The Last Word October 2012

By Anne L. Bryant

As I get ready to “graduate” to the next stage of life, I have begun to reflect on my 16-year term as executive director and all the accomplishments and challenges NSBA, our state associations, and public schools have seen.

NSBA continues to be the most powerful organization we can be to represent our state associations, the more than 90,000 school board members, and their public school students.

In my first NSBA event, the 1996 President’s Retreat, the 50 state presidents sharpened our continuing focus on student achievement. We knew student learning was our ultimate goal, and it’s driven everything we’ve done since, including these examples:

• NSBA launched the Key Work of School Boards guidebook in 1999, updated in 2009, which has helped improve the governance of thousands of school boards.

• In 2006, we launched the Center for Public Education, which provides research and analyses on topics important to school boards. We launched data-driven governance training through Data First in 2009.

• And more recently, we partnered with our state associations to bring districts programs that will save money (Buy Board and USBAflex) and use student data accountability systems (Performance Matters and APQC).

These programs are tools but the end game is transforming public education to better prepare current and future students for a radically changed world.

In his latest book, That Used to Be Us, Thomas Friedman argues that as a nation we are losing our way. With pretty compelling data, Friedman states that “being average is over.” We cannot afford to be average as a country if we want to return to greatness, nor can our students succeed if they are average. We must be the “extra” for them and for our nation.

Friedman dwells on the concept of “average” because he feels it is a core problem related to our nation’s slide. He shows international data rankings with the U.S. in the middle or at the lower end. We know this country’s education system has in fact improved in recent decades, but other countries have moved faster, more aggressively and have caught or surpassed us in many areas.

Nevertheless, Friedman believes we can survive and thrive. (You’ll have to read the book to find out how!)

I believe the future is bright -- if we make it so. It is bright if we come together to promote school board governance leading education reform.

To do so, NSBA and the state associations must show the power of our nation’s 13,600 school boards. We must provide governance training and development, and a community engagement strategy where the public hears, sees, and feels how school boards are working to raise student learning and school success. Our advocacy in the courts, on Capitol Hill, and in state legislatures must strengthen public education -- make it more locally accountable and transparent. Our vision includes community values, determined at the local level, and core, research-based elements. These elements include a pre-K-12 curricula that emphasizes reading, writing, science, mathematics, the liberal arts, project- and problem-based learning, and is loaded with 21st century content and skills. We need teachers who care, are highly competent in their field, and passionate about improving their pedagogy. We need strong administrators who foster a climate of learning. Students must be prepared to continue their education with vocational training or college.

We want customization -- reaching each student at their level -- as well as a clear set of high expectations that all will succeed. The common core standards may give us that ability.

Transforming public education -- that is the end goal. And the good news is that many schools are on their way.

Author Daniel Pink speaks of what motivates students and employees, noting the “carrot-and-stick approach” for rewards and penalties is antiquated and we must find new ways to inspire. Students become more engaged when there is a problem to be solved, a project to be undertaken. Meaningful, purposeful work that links activities to a set of math facts or science concepts brings energy. The result? Learning soars.

We need to instill project-based learning. It takes more planning time and is harder to implement, but the payoffs are real. Imagine groups of students solving a real science problem or a community issue, designing a better playground, a more efficient trash pickup, or a homeless shelter. Technology is a critical tool.

These ideas and the strategies you employ as school board members are key to transforming public education. And the end game is an engaged student learning the content and skills needed for success.

We must create a school board movement with big ideas, a set of messages, and thousands of voices. We are poised to do this work. NSBA is ready to work with you. It is the only way we can make this country great.

We are more than above average. We are the “extra.” 

Anne L. Bryant ( is the executive director of NSBA.