"I certainly wouldn't say that this report portrays school boards as a panacea," said Michael Hartney, a researcher at Notre Dame University and one of the coauthors of the study, which was released earlier this month.
But, on the margins, he
said, there is solid evidence that school boards can make a difference.
Electing moderates Some of the findings were quite surprising.
It matters, for example, when elections are held.
Holding elections at the same time as state and national-level elections, the authors found, correlates to standardized student proficiency test scores 2.4 points higher than a comparable district that has off-cycle elections.
The likely explanation, said Hartney
, is that "off cycle" elections pull in fewer voters, and can often be swung by the intense commitment of a small number of people.
This lends itself to ideological extremists on both the right and the left, who then squeeze out moderates in the middle.
But it is moderates on school boards who are more likely to focus on student achievement and to have a better understanding of the district's real needs.
"When you ask a board member what the biggest priority in the district is," Hartney
said, "we found that political moderates were more likely to provide an answer that reflected real conditions on the ground.
The researchers are not really sure, Hartney
acknowledges, whether they are looking at cause or effect.
They know that board members in high performing districts focus on student achievement.
The report also found that when board members were professionalized, underwent professional training and in some cases even earned a salary, students performed better.
But a community that is already focused on student achievement may be more likely to elect like-minded board members.
acknowledges that a board member's academic focus and the board's professionalization may not cause educational outcomes.