The Power of Transparency with Your Board of Trustees

“Noses in, fingers out” is a time-honored description of the ideal relationship between a school’s leadership team and its Board of Trustees. “Fingers out” refers to the deference that Boards must give to the Head and other members of the leadership team with respect to the management and execution of school programs. “Noses in” refers to the right of a governing board to ask questions and be informed about any aspect of the school’s programs and performance. 

A Board must be actively engaged in understanding all aspects of the school’s mission, both features to celebrate and areas that need improvement. “Noses in” therefore includes questions about the effectiveness of teaching and learning. If trustees are kept in the dark about these matters, then they will not be inclined — or able — to support the school in the ways that are desired.

Structuring an Engaging Narrative

The boundary between a Board’s oversight role and the leadership’s role in developing and implementing educational programs can be difficult to maintain. The most significant step the Head can take to focus the Board appropriately is to be proactive in structuring and presenting information on such critical topics as student learning and mission fulfillment. Absent that initiative, trustees will develop their own narratives about student learning in the school.

School heads have, from time to time, shared their student learning reports and dashboards with ERB, giving us insight into effective practices for engaging trustees on this topic without inviting micromanagement. For example, our School Overview Report mimics the template that a former Head of School shared with us — a document he created manually by entering data from our score reports into his own spreadsheet. With the School Overview Report — now available in the ERB 360 Access data reporting platform with the click of a button — one can trace the learning progress of a single class through the grades, or compare the performance of a single grade across different years. 

This Head of School would walk his Board through the data once per year, singling out areas of distinction as well as opportunities for improvement. By taking the lead in presenting this information, this leader invited trustee comments and questions while articulating very clearly what he and his team have already learned from the assessment data and how they are taking action on student learning based on the findings. 

“The most significant step the Head can take to focus the Board appropriately is to be proactive in structuring and presenting information on such critical topics as student learning and mission fulfillment.”

Tom Rochon, ERB President

We have also seen dashboards that connect assessment results to the mission statement of the school. Mount Tamalpais School has a dashboard that uses the categories “Learning is Revered” and “Education is Joyful.” Under “Learning is Revered,” this Head of School presents CTP data on learning outcomes and on the level of student academic engagement from our Check-In Survey. Data listed under “Education is Joyful” include Check-In Survey results on students’ emotional well-being and sense of fairness and belonging in the school community. 

Head of School Report: Empower Your School Leadership

ERB’s just-released Head of School Report offers executive summary graphics that identify and interpret trends in ERB assessment metrics related to admission, student well-being and engagement, and student learning.

As an example, consider the following graphic from the Head of School Report that identifies three areas of exceptional strength and one area of relative weakness among fourth-grade students in this particular school, compared to the independent school norm.

While the primary use of CTP assessment results may be for internal review and analysis, giving the Board a glimpse behind the curtain enables a leader to talk about the people, programs, and processes that contribute to success, as well as the steps being taken to strengthen weaker areas.

The Value of Transparency

The lesson of these examples is that school leadership teams need not be reluctant to engage Boards in discussions of student learning and the overall student experience. Excellence is a continuous journey, and the respective roles of Board and leadership in that journey are best maintained through proactive transparency. The school leadership can take advantage of trustee insight while safeguarding its own role by taking the lead in identifying the goals to be achieved, stating how progress toward those goals will be measured, and clarifying what those metrics currently say about where you are and what needs to be done.

To identify key indicators to be shared with the Board, ask yourself: “What are three things you would like trustees to repeat to others about teaching and learning in your school?” Armed with that information, trustees will be equipped to fulfill their irreplaceable roles in supporting school success through philanthropy and enhancing the school’s reputation in the community. Their noses will be in; their fingers will be out.

Explore the newly launched ERB Head of School Report, a resource designed specifically for school leadership seeking an interpretive summary of their ERB assessment results.

About the Author

Thomas R. Rochon became president of ERB in 2017. He has held faculty appointments at Princeton University and Claremont Graduate University, a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, and a year as Fulbright Scholar in Japan. Administratively, Tom has served as dean and provost at Claremont Graduate University, as provost at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and as president of Ithaca College in New York. During the 1980s and 1990s, he was a regular speaker on European political trends for foreign service officers in the U.S. Department of State. Within the world of educational assessment, Tom has served as executive director of the GRE testing program at the Educational Testing Service. 

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