Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

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

Last updated in December 2019

Effective Governance for Student Achievement and Well-Being: Boards Matter!
Arrow LeftPrevious Module
Next ModuleArrow Right


  • The relationship between 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


Boards of trustees bring about the improvement of learning for all students when their members unify and face the complex challenges of education governance together.

How do boards of trustees make a difference? Changes occur when trustees work together through board governance that is truly student centred and makes teaching and learning the first priority. And this is not entirely dependent on more funding. The research team of Waters and Marzano conducted an analysis of 27 different studies, examining the relationship between school board leadership and student achievement. Essentially, the research showed that 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.[1] School board governance operates in the broadest context, providing the structure for success, connecting with communities and advocating for all students in the board.

The research work of Kenneth Leithwood of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education has identified the characteristics of strong school districts, including a policy-oriented board of trustees. Leithwood’s research underscores the importance in school board leadership of a district-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.[2]

Systems thinking is foundational to effective governance, enabling boards of trustees and directors to see their respective roles in the larger perspective of what other factors and relationships might be determining actions and outcomes.[3] To govern effectively in the service of student achievement and well-being, it is essential to understand how all pieces in the organization connect. Systems thinking is connecting the dots.

Research findings by Saatcioglu, Moore, Sargut, & Bajaj have shown how a board’s social capital – as evidenced by its internal relations (bonding) and external relations (bridging) – is related to school board performance outcomes, academically and financially. Board members’ relationships with one another can be enhanced in three basic facets of bonding to generate social capital for more effective governance: structurally (e.g. high frequency of information sharing and exchange); relationally (e.g. developing trust as a result of genuine interactions over time); and cognitively (e.g. a shared vision to inform board decisions). Bridging by board members is likely to be beneficial as external ties to community agencies (e.g. social service, public health), other school boards, individuals and groups in the board’s community (e.g. not-for-profit organizations, cultural groups, skilled trades, businesses, elected officials), postsecondary institutions and other external groups are potential sources of information and innovation, as well as support. The study of data for 175 districts identified that the only social capital measure in governance with a statistically significant effect on school board academic outcomes was trust, while informal bridging and information exchange had borderline significance.[4]

An effective board of trustees:
  • Understands why it exists, what difference it aims to make in the community and develops a plan for this purpose
  • Maintains a focus on student achievement and well-being
  • Works together as a team
  • Serves as a role model for the education system and the community
  • Makes informed decisions based on a wide variety of evidence and current research
  • Strives for excellent communications with its partners and constituents
  • Has a clear sense of the difference between its role and that of senior management
  • Understands the distinction between policy development and implementation
  • Is accountable for its performance
  • Holds the director of education accountable for effectively implementing the policies of the board
  • Monitors the effectiveness of policies and implementation plans
  • Ensures that local provincial and federal politicians understand local issues and needs, and encourages them to make education a high priority
What does student achievement really mean?

It has often been said that the goal of education is to create citizens who are “publicly useful and privately happy”. In an ever-evolving landscape for school boards, we see that education leaders and researchers underscore the central goal of high levels of student achievement and well-being. 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. Focusing on a positive learning experience helps all students reach their full potential in school and in life.

Ontario has put legislation and policies in place to promote positive school climates and address bullying and victimization through prevention and intervention. The province has also launched a comprehensive mental health and addictions strategy.

Policy direction is provided to support safe and inclusive learning environments through Policy/Program Memoranda (PPM).

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 is 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 2019. 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 education 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 mandate is to create an equitable and inclusive education system where all students, parents, school staff and members of the school community are safe, welcomed and respected in schools, and where every student is supported and inspired to succeed in a culture of high expectations for learning. Our schools should be places where students not only learn about diversity but experience it.


The areas in school board governance that are central to a focus on student achievement and well-being include[5]:

Setting the Vision: A school board’s vision establishes the agreed-upon philosophy and goals for the district based on input from the entire community including staff. The vision sets out high expectations for quality teaching and learning while identifying clear and specific goals for strong student outcomes. School board governance reflects the vision in all its decisions.

Accountability: Effective school boards demonstrate accountability through open decision making, community engagement and support, and receptivity to new ideas and constructive criticism.

Developing Policy: Policy is how a board of trustees sustainably exercises its authority to serve students. Through policy, school boards establish a set of cohesive guidelines able to transform vision into reality.

Community Leadership: Through public advocacy and community engagement, school boards seek to understand and have rapport with community needs while sharing their concerns and actions with the public. Community leadership that builds public support is vital to implement a board’s vision.

Board/Director Relationships: The board of trustees and the director of education have essential leadership roles that are interconnected but different. Effective school boards lead as a united team with the director, working in their respective roles with strong collaboration and mutual trust.

The substantive body of research referenced earlier is clear on the common governance role of school boards in raising achievement and supporting well-being for all students. There are clear actions that boards can take which have direct impact, notably:

  • Becoming a cohesive team as a board of trustees
  • Productive partnership between the board of trustees and the director of education
  • Community leadership
  • Supporting staff to carry out the board of trustees’’ mandate
  • Clear priorities for budgets and resource allocation
  • Use of evidence to set vision, monitor progress and inform decisions around student achievement and well-being

Becoming a cohesive team as a board of trustees
To govern effectively, trustees must work as a collective body to develop the board’s vision, strategic directions and goals in service of 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 of trustees is to work together, accommodating diverse viewpoints, and to come to agreement on the strategic directions which will guide board decision-making. While strong and diverging views will always be part of debate in the democratic forum of a board meeting, the board of trustee’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 board of trustees. This means that individual trustees must, at times, take a view of what is best for the school board 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.

Productive partnership between the board of trustees and the director of education
The board of trustees and the director working together 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 their performance.

Support for staff to carry out the board’s mandates
One of the least understood jobs of any board of trustees is providing support to the school board it is governing. It is the ultimate measure of support to the staff when the board of trustees governs by the principles it sets, establishes clear, unambiguous direction, and lives by the norms it has established. A board of trustees’ demeanor has a powerful impact, both positive and negative, on the morale of the staff and their ability to carry out the board’s direction. The board of trustees has a profound impact on the school board’s culture. The actions of the board of trustees, both explicit and implicit, communicate to the staff and community the organizational values of the district.[6]

Community leadership
Increasingly, boards of trustees must deepen their understanding about their role in helping make sure all groups within a school community have ways to provide input, are heard, and are represented – and making sure the district is proactive in seeking out these many, diverse voices.[7] In deliberate, ongoing ways, effective boards establish and maintain protocols and processes that seek community involvement and commitment to schools in their jurisdiction. When representing the views of all their constituents, individual trustees bring forward a rich perspective on needs and strategies in support of student achievement and well-being. Each trustee can contribute information, evidence, data, and questions about the issues as they understand them to inform a shared understanding around the board table. As trustees talk to each other and engage the director of education to arrive at shared understandings of the issues before 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 of trustees and individual trustees to advocate together for students and translate moral and resolute leadership into action.

Clear priorities for budgets and resource allocation
Effective management of the school board’s budget is an outcome of clear articulation of the board’s priorities. When the board of trustees 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 of trustees become the measuring stick. This process is an essential component of effective governance.

Use of evidence to set vision, monitor progress and inform decisions
A key governance practice of boards of trustees 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. Boards of trustees 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 board of trustees’ 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. Boards of trustees can work purposefully with the director of education to set high standards, to push for excellence and equality and to ensure a high quality of board programming that serves all students.

Carrying out the fiduciary responsibilities of school boards means that boards of trustees 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.


Boards of trustees, composed of community members, 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 boards of trustees work with diverse communities who 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 effective 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.


  1. School district leadership that works: The effect of superintendent leadership on student achievement, J. Timothy Waters & Robert J. Marzano, 2006

  2. 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, 2008

  3. The Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together Campbell, D., & Fullan, M., 2019

  4. The Role of School Board Social Capital in District Governance: Effects on Financial and Academic Outcomes. Leadership and Policy in Schools Saatcioglu, A., Moore, S., Sargut, G., & Bajaj, A., 2011

  5. The Key Work of School Boards (3rd Edition), National School Boards Association, 2015

  6. The Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together Campbell, D., & Fullan, M., 2019

  7. Paul Richman as cited by The Governance Core: School Boards, Superintendents, and Schools Working Together Campbell, D., & Fullan, M., 2019

Click here to begin tracking your progress