Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Governance: School Board Job No. 1

September 6, 2011, 7:45 a.m.

There's been a lot of confusion around town regarding the "Carver governance model." Here is a brief, 500-word effort to explain why and how it empowers, rather than restrains in any way, school boards and their stakeholders. Additional resources on this and other K-12 topics is below the column.

(Mis)understanding Carver
Nicholas Johnson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 6, 2011, p. A7
[temporary Press-Citizen link:

A blazing sunset filled the Grand Canyon. But as I was taking it in from the canyon's rim, the photographer next to me swore at his expensive Nikon camera.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

"My camera doesn't work," he said.

"The lens cover's on," I observed.

"Again?!" he exclaimed. "That's the trouble with these (expletive) Nikons."

And that's been our community's trouble with the Carver governance model. We're confusing the idea with its execution.

Carver works for Fortune 500 corporations, large and small non-profits -- and other districts' school boards.

It even worked for ours at one time.

"Plan your work, and work your plan" is good advice for any effort. But if the plan doesn't come off the shelf, the results are no more satisfying than when the lens cover doesn't come off the camera.

The basics of Carver are common sense, and the common practices of anyone who achieves their goals, including everyone reading this paper. A teenager plans to be a doctor. A couple plans a wedding. Iowa City's Combined Efforts Theater goes from script writing to opening night. Coach Kirk Ferentz goes from recruiting to a winning football season. The Powell Doctrine's evaluation of when you do, and don't, go to war and how. Every budding entrepreneur with a business plan.

We all know, "if you don't know where you're going, the odds are very good you'll never get there." It's great to plan, but if you're not clear whether you're planning a wedding or a waterfall in the backyard it's unlikely you'll end up with either.

It's the same with planning a school district's future.

School administrators and teachers need to be involved in planning, but they are overworked as it is. They don't have time for sitting around thinking about the future of the district.

Carver says that's board members' No. 1 job. Identifying and then transforming the district's highest priority ideals into specific dates, measurable goals and regular reports -- with constant monitoring. It's not like a one-time vaccination. It's continuous, hard work. Their job.

That, and drafting job descriptions -- their own, not an easy task, and the superintendent's. Much of the latter can be his accomplishment of board goals.

Carver is not about how boards conduct meetings. Nor how or whether board members answer their email, visit schools or welcome citizen input.

Carver simply reminds them that, whatever else they choose to do, they must first answer the question, "How would we know if we were ever 'successful'?"

Carver's suggestions are like an exercise routine. Make the commitment, work the plan, you'll get results. But as we all know, because there are more exercise books purchased than read, and more read than followed, is not a reason to curse the books.

Iowa City has abundant human resources. Once our board determines and reveals precisely where the district is going, we can get there.

But the picture will remain cloudy if we continue to curse the camera and refuse to remove the lens cover.
Nicholas Johnson, a former member of the Iowa City Community School Board, maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law.



Nicholas Johnson served as a member of the Iowa City Community School District school board 1998-2001. Published material during that term, including the 75 or so bi-weekly Press-Citizen columns on K-12 issues, can be found here.

For more on governance and Carver in general, and what the school board did in particular, see Nicholas Johnson, "Board Governance: Theory and Practice" (last updated April 24, 2001).

For an update on what's been written since, go to the main Web page, http://www.nicholasjohnson.org, look for the Google search icon in the left column, put "governance" in the search panel, click the dot in front of "FromDC2Iowa Blog," and click on "Google Search." As of this morning that produced 249 hits.

This week two public meetings with school board candidates (tonight and Thursday) will focus on school finance, and school boundaries.

School finance. The former is addressed in a five-part series of Press-Citizen columns, numbers 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 (Dec. 22, 1998 through Feb. 16, 1999), available here.

School boundaries. Within the limits of federal and state law, school boards can design school boundaries however they'd like. A way of thinking about that task is laid out in
Nicholas Johnson, "District needs cluster schools," Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 3, 2009, reprinted in the blog entry "Cluster Schools Potential for IC District?" June 3, 2009. This source also contains the lively exchange of comments the column inspired.

Note, as with Carver's approach to governance, that the "cluster schools" approach to boundaries does not limit a school board in any way. It can make schools as roughly equal, or as different, as it likes with regard to say, comparative class sizes, distribution of "free-and-reduced-lunch" children, distances students travel by bus, and other variables. It simply provides a way of looking at, thinking and discussing, district-wide school boundary plans that have enough guiding principles and flexibility to last 10 or 20 years.

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UNOHOO said...

The board is far too reactive. Even the "visioning" they do seems to be based on what has happened, not what they expect to happen or what they would like to happen. At least that's how I see it.

Nick said...

The following was posted on the Press-Citizen regarding the op ed:

7:54 AM on September 6, 2011

Mr. Johnson, you might be right. Trouble is, when we think of the Carver method, we think of the disorderly, inefficient squabblefests that the School Board calls "meetings" -- because that's what we see of the Carver method in action. What has the Board got against Robert's Rules, anyway?

-- Nick

Nick said...

Can't say as I disagree with either UNOHOO or josephusrex -- nor that it appears they really disagree with the column/blog entry.

I am simply trying to make the points that (1) every board has to have some governance model in mind and in operation, (2) Carver's is one, and can be made to work, and (3) the fact that a given board either doesn't understand the model, or doesn't practice it properly, or engages in unrelated behavior that is not viewed favorably by stakeholders does not mean that (a) there is something wrong with the Carver model, or that (b) stakeholders would be more pleased with what they saw if Carver wasn't being used.

P.S. Just to clarify, Carver has nothing to do with Roberts Rules of Order, or other aspects of how meetings are conducted. Neither is a substitute, or alternative, for the other.

-- Nick