Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Makes a Good School Board Member?

LT broaches the subject of educational attainment and participation on the Lebanon School Board, asking about the levels of education of the board members and whether or not education matters in this context.

I've wondered about that, and my thinking has changed substantially over time. It is clear to me based on LT's post that they think educational attainment does matter, and that not having education past the high school level is problematic when it comes to serving on the school board.

Part of me wants to agree with this statement; after all, I have a four-year degree and getting it was the best experience of my life. And it's real easy to slip from "Rick Alexander" to "education matters."

That said, I think framing the question in the way LT does has two problems:

1. It shows a class bias. While on its face it shows an education bias, the two are very clearly (and often closely) related. The people LT mentions as good school board candidates tend to have advanced degrees (lawyer, doctor) that often lead to pleasant incomes or are personally invested people (parents) who have the time to volunteer - both of which indicate a certain level of socioeconomic status. I don't think such a bias is a good thing, and I've certainly had to fight it in my own thinking and writing on this issue.

I think it's important for most, if not all, groups in Lebanon to be involved in the process. Right now, I see a large gap where the professional class (the McHills, Wopats, Barishes, etc) used to be. I would like to see them (and/or their colleagues) re-enter the field, as distasteful and filled with infighting as it may be. Just because their kids are out of school doesn't mean they should walk away.

2. What are the criteria by which a good school board member is evaluated? That is, what makes a good school board member? (The point being, of course, to see if education itself matters as a criteria, or if education correlates to something that matters, or if it does not matter at all - or if it's somewhere in between).

I don't have a concrete answer to the latter question, actually, but I'll throw out some suggestions and see what sticks:

a) The ability to listen - this is just a good skill for people to have in general, but I think it becomes especially relevant when one is part of a deliberative body that conducts oversight. The LCSD board members can't personally oversee everything in the district, so being able to filter and understand the information presented to them is key to being able to process the big picture.

b) The ability (and inclination) to separate one's own interests from that of the district as a whole. This is easy - Rick doesn't even try. In fact, he goes the opposite direction: His interests become board interests because he pushes them until he gets his way. See for examples anything related to Sand Ridge and/or getting rid of Robinson for an example.

c) The ability to critically evaluate the information presented to you and make decisions based on that evaluation. This is, for me, the one that correlates the most closely with educational attainment by far. Certainly in my case - with half of my degree in Philosophy (aka critical thinking), this is something I personally value quite a bit. After all, it's managed to get me a long way.

As well, I think it's pretty important for a school board member - though I should be clear about where critical thinking skill can come from: Increased critical thinking skills and education have a relationship based on correlation, not causation, since one can be a critical thinker without getting an education. (Yes, I just denigrated the necessity of my own degree. I have no few illusions about that.)

All that said, being able to accurately evaluate the information in front of you and make a sound decision is incredibly important: Often those decisions have a significant impact, whether it be financial or otherwise.

d) Perspective - that is (and I know this is not the best way to put it), having spent a significant amount of time outside of Lebanon. Or something along those lines; I brings this up not because there are Lebanon Lifers involved (which can be a very good thing), but because the more expansive one's consciousness is when it comes to the larger world, the more accurate a context one can place the LCSD in. Or something. This one definitely warrants a bit more thinking about.

So that's it for my short list of things a school board member needs to be able to do. I don't think it's a complete list by any means, but I think it's a start.

Notice the absence of a few things: Education (no, I don't think it's absolutely necessary, but damn does it appear to help in light of the current situation), the presence of a child in a district school, public speaking skills, a background in education policy or finance. Those things might be useful, but are not, strictly speaking, necessary to be effective.

And yes, I realize I am on record as saying conflicting things about education and being a school board member. That's because my thinking on the matter is conflicted.


Anonymous said...

If I had to choose someone to influence my children's future I would take ethical over educated.

Bernstein said...

From the USA Today:

Students don't know much about history, and colleges aren't adding enough to their civic literacy, says a report out today.

The study from the non-profit Intercollegiate Studies Institute shows that less than half of college seniors knew that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution or that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion. Overall, freshmen averaged 50.4% on a wide-ranging civic literacy test; seniors averaged 54.2%, both failing scores if translated to grades.

What more can I add? LT's post was nothing more than an elitist rant that said more about LT than the board members.

Dennis said...

That's pretty harsh, Bernstein - I think your comment misses the difference that the content of one's education makes when it comes to one's serving on the school board.

And I don't think the Yorktown fact is at all relevant, actually. NATO, yes, but Yorktown, no.

Furthermore, I don't think that showing a huge percentage of students don't know Fact X actually tells us much about the quality of civic education.

Here is the story that Bernstein is referring to, I believe.

Roxy said...

I don't think a four-year bachelor's degree is the key to someone being "qualified" to serve on a school board. I agree with anonymous-- ethical over educated.

... And what does a college student's measure of history have to do with serving on a school board?

Bernstein said...

My grandfather knew and understood as much if not more about history and government than your average college professor. He "only" had a high school diploma. His knowledge came from voracious reading, curiosity and being involved in politics.

My dad only has an 11th grade education, yet some how managed to become a very successful businessman.

He often builds complex machinery needed in his business from plans he's sketched out on a piece of scratch paper.

All their lives both men always felt inferior to those who had college degrees.

My grandfather would have done a lot of good serving on a school board, a city council or even in the legislature. He would have liked to but felt no one would vote for him because he didn't have degree.

The Union Pacific Railroad wanted to have engineers come out and look at equipment my day designed and built. He wouldn't go for it because he was worried the engineers wouldn't think his stuff was good because they had degrees and he didn't.

So excuse me if I get a little hot when LT insinuates that just because Debi Shimmin doesn't have a college degree she isn't fit to serve on the board.

LT's post was senseless and mean spirited and added nothing of value to the conversation. Hardly a worthy example of "citizens' journalism."

Dennis said...


I think you make an excellent point here - there are people without an education who have an incredible amount of intelligence.

How do we convince them to get involved with civic life?

If Tom McHill had been a flop as a school board member, would anyone decry the presence of advanced degrees on the school board? Highly unlikely. But when Rick is a disaster, the finger gets pointed at his lack of educational attainment - is this an unfair double standard?

(Also, I see a crappy counter-argument coming on - someone is going to want to point out that your grandfather should have gone to college. Bollocks on them; that's just silly. Happiness and success do not require college.)

The implication here is that Rick Alexander is not one of those people; that may or may not be true. What's more important than his intelligence, I think, are the choices he makes - they are selfish, short-sighted and often illegal or bordering on illegal. Those are the reasons he needs to go, not because he doesn't have a college degree.

Hm.... you said this of your grandfather:

His knowledge came from voracious reading, curiosity and being involved in politics.

Do you think that is typical of people with a high school diploma? Is it typical of college graduates?

Cassie said...

I have to agree with the consensus here. What's apparently missing on the school board is a lack of bias, critical thinking and civility, not so much a lack of education.

I know many people that are by far more qualified than I would be to sit on a school Board. Just because I will have a professional degree in a few months doesn't change that.

I agree with Dennis that a college education is helpful, but it is not absolutely necessary in this context or many others.

Bernstein said...

Roxy asks "And what does a college student's measure of history have to do with serving on a school board?"

Well perhaps having a better measure of history might enlighten school board members on why caricatures of Native Americans are not appropriate school mascots or why Native Americans might not be so honored to have a white boy in red, white and blue feather headdress making a mockery of their traditions during half-time.

And touching on another recent series of RW posts, knowing American history might have given a certain college newspaper staff a clue as to why African Americans would be so offended by the blackface photo on the front page of their newspaper.

Bernstein said...

Dennis said: "But when Rick is a disaster, the finger gets pointed at his lack of educational attainment"

What lack of educational attainment? LT does not know Rick's educational background. The post is meant to leave the reader with the idea he only has a 10th edcuation without offering any proof.

Making a statement in the form of a question is a dirty way of doing things.

Dennis said...

Bernstein raises another good point: Do we need to make a distinction between "education" or "educated" and "knowledge?"

Point for Bernstein.

Anonymous said...

If someone says or does something that makes you mad, it's not unusual to say mean things about that person. It's a form of expressing anger. We've all done it both on these blogs and off. Bernstein and LT included.

That said..

Training teaches you how, education teaches you why. If you are a self-learner you can train and educate yourself. Perhaps the question should not be "Are our school board members educated?" but "Are they self-learners?"

Anonymous said...

I sure would like to know what bernstein would do with all of the thoughts and feelings if LT and RW didn't exist.
To use these blogs while denigrating them and their authors seems to be elitism in action...it's ok for me but not for you!
This thread obviously touched a nerve--but look what a thought provoking discussion it has created--that is a GOOD thing.
I suggest bernstein take a nerve tonic, put on some "objective glasses" and then re-read LT's post. You have read things that are not there.

Anonymous said...

Things to consider:

For population 25 years and over in Lebanon

High school or higher: 80.3%
Bachelor's degree or higher: 10.5%
Graduate or professional degree: 3.8%

For population 25 years and over in Corvallis

High school or higher: 93.0%
Bachelor's degree or higher: 53.1%
Graduate or professional degree: 24.5%

For population 25 years and over in Albany

High school or higher: 84.7%
Bachelor's degree or higher: 18.4%
Graduate or professional degree: 6.0%

Bernstein said...

What is the source for education demographics?

Anonymous said...



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