¶ … evolution of perception of the role of school members over the past 2 centuries or so and how the analyses of these perceptions also changed over time. This discussion is followed by an examination of the antecedents of tension for school board members in general and for rural schools board members in particular in the United States and how these tensions have been described and reported in the relevant literature. Finally, a summary of the research and important findings concerning the evolution of perceptions of school board member roles and sources of tension for school board members concludes the chapter.
Evolving Perceptions of School Board Member Roles
During the 1980s and early 1990s, the literature concerning perceptions of school board members and their roles generally included an overview of the historical origins and development of the role of school board members, with some researchers beginning their analyses as early as the 1600s, but most report that the origins of what can be generally regarded as the modern school board emerged during the late 19th century (McCloud & McKenzie, 1993). For example, van Alfen and Schmidt (2007) reported that, "School boards have managed the affairs of local American education since 1642. The legacy of these boards is a public school system serving urban and rural youth across the nation, the only system in the world that seeks to provide all of a nation's children with an appropriate education" (p. 12). These points were also made by Asen, Gurke, Conners, Solomon and Gumm (2013) who advised that, "Even as federal mandates increasingly have shaped primary and secondary education in the United States, important policy decisions affecting the daily environment of a school are still made at the state and local levels" (p. 33). Notwithstanding the myriad educational directives from the states and federal governments, it is the school board members themselves that serve as the local element of education policy making (Asen et al., 2013). Based on this disparity in school board decision making authority, it is not possible to determine how or whether federal mandates will be implemented in a given school district in a standardized and consistent fashion. In this regard, Asen and his associates added that, "Local policy makers may or may not regard research as salient for district issues, and their understanding of what constitutes research or how it may inform local issues may differ from the purposes articulated by federal policy makers" (2013, p. 35).
The literature during the 1980s and 1990s also began focusing on the inevitable conflicts that result from stakeholders with different interests and views about the purpose of education and how best to deliver it. In some cases, researchers cite the growing tendency for school boards to pursue transparency in their operations, to promote open communications and to clearly define their respective roles in the process (McCloud & McKenzie, 1994). During this period, though, school boards faced longstanding traditions and history that worked against these progressive educational strategies (McCloud & McKenzie, 1994).
While the relevant literature during this period also suggest that it would be disingenuous to make any generalized statements concerning the relationship between the country's 15,000-plus school boards and its schools, Kirst (1994) emphasized that, "Certain trends that are pointing to a refocusing of [school board] roles (p. 380). A fundamental constraint to the research during the 1990s was the overwhelming number of school boards (15,000+) and number of school board members (nearly one hundred thousand) combined with inadequate technologies to evaluate how their respective roles were being refocused and reshaped as the new millennia approached. Indeed, during the 1980s and early 1990s, Kirst reported that, "The research base is confined to the study of a single case, a few comparative cases, or some nonrepresentative sample chosen for a particular purpose" (1994, p. 381). Moreover, in a number of studies, the research during the 1980s and early 1990s was limited to reviews of the secondary data (which was frequently repeated from study to study), empirical observations and anecdotal accounts from the field, thereby limiting the validity and restricting the generalizability of the findings (Neuman, 2003).
There were other constraints to the studies concerning school boards and their constituent members during the 1980s. For example, the research methodologies that were used in the few studies of school board members in general and rural school board members in particular that were conducted during this period in American education were largely limited to self-assessments and...
For example, the research conducted by the Institute for Educational Leadership (IEL) for the period 1987 through 1990 of 226 rural and small towns, suburban and urban schools board was an isolated example of a study that involved a large number of school boards (Kirst, 1994).
In sum, the relevant research during the 1980s and early 1990s was focused primarily on urban and large city regions of the country, due in large part to media accounts of failing schools and rising violence in the classrooms (Kirst, 1994). Not surprisingly, this singular focus on larger cities and suburban regions left a major gap in the body of knowledge concerning rural school boards and their members. In this regard, Kirst emphasizes that, "Horror stories dominated the media, and special attention was paid to conflict and operational failures. As a result, we know the least about the most common type of school board -- the board of small districts" (1994, p. 383).
A few authorities during the 1990s examined the origins of schools board in the United States and how increasingly scarce resources have introduced tensions between boards and other stakeholders. For instance, a rare study concerning the origins of boards of small rural school districts was the subject of a study by Theobald (1995) who reports that there is primary evidence consisting of rural board members statements during the late 19th century and early 20th century "to the effect that their intentions were always to save the district money, whether this meant hiring the cheapest teacher, buying the cheapest blackboard, crayons, or books, or repairing the schoolhouse only when it was necessary to keep it standing" (p. 37).
Notwithstanding this focus on cost savings at every turn, there was a corresponding effort to ensure that all available resources were used to their maximum advantage to provide high quality educational services. For instance, Theobald adds that, "There are other glimpses of real devotion to the benefits of formal schooling. Most often these came in the form of petitions presented to the board asking to extend the school term one more month or, as one clerk wrote, 'to have as much School as the money in the District would pay for'" (1995, p. 37). Despite this emphasis on spending all available money (which was scarce by definition) wisely, the literature shows that early rural schools boards remained concerned with producing students that were capable of earning a living in the agricultural environment in which they lived. In this regard, Theobald emphasizes that, "What is culturally difficult for us to imagine now is that parents in the 19th- and early-20th-century rural Midwest generally wanted no more from the schooling provided for their children than [to] prepare them for productive lives in the immediate community" (p. 37).
By the fin de siecle, progressive reforms in urban regions of the country had improved the quality and quantity of educational services being offered young learners, but the situation in most rural areas of the country remained tied to these community-oriented ideals of the purpose of education, thereby restricting opportunities to the rural school districts of the country (Theobald, 1995). Although this may appear short-sighted from a modern perspective, school board members of the era, many of whom were also farmers, simply established curriculum policies they knew were congruent with the needs of their own communities rather than larger cities where major industries required a different skill set. As Theobald pointed out, "But more and better schooling in the rural Midwest brought no visible signs of enhanced opportunity. For the farmers who served on local boards of education, opportunity lay in the land, not away from it" (1995, p. 38).
In many cases, this pedagogical philosophy was not only accurate, it was eerily so in some instances where young people flocking to the big cities not only failed to achieve their professional goals, they became vulnerable to all the vices that are available in these cosmopolitan venues as well. Consequently, young people from rural regions of the country needed the "four Rs" and little more for the purposes of their future on the farm. Therefore, these early rural school boards were making pragmatic decisions about difficult issues with the best interests of their students in mind notwithstanding modern views about the appropriateness of their decisions to the contrary. In this regard, Theobald points out that, "From our present perspective, we have trouble comprehending how parents could prefer for their children a minimal education and life on the land to high school, college,…
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