What a terrific time we had in Denver celebrating NASBE’s 60th year and learning from top thinkers in education! We hope each session of the Annual Conference gave you a new idea or inspired you and that your conversations with colleagues from other state boards of educations enhanced your professional learning.

While we hope that you were among the 200-plus individuals who joined us in Denver last week, we know many of our members could not. Here are five key takeaways from the conference that you are welcome to share with your boards.

  1. What do you keep at the center of your work? For National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning, students are at the center of her practice. For NASBE, equity and excellence remain the core of our work and at the center of our new strategic plan. We thus aim to simultaneously raise expectations and close opportunity gaps for all students. Or, as Michael Fullan put it, our work is “attacking inequity with excellence.”
  2. State boards are the stable center of education governance. As NASBE’s new strategic plan notes, state boards of education are the stable center of education policymaking. This will be especially important in the coming year, even when changes in the governance landscape bring to mind W.B. Yeats’s words—“things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But that is not true for state boards. By and large, they remain a place where people check their partisan hats at the door and settle in to do the hard work of creating policies that will benefit every child. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that our democracy needs state board members to continue in that tradition of civil dialogue.
  3. Work withnot againstyour state partners. The challenging work ahead for states will be easier, and more successful, if all state actors, from the governor’s mansion, to the legislature, to the state chief’s office work together to make change happen. I am proud to model this with NASBE’s state partners in working alongside the Education Commission for the States, National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, and the Council of Chief State School Officers and in strengthening these bonds as we implement our new strategic plan. Remember, state boards are often the most stable actor in state education policy (see Takeaway #2). This is an opportunity. As NGA’s Stephen Parker noted, every governor wants to be a workforce governor, but they can’t be that without being an education governor first. State boards can cement their legacies by meeting with new governors early on, telling them about the work that’s been done, and finding common ground.
  4. Students’ voices need to be at the table. We were all so impressed by Bryce Awono, the student board member from Maryland who sat on the school safety panel. His observation—that school safety is not something that has to be seen, it is something that should be felt—was certainly one of my aha! moments from the conference. It’s an encouraging sign that a growing number of states are exploring the possibility of adding a student member to their board. Even if your board is not moving in that direction, find ways to hear from students. Remember that the most valuable real estate your board owns is its own agenda, so make sure you spend time listening to the voices of students. As Donna Johnson, this year’s Kysilko Award winner, said, “Students cannot afford to wait until the adults get out of their own way to address the problems they face.” Having students’ voices ever present is a good way to remind yourself of why your job as a state board member matters.  
  5. Be the voice of the community. State boards of education are charged with representing the citizen’s voice in education. The tradition of citizen leadership in public education is nearly as old as our Republic. When I researched the history of NASBE, I found some disagreement over which state had the earliest state board of education. Was it New York? Or Virginia? Or Massachusetts? As a Virginian, I love the fact that in 1809, Virginia’s governor James Tyler attempted to secure state funding for public schools in the Commonwealth. He criticized the General Assembly for “its failure, by reason of a fatal apathy and a parsimonious policy, to provide state schools.” That may have been the very first battle over adequate and equitable education funding! Whichever state you decide was the first to have a state board, all three provide very early examples of states entrusting the leadership of public education to citizens. As far back as the 18th century, it was recognized that members of these state boards should be responsible for creating policy—not for day-to-day oversight. Now more than ever, you should be looking for ways to listen to the parents, teachers, business leaders, and citizens in your state. That outreach will enhance your policy leadership. As Michael Fullan said in his keynote, “Being right is not a strategy for change.” But being the voice of the community is a way to produce lasting improvement.

~ Kristen Amundson, NASBE President and CEO