Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 2 — Effective Governance for Student Achievement and Well-Being: Boards Matter!

Last updated in 2015

(module update currently in progress)

Effective Governance for Student Achievement and Well-Being: Boards Matter!
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  • The relationship between ethical leadership at the board table and student achievement and well-being
  • The critical role of school boards as direct links to their community in ensuring a concerted focus on students


Elected school boards make a deep and direct contribution to the improvement of learning for all students through their leadership in building public understanding and engendering the commitment of their communities to valuing and sustaining high levels of student achievement.

The research is compelling: elected school boards make a difference! When the board of trustees moves to the higher levels of authentic governance that is truly student centred and make teaching and learning their first priority, changes occur. And this is not entirely dependent on more funding. The research team of Waters and Marzano conducted an analysis of 27 different studies. Here they examined the relationship between school board leadership and student achievement. Essentially, the research showed that elected boards which demonstrate ongoing improvement on this priority were tightly aligned from the board table to the district leadership team to schools. In short, everyone “walked” the student learning road. School board governance operates in the broadest context, providing the structure for success, connecting with communities and advocating for all students in the board. Only a locally elected school board can bring this network of conditions together.

A number of further studies found the same themes. One research paper released by the Iowa Association of School Boards, found that “solving the problems of public education will depend upon the leadership of public schools. Issues affecting the conditions of schools that enable productive change are issues of policy. School boards are critical players in the school change process and must be active leaders on behalf of the students in their schools.” Another paper described school board members of successful boards as being very knowledgeable about board programs and practices, having a clear sense of what they wanted to accomplish based on firmly held values and beliefs, and engaging in activities that allowed them to articulate and discuss these values and beliefs.

The research work of Kenneth Leithwood of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education into the characteristics of strong school districts highlights the features that underscore the importance of a board-wide focus on student achievement and well-being, the use of evidence for planning, organizational learning and accountability, and the positive impact of building and maintaining a culture of improvement.

Nine characteristics of strong school districts and their leadership

Kenneth Leithwood

  1. Broadly shared mission, vision and goals founded on ambitious images of the educated person
  2. A cohesive instructional guidance system
  3. Deliberate and consistent use of multiple sources of evidence to inform decisions
  4. Learning-oriented organizational improvement processes
  5. Job-embedded professional development for all
  6. Budgets, structures, personnel policies and procedures, and uses of time aligned with the district’s mission, vision and goals
  7. A comprehensive approach to leadership development
  8. A policy-oriented board of trustees
  9. Productive working relationships with staff and other stakeholders
What does StudentAchievement Really Mean?

It has often been said that the goal of education is to create citizens who are “publicly useful and privately happy”. In our current environment we see that education leaders and researchers underscore the central goal of high levels of student achievement and well-being. The Ministry of Education document Achieving Excellence: a Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario (2014) emphasizes that children and students who have strong relationships and a positive sense of self – and who can understand and manage their own health and emotions – are in a better position to reach their full potential in the future. Their sense of well-being supports their learning because it makes them more resilient and better able to overcome challenges.

Ontario’s education system needs to help students build the knowledge and skills associated with positive well-being and become healthy, active and engaged citizens. There is growing evidence that demonstrates why student well-being is an important element of overall student success. Students cannot achieve academically if they feel unsafe at school or are bullied online. They cannot be expected to reach their full potential if they have mental health issues and if we do not provide the support they need. And they cannot be their best if they are not given the tools and motivation to adopt a healthy, active lifestyle, both in and outside of school.

That is why the well-being of children and students needs to move to the centre of the education system’s priorities. This will require all of our partners to learn together and build capacity across the system to support our learners. By elevating child and student well-being as one of our four core priorities, we recognize its fundamental importance to our learners and their futures.

Student well-being is a goal that requires attention and commitment beyond the hours of the school day. Whether this goal is addressed by offering engaging before and after school programs or by ensuring that our schools act as community hubs beyond the school day, promoting student well-being requires the focused efforts of the entire community.

Ontario has already taken important steps to support the whole child, including the implementation of recommendations from the Safe Schools Action Team, the passage of the Accepting Schools Act and the launch of a comprehensive Mental Health and Addictions Strategy that, in its first three years, focuses on children and youth. However, fully supporting the whole child and the well-being of children and youth from the youngest learners to soon-to-be graduates, requires further action.

What we mean by student success is a fertile topic for examination. It is fair to say that the outcome of that examination for those who work and live in schools points to an understanding of achievement as something greater and more comprehensive than academic scores and rankings on provincial assessments. It goes substantially beyond literacy and numeracy, problem-solving, critical thinking and the development of social and emotional intelligence. Authentic achievement is a combination of academic, social, emotional and cultural, and spiritual wellness. This is expressed uniquely in Ontario where four publicly funded systems for students in Kindergarten through Grade 12 are supported. Parents with rights under Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are guaranteed a French-language education for their children. Section 93 of the Constitution Act (BNA Act) protects the right to receive a Catholic education.

In Ontario French is an official language of instruction in education. The province’s aménagement linguistique policy was specifically developed to respond to the unique needs, in a minority setting, of Ontario’s French-language community and its educational institutions. French-language schools exist not only to educate their students but also to protect, enhance, and transmit the language and culture of the community they serve. French-language education creates and nurtures the emergence of young graduates who have a proud awareness of their identity as francophones and as Canadian citizens, who have acquired both official languages and have developed the competencies they need to pursue their goals. They are lifelong learners, and are actively involved socially, politically, environmentally, spiritually, culturally, and economically in the francophone community as well as in society as a whole.

Distinctive expectations for graduates of Catholic schools are determined and shaped by the vision and destiny of the human person emerging from the Catholic faith tradition in which a person made in the image and likeness of God and destined for eternal life in Christ. For students in Ontario’s Catholic schools student achievement is measured by both the successful mastering of Ministry of Education curricula as well as the “Expectations of the Ontario Catholic School Graduate”, revised in 2011. Catholic schools have the goal of preparing young learners with an education described not only in terms of knowledge and skills, but in terms of values, attitudes and actions that reflect the Catholic faith. Catholic education views human life as an integration of body, mind, and spirit.

The Public School system is founded on principles of universal access to education opportunities for all students regardless of their ethnic, racial or cultural backgrounds, social or economic status, individual exceptionality, or religious preference. Its unique mandate is to celebrate and reflect the diversity inherent in our society and to welcome all students. In public schools, student achievement occurs in a context of acknowledgement of and celebration for the diversity of belief, values, faiths and language for all students it serves while providing the understanding and basic skills required for active, compassionate participation in the life of the family, the community, the province, the nation, and a global society.


Five governance responsibilities are central to student achievement and well-being:

Setting the Vision: In this role, boards work based on input from the entire community and staff to establish the vision for student learning and well-being and to articulate the beliefs that are the foundation for goals and direction. School board governance reflects the vision in all its decisions including the conditions that affect teaching and learning.

Establishing Goals: As elected officials, boards of trustees are in the best position to work with the local community to position student achievement and well-being as the core belief and to lead in defining what this means to their community. From here, boards set strategic goals. This lays the foundation and indeed drives every aspect of program and operations in the board. Without this, boards operate in chaos.

Developing Policy: Boards have the task of establishing structures to support student achievement and well-being and they do this through their policies. The directions boards establish through policy have an impact on students, schools and all staff. They in fact create the culture of learning. School boards can be described as the architects. Good design is essential.

Allocating Resources and Assuring Accountability: School boards are the stewards who shepherd education resources at the local level. It is the job of boards as stewards, to provide clear direction about priorities and to insist that the allocation of resources is aligned with the goals and the strategic plan of the board. The best boards distribute dollars in ways that allow the director of education to ensure that the lowest performing schools get the support they need and that all staff have the training they need to deliver high quality. They ask the tough questions during budget deliberations. It is also their duty to monitor budgets to ensure that the right services are being provided to students at appropriate costs and for measurable benefits. This is the board’s core fiduciary responsibility. Successful boards demonstrate their accountability further by acknowledging poor performance, examining the evidence-based contributing factors, and taking positive, supportive steps to address the issues.

Focussing on Strengths – Key Success Factors

School boards are elected to govern. In electing board members, the public signifies a trust that the individual trustees and the collective board will conduct their work ethically for all the students served by the board. This is at the heart of authentic governance. Turning the research findings in to action and establishing a position of strength as a leader in student achievement and well-being will require boards to engage in considerable discussion and commit to relevant training and professional growth. Successful school boards focus their board meetings on improving student learning.

In representing the views of the constituents they serve, individual trustees bring forward a rich perspective on the needs that support student achievement and well-being. Each will bring information, evidence, data, and questions about the issues as they understand them to inform a shared understanding around the board table. The “Power of One” to add value and dimension can be remarkable as school board members talk to each other to clarify shared understandings and implications of the reports being presented to them. They model a willingness to learn and to be clear about what is important for the board as a whole. Furthermore, this enables the board and individuals to advocate together for students and translate moral and resolute leadership into action.

Important Questions for Boards to Maintain a Focus on Strengths
  1. How can our board build a collective commitment to guiding principles that articulate what trustees believe and seek to create?
  2. What questions should our board ask to develop a clear picture of student achievement and well-being across the board?
  3. How do we determine our progress?
  4. How can our board effectively and authentically link to our communities?
  5. Does the board have a specific and limited set of priorities for improving student achievement and well-being that are clearly articulated for all stakeholders?
  6. Does the board ensure there is equity in the allocation of resources through providing additional supports in areas of higher need?
  7. Does the board see the budget as a vehicle for accomplishing strategic priorities rather than a spending plan?
  8. Is the director of education managing in such a way that the curriculum and program initiatives are directly aligned with student achievement priorities?

(Adapted from Key Work of School Boards, NSBA, 2009)

Moving from Intent to Action for Student Achievement

“Team work is not a virtue; it is a choice, it is a strategic decision.”


The substantive body of research referenced earlier is clear on the common governance responsibilities of elected boards which have experienced success in addressing the challenges related to raising achievement and supporting well-being for all students. There are clear actions that boards can take which have direct impact. All of them can be linked to the board’s governance practices and all of them can be addressed in this context. Key success factors included:

  • Creating a cohesive collective team within the board of trustees
  • Good working relations between the board of trustees and its director of education
  • Support for the director in creation of an effective organization
  • Clear priorities for budgets and resource allocation
  • Use of evidence to set vision and to inform decisions around student achievement and well-being

Creating a cohesive collective team within the Board of Trustees
To govern effectively, an elected school board must work as a collective body to develop its vision, strategic directions and goals for all the students and families in its jurisdiction. Individual trustees will come to this work with their own values and beliefs and with the issues that are pressing in their own constituency. The job of the collective board is to work together, accommodating diverse viewpoints, and to come to agreement on the broad strategic directions which will guide decision-making as they go forward through their mandate. While strong and diverging views will always be part of debate in the democratic forum of a board meeting, the board’s established strategic directions provide the framework for arriving at decisions and the decisions must be consistent with the goals the board has set for itself. This is what ensures staying the course on the issues of fundamental importance and what inspires continuing public confidence in the work of the elected board. This means that individual trustees must, at times, take a view of what is best for the school district as a whole even if their own local constituents may be unsupportive of the direction taken. With a strategic perspective trustees will focus on the big picture and act in terms of what is best for the system overall.

Good working relations between the Board of Trustees and its Director of Education
The elected board and the director working together are the board’s leadership team and this team is an essential driver of effective governance. To make board-wide improvements that meet community expectations, the board and the director need to spend time learning together and agreeing on approaches to building leadership that will have an impact on achieving the board’s goals. Based on this learning process clear expectations on the part of both the board and the director can then be set. Well-defined, clearly articulated role descriptions of both the director and the board are critical to a productive relationship. Regular communication and dialogue strengthen the foundation that has been established and ensure a board-director relationship that increases the effectiveness of the system as a whole. While trust and collaboration are essential, the board of trustees also plays an evaluative role in its responsibility to provide feedback to the director on his/her performance.

Support for the Director in the creation of an effective organization
When the board of trustees sets strategic directions and goals that are directly focused on student achievement, the centre of meaningful activity is at the school level. The governance job of the board is to ensure that the director of education establishes an organizational structure that reinforces partnerships between central office and schools to support the efforts of the schools in improving student achievement. The clarity and consistency of expectations in this regard reduces administrative layers and increases the involvement of all staff of the school board district in attaining the board’s goals. With the increasing complexity and uncertainty in the environment of all organizations today, it is essential for the district school board to be managed by the director in such a way that decisions can be made effectively and efficiently. Taking this approach means that all staff of the school board are speaking the same language and there is the scope for clearer communication and expectations between staff and board.

Clear Priorities for Budgets and resource allocation
Effective management of the school board’s budget is an outcome of clear articulation of the elected board’s priorities. When the board establishes its strategic directions and the goals it plans to achieve year over year, the board is also making a commitment to spending decisions that allow those goals to be achieved. In terms of monitoring accountability for how the budget is spent, the priorities of the board become the measuring stick. This process is an essential component of effective governance.

Use of Evidence to set vision and to inform decisions
A key governance practice of elected boards is setting its vision and strategic directions in support of the belief that “all students can learn”. This must be done in a way that involves consultation with and input from the school board’s communities. Here, consideration of appropriately aggregated data is critical. This includes a broad range of information including demographics, academic achievement rates, retention and graduation rates, data on numbers of students requiring special supports and services in place to provide supports. Elected school boards that have a reputation for sound governance practices do not set strategic directions or engage in any form of decision-making in the absence of comprehensive, reliable and relevant data. Data alone will not be helpful. Analysis and interpretation is required. With the interpretation, different stories can be told, examined and debated. Then effective action plans can be generated.

In working with the director of education, the board of trustees receives advice on how the data can be interpreted to assist the board in setting goals which take into account equity of outcomes for all students. The real work lies in the elected board’s commitment to improve achievement, success in school, and well-being for all the students of the board. In working with students, staff, parent and community groups, the board of trustees can consider the challenges that may be experienced among particular groups of students and receive advice about how to overcome the challenges. Addressing this in the setting of the board’s strategic directions is a significant step in raising expectations and building confidence. Elected boards can expect the director of education to set high standards, to push for excellence and equality and to ensure all groups are challenged.

Carrying out the fiduciary responsibilities of school boards means that elected boards will also require the director to establish and maintain necessary sources of data and to provide the board of trustees with regular reports that are based on these data.


School boards, composed of publicly elected members of local communities, are the natural group to bring the community together in various forums to create a vision, to set goals for student achievement and well-being, to direct resources, to hold the system accountable and to build public confidence in an education system committed to quality for all students.

Today’s school boards work with diverse communities which expect that students will achieve increasingly higher standards. At the provincial level they are frequently confronted with an ever-changing agenda and new priorities. The future will demand talented and ethical board leaders who are focussed in their efforts and supported, not just by a strong administrative team, but also by education leadership at the provincial level that is responsive to the challenges of local governance and a ready partner in the long term vision that puts students first.

“Education is a promise of freedom. The freedom to choose, the freedom to understand, explain, create, be filled with wonder, and improve.”



Effective practices of many school boards in Ontario were relied upon in the development of this module. This is gratefully acknowledged by OESC-CSEO.

The following works of reference also helped inform this module:

The Role of School Boards in Improving Student Achievement, Washington State School Directors’ Association

The Keys to Board Excellence, American School Board Journal (Susan Black)

The Imperfect Board Member, Jim Brown

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni

School Board Leadership for Student Achievement, Iowa School Boards Foundation:

Lighthouse Phase II – Brief Summary, Source: This article is an excerpt from: Delagardelle, M. (2008).

The Lighthouse Inquiry: Examining the Role of School Board Leadership in the Improvement of Student Achievement. In T. Alsbury (Ed.), The Future of School Board Governance: Relevancy and Revelation: Rowman & Littlefield (Blue Ridge, PA)

The Politics of Excellence: Trustee Leadership and School District Ethics, LaRocque, L. and P. Coleman, The Alberta Journal of Educational Research

Characteristics of High Performing School Districts, A Review of Empirical Evidence, Kenneth Leithwood, OISE, University of Toronto, Prepared for the College of Alberta School Superintendents, September 2008