Online Access to Information
UD professor examines the online presence of state boards of education
Many parents and guardians of school-aged children are familiar with the board of education for their child’s district, which often sets strategic priorities for schools and develops education policies. As their children progress in their K-12 education, some parents may advocate for change by attending board meetings or contacting board members.
But, did you know that nearly every state has a state board of education (SBOE) as well?
Initially conceived as a means for overseeing education, these state boards often serve as policy makers, advocates, liaisons, and consensus builders. While a state’s education governance can be complex, SBOEs often set policies for state departments of education to implement. In some states, SBOEs considerably influence the day-to-day administration of schools in their state by setting curriculum standards, adopting textbooks, or creating educator evaluation programs.
For example, the Texas State Board of Education is responsible for determining the state’s curriculum standards, which directly influence the textbooks created by publishing companies. Once the board revises and adopts the standards, the Texas Education Agency, the state’s department of education, implements testing and evaluation systems to document how well teachers instruct students in meeting those curriculum standards.
Yet, how accessible are SBOEs to the parents, guardians, teachers and administrators they serve?
Bryan A. VanGronigen, assistant professor in the University of Delaware School of Education, and his co-authors at Loyola Marymount University and the University of Virginia investigate this issue in “Do State Boards of Education Offer an Avenue for Public Voice?”, published in the journal Urban Education.
Given the increasing role of digital technology in education, VanGronigen and his co-authors analyzed SBOE websites, asking whether they supported meaningful public engagement.
“Not much research has been published about SBOEs, which can be powerful policy actors that influence how their states ‘do’ education. We were curious to examine how accessible these boards are to the public via their online platforms, which has become even more important in the era of COVID-19,” said VanGronigen. “We found that only a few states have a robust online presence, which suggests that these boards aren’t as accessible to their constituents as they could, and, to us, should be.”
VanGronigen and his co-authors developed a unique “SBOE E-Accessibility Index” to examine the websites of 47 state boards. (Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin do not have state boards.) This index allowed the team to score each website’s accessibility based on data points related to general information, board member information, board meeting information, and website design.
For example, the research team reviewed whether the website shared the SBOE’s charge, how much member information was available, whether meeting agendas and minutes were posted, and the ease of navigation on the website.
To make sense of their data, the researchers drew on the Open Government Maturity Model, which identifies five maturity levels of government agencies’ online platforms based on their transparent, interactive, participatory and collaborative efforts to engage their constituents.
In this model, Levels 1 and 2 speak to the establishment of basic conditions for public engagement and data transparency, while Levels 3, 4, and 5 speak to public participation, active collaboration with the government agency, and seamless engagement with other related agencies.
Most state boards satisfied Levels 1 and 2, but did not meet requirements for Levels 3, 4, or 5. For example, all state board websites catalogued information for the public to view and analyze, and most used some form of two-way communication, such as email or social media, to solicit feedback from the public.
However, very few websites used digital technology to support public engagement or active collaboration. For example, only 17 websites explicitly described how the public could engage with their board and only 2 websites provided live streaming of their meetings.
“Many websites are barebones with links to a few web pages that offer brief biographies of SBOE members with long lists of downloadable meeting agendas and minutes. There was almost no presence of a technological infrastructure — a Google Site, discussion boards, or position papers — that invited the public to learn more about the SBOE’s work, its members, and, ultimately, its influence,” said VanGronigen. “It’s important that these boards be proactive in informing their constituents about what an SBOE does, why an SBOE does what it does, and how it influences the day-to-day workings of schools and districts. But, few SBOEs appeared to be proactive in building a technological infrastructure and messaging strategy to meaningfully engage with their constituents.”
While the researchers completed this study before the national transition to remote instruction last year, this work now carries additional significance in light of the pandemic’s continued challenges for K-12 education.
“With more people using online modes to communicate during the COVID-19 pandemic, having robust platforms to solicit, manage, and curate public discourse is more important than ever before. In the spring of last year at the pandemic’s onset, we learned that technological infrastructure and messaging strategies among districts and states varied wildly,” said VanGronigen. “The pandemic’s circumstances underscore the importance of strengthening the infrastructure for communication, which needs to be multimodal with easy-to-navigate websites, a presence on multiple social media platforms, email-based newsletters, and phone-based recorded updates. It’s even more paramount that a coherent messaging strategy is developed, which can reduce feelings of ambiguity and anxiety among students, parents, families, educators, and community members.”
Recognizing that many state boards do not have the human or financial resources to manage a robust online presence, VanGronigen offers suggestions for parents and teachers who are interested in communicating with their state board.
For example, contacting a state board member through an individual email address may be a more effective form of communication than using a general email address. Social media may also provide another powerful tool for engagement.
“Parents, families, and educators might not get an immediate response from a state-administered social media account, but their followers will see who and what those people are tagging,” said VanGronigen. “That kind of action holds promise to increase a social media post’s visibility, which could, in turn, amplify the message so that it gets loud enough for an SBOE to hear. In that instance, an SBOE is more likely to respond to what its constituents are saying.”
Article by Jessica Henderson. Illustration by Jeffrey Chase.