individuals, as well as where it falls short.
  • An overview of the [independent]-education system in the United States and globally, including the types of institutions and how they address student needs.
  • A better understanding of the ethical questions that can arise on the board and how to resolve them.
  • An unvarnished look at the business model of [independent] education, including both key revenue sources and expenses, and how [one’s] own institution fits in.
  • Greater detail on the history, current state, and future vision of my institution.
    Information on where to find additional resources to further my understanding; e.g., NAIS, ECIS, AGB, and more.

One could do much worse as an outline for a local orientation session as another school year enters the home stretch and thoughts turn to on-boarding new governors for next year.

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Uses and Mis-Uses of Data: No Substitute for the Tough Work of Governing

We are staunch advocates of schools using data to inform decision-making, whether in strategic planning, school evaluation, leadership assessment, or myriad other places where one must cut through the anecdotes that abound around schools to gauge what is really going on. In earlier posts, we wrote about the pitfalls that come from “governance by anecdote,” and suggested that the boardroom in particular be a “data-rich” environment. Anecdotes, after all, likely involve a particular student or family and are therefore charged with all sorts of emotions.

We still believe that data elevates the governance dialog, but there is one place where boards must let the emotionality back in: when it comes to tough decisions about sacred people, places, and programs. The Spockian promise of data-driven decision making is in part because it strips away emotion leaving one to make the best, rational decision.

Sometimes, though, the numbers can only point to a piece of difficult emotional work, such as retiring the founder who refuses to leave, closing a program precious to alumni but irrelevant to today’s students, or tearing down a dilapidated but cherished building. In each of these situations, the board and its leadership must do what is difficult and not “kick the can down the road,” something that is all too common in schools.

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What Matters Most (Hiring Talent Edition)

We have long said that merely assessing head of school candidates for knowledge, skills, and abilities (the famous KSA model) is insufficient. By the time one gets to a senior executive position, KSA presence or absence is pretty well established. What matters most are the “other factors;” e.g., personality variables such as perseverance, reliability, capacity to juggle multiple demands, and emotional intelligence. The importance of other factors, even over KSA’s, is evident in the fact that they explain the overwhelming majority of headship failures. In other words, it’s not what you know and what you do so much as how you do it.

Pat Lencioni’s recent post on “What Exactly are We Looking For?” makes this same point using the NFL Combine (an event where American football teams size-up the talent coming out of colleges and universities) as an analogy. Even there, where one would assume that raw physical ability is paramount, it is the other factors that make or break the players in the long run.

What “other factors” matter most to the leaders you are responsible for hiring?

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A Business Model Problem or an Education Model Problem?

That private, independent schools have a business model problem is more or less conventional wisdom at this point. As tuitions continue to rise at CPI+2.something rates (what our research confirms has been true since at least 1980) and household income flattens (at least in the U.S. from 1998 through 2016), schools outside a handful of booming areas have seen demand soften. And the post-2008 bump in financial aid requests and grants has not regressed to the historical mean as one might have expected.

While these conditions certainly create business problems–such as in whether there is sufficient net tuition revenue to sustain the school–we question whether the fundamental issue is with business or education. It seems like our business model, including its reliance on cost-based pricing, is really just epiphenomenal to our educational model; e.g., along for the ride. Everything about how we educate, including emphasizing rich teacher-student ratios–drive toward the current price point. The bottom line is that one cannot lower prices in a nonprofit environment unless one lowers costs, and one cannot lower costs without changing how we educate.

Realizing that the educational model is the proverbial “third rail” of our sector of the education industry, we just don’t see a way forward without having that conversation. Schools that pretend prices can be reduced without fundamentally changing how the product gets built are stuck searching for the Holy Grail (with about the same success).

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The Innovation Connundrum

More are more boards are pushing their heads of school for “innovation”, often bemoaning the slow pace of change in our very conservative field. At the same time, we often observe what Linda A. Hill and George Davis write about in the Harvard Business Review when summarizing a survey of corporate governance:

“Most board members report that the lion’s share of their attention around innovation goes toward improving the organization’s capacity to execute its current strategy—that is, innovation to sustain the core.”

This is often where boards focus: how to do what schools do faster, better, or cheaper. Yet the combination of these three–faster, better, and cheaper–won’t happen with incremental or marginal improvements. That’s not real innovation! Real innovation will come from new business models, new ways to teach and to learn, and to finally making the school experience render obsolete our dependence on a fixed number of students and teachers and classrooms.

Maybe it is time for our governance to look beyond the incremental and push management not to fix problems, but to invent new models.

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Talking Tech and Boards

Technology bedevils boards of independent and international schools. Board members rightly expect a technology play of some sort, but struggle to find the right way to engage with school administrators around the topic. It is very easy for he conversation to migrate from “What is our technology strategy?” to “I think we should start coding classes in middle school,” to “My sister’s kids attend a school in Pittsburgh that lets students do coding internships at Google and we should start something like that.” Heads of school bristle in response and the discussion goes downhill from there.

In my interview (video available at the link) with Rod Berger of MindRocket Media in the Huffington Post, I describe ways boards (and board members) can engage management in important conversations about the school’s technology strategy. Some might wonder why a school even needs a technology strategy? If so, then the audio interviews are a good place to start.

The interviews are part of Matt Harris‘s Blueprint for Technology and Education project.

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