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Building the capacity of school boards to support Black student achievement and close opportunity gaps

Building school board capacity to support Black students

By Joni Wackwitz
February 14, 2019

“Vision with action can change the world.” – Joel A. Barker

Fundamental change requires both a shared vision and unified action. When taking on deep-rooted education challenges, such as those related to race and equity, school boards can play a critical role in shaping the vision for change and ensuring support for that vision.

This type of support is of crucial importance in Wisconsin, where public schools face significant and persistent racial opportunity and achievement gaps. To help close these gaps, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest, in partnership with our Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance (MAGRA), is developing professional learning opportunities for Wisconsin school boards on effective practices for supporting Black students. This training is at the request of MAGRA’s members, who include representatives from Wisconsin districts, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the Wisconsin National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and other agencies.

A growing body of research indicates that school board practices can influence learning outcomes, particularly for students of color (see our related Ask A REL response). In addition, in 2011 Wisconsin’s state legislature shifted more responsibility to school boards, making their role even more critical.

“Controversial and sensitive programs, like those for equity, justice, inclusion, and fairness, require high-level support,” explains MAGRA member John Odom, Ph.D., chairman of the Education Committee for the Wisconsin NAACP. “If we’re going to close the academic achievement gap [in Wisconsin], it will take profoundly different strategies than those we’ve used. … And it really comes down to the board of education. No other body has the power: to create policy, to approve the annual budget, and to hire and to supervise the chief executive officer. Those are uniquely board responsibilities. … You need the sanction and the imprimatur of the board of education to say, ‘We are requiring employees to make significant progress.’ The superintendent and the line and staff officers who report to that superintendent should be aligned with the district’s priorities to close the academic achievement gap. And measurable steps should be imposed to establish benchmarks of success.”

To equip school boards to lead this charge, REL Midwest researchers will work closely with MAGRA members, school board members, and other organizations to develop a research-based training. “We’ve reached out to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators,” says MAGRA facilitator Kyle Fagan, a researcher with REL Midwest. “We are hoping to get them involved to make sure we develop a meaningful professional learning opportunity that is aligned with what is already happening.”

Through this training, REL Midwest and MAGRA will build school board members’ capacity to use research and evidence-based practices to establish a district vision, support that vision to promote improvement, and strengthen accountability. The training will draw on several resources that REL Midwest has developed with MAGRA:

  • A research review and infographic [347 KB PDF icon ] identifying 22 promising interventions for improving Black student achievement
  • A scan of current Wisconsin district policies and practices and how they compare to the evidence-based interventions identified in the research review
  • An Ask A REL response on the research base related to the impact that school board members and district administrators can have on student learning, particularly for Black students

School board members in all 446 Wisconsin school districts will have the opportunity to participate in the training, with recruitment targeting those districts with the highest populations of Black students. REL Midwest will host two half-day training sessions, each in a different region of the state. In addition, a 90 minute virtual training will provide an overview for board members who cannot attend an in person session. A recording of the virtual training will be posted on REL Midwest’s website as well.

Additional resources

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Author(s) Information

Joni Wackwitz Staff Picture

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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