3 Reasons School Boards Need Ideological Diversity

How debate can strengthen our schools
3 Reasons School Boards Need Ideological Diversity
Unsplash, Tim Gouw

While running for school board, I heard a common sentiment: People who sit on school boards should have an educational background. On the surface, this makes sense. Experts should know what to do.  But is that really true? 

So called “experts” made a lot of bad decisions during the pandemic.  An intriguing article from the Harvard Business Review (HBR) entitled, “When Having Too Many Experts on the Board Backfires,” provides some interesting insight into this discussion.

While this article was written about corporate boards, the purpose of all governing boards is the same: to ensure that decisions made by the organization make sense to the greatest number of stakeholders. This means that a good board should have a variety of backgrounds representing all aspects of society, and not just “domain experts” as HBR labels them.

Here are three reasons why having too many domain experts on a board is a bad idea:

1. Cognitive Entrenchment

The article suggests:

“As we gain deeper expertise in an area, we acquire more accurate and detailed knowledge but also become less flexible in our thinking and less likely to change our perspective. So expert-dominated boards might be less effective in responding to new information or unfamiliar situations.”  

If we want to improve our schools, we can’t get caught in a rut and keep doing the same things. We need fresh ideas, and that means voting in new people.

2. Overconfidence

If the COVID pandemic taught us anything, it is that school boards were overconfident in their decisions.  Again, from the article: 

“As [one] director put it, non-expert directors ‘often play the role of devil’s advocate, taking the situation to its worst conclusion.’ This means that boards with several non-expert directors tend to be more skeptical. They “demand more reporting and analytics” and often respond to proposals by saying ‘We are not going to make a decision today because you didn’t give us enough information to make the decision.’”  

Rarely did someone on the board try to debate actual statistics before making a decision. It was largely private citizens who attended board meetings who demanded reporting and analytics surrounding board decisions, and it was the overconfident board members who refused to use actual numbers to justify decisions.

3. Task Conflict

It’s no surprise that school board meetings around the country have been more contentious lately. It is also sad that school boards have done much to try to prevent such conflict. The seemingly stereotypical school board member would rather “get along” than have to face opposition. While attending board meetings for the last two years, I have noticed that many on the board shun debate. Meetings have been canceled or moved to virtual-only when they suspect a lot of opposition from the public.

While sitting on the board this past month, we started the process of hiring a new superintendent.  We discussed priorities we think the candidate should focus on.  Several agreed that “diversity in hiring” should be a top priority. I interjected, saying that most of the community disagrees with that.  I said, “Excellence in hiring should be the primary focus, regardless of demographic.” They were not used to someone trying to debate a point in a meeting and tried to shut down the discussion.  Again, the Harvard Business Review article provides insight: 

“Some amount of task conflict is essential because it allows the board to explore and discuss more alternatives. But research suggests that a high proportion of domain experts can suppress task conflict because non-expert directors may defer too much to the judgment of experts.”  

To end, I will leave you with one last quote from HBR; “Dealing with changing, unfamiliar situations requires flexible thinking and a healthy dose of disagreement.”  We are certainly living in changing, unfamiliar situations.  It is time for us to change how we think about school boards, and to bring debate back to the process.  Ideas get sharper as they are vigorously debated. Instead, many would rather vote in the same domain experts term after term, and then wonder why our schools are getting worse.  

Eric Meadows
Eric Meadows is a triplet who lives in Kenosha, Wisconsin and currently sits on the Kenosha Unified School District School Board.