AJ Crabill, National Director of Governance at the Council of the Great City Schools

Improving student outcomes is AJ Crabill’s relentless focus. He currently serves as the National Director of Governance at the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, DC, as Senior Coach at EffectiveSchoolBoards.com, and as Education Faculty at the Leadership Institute of Nevada. AJ previously served as Conservator at DeSoto (TX) Independent School District. During his guidance, DeSoto made double-digit literacy gains and improved from having F ratings in areas of academics, finance, and governance to the district earning B ratings. Crabill has served as Deputy Commissioner of Education for the State of Texas, board chair for Kansas City (MO) Public Schools, and as a board member for numerous tech startups, non-profit organizations, and government entities. Crabill received the Education Commission of the State’s James Bryant Conant Award, which recognizes extraordinary individual contributions to national education policy. Crabill’s most recent book, “Great On Their Behalf: Why School Boards Fail, How Yours Can Become Effective” addresses the governance practice of public school boards. 

Culture & Policy

You will most often hear it suggested that a school board’s greatest power to impact student learning is centered in its ability to set policy. I used to be among those who believed this. My experience, however, has taught me a more consistent reality: culture trumps policy every day.

In my role as a school board coach for many of the United States’ largest school systems, I have an intimate, week-by-week view of school systems that collectively educate several million of our students. When the culture of the school board — the set of all behaviors taking place by school board members and by the board collectively — is in conflict with the policies of the school board — the set of all written documents approved by a majority vote of the school board — it leaves school system staff with the unenviable task of choosing which to follow. More often than not, staff will honor the school board’s behavior over the school board’s writings. Said differently, school boards that want to inspire improvements in student outcomes will best accomplish this when what they do (culture) matches what they say (policy). To clarify this phenomenon — and offer insights into how best to harness it — I offer three examples.

Board Use of Time

A school board my team serves wanted to become intensely focused on improving student outcomes. They heard our message — student outcomes don’t change until adult behaviors change —  and agreed. Unfortunately, after months of talk about change, the way the school board invested its time during school board meetings did not change. The school board was still spending less than 5% of its total meeting minutes each month monitoring progress toward its Goals. In response, the school board’s meetings continued to be consumed by administrative details and operational issues, sidelining actual monitoring of their Goals about student outcomes.

While they didn’t recognize it immediately, what was happening was that the superintendent’s focus mirrored the board culture rather than their policy. Arriving at this revelation, the board experienced many of the common stages of grief — denial, bargaining, and even anger before eventual acceptance: “What we’re saying and what we’re doing isn’t aligned.” The turning point came when they chose to implement a structured agenda, dedicating 50% of every meeting to monitor progress toward their student outcome Goals. Over time, this shift not only altered the board’s discussions but also sent a more coherent message to the school system: student outcomes are the top priority. This alignment between declared priorities and actual behaviors gradually cultivated a culture where staff and educators felt both accountable to and supported in their efforts to focus on accomplishing the school board’s Goals for student learning.

Board Use of Recognitions

Another school board we worked with adopted many student outcomes-focused practices that my team teaches. They focused their mindset around their locus of control and clarified the priorities of the community into a set of Goals and Guardrails. Then they began to monitor progress by evaluating the school system’s progress against those Goals each month during their school board meetings. Still, it was common for the superintendent to spend more time providing reports about arts and athletics during school board meetings than about the actual Goals the school board had adopted. After watching several meetings, why this was happening became apparent: whenever the school board recognized staff or students, it never had anything to do with their contributions to the Goals.

The school board chair was very clever, and the moment I brought this dissonance to her attention, she immediately made a conscious effort to shift the focus back to the Goals. The school board initiated a new expectation: monthly recognitions will focus on students — and their supporting teachers, staff, and parents — who have made significant growth towards achieving the school system’s Goals. The superintendent then ensured that the criteria for being honored each month became explicitly linked to the board’s adopted Goals. It quickly became common for the recognition of dozens of students and their families to dominate the opening 30 minutes of school board meetings. Crucially, this meant that many students who had never been honored — students who started off further behind but who had shown significant growth, rather than just students who were already very high performing —  became the stars of the show. This motivated the school communities to pay explicit attention to the school system’s Goals and highlighted the school board’s unwavering commitment to the community’s priorities. Over time, these recognitions began to redefine the narrative around what success looked like in the school system, making clear that contributions to the Goals were the highest honor.

Board Use of Evaluation

“We’ve got to get rid of this superintendent,” the board member began as we started our regular check-in call. I had been coaching this school board for a few months and was confused by this opening to the conversation. “Please, say more,” I invited, to better understand the concern. Eager to share, the school board member pressed on. “Nothing I tell the superintendent to do is getting done. It’s as if he doesn’t even care about these important matters that I bring from the community. What we need is a superintendent who listens,” he said. As the school board member relayed specific examples of their concerns, I began to realize the issue, which was a school board failure, not a superintendent failure. The school board’s claim to care about its adopted Goals was completely misaligned with what individual school board members expected the superintendent to pay attention to during their conversations. The superintendent wasn’t being evaluated on what they agreed, he was being de facto evaluated on whether or not he put out the fire of the day.

Addressing the mismatch between the board’s stated Goals and the superintendent’s de facto evaluation required a comprehensive conversation with the full school board regarding how each school board member behaved and of how the school board as a whole behaved. The school board developed clear procedures for itself that determined how the “fire of the day” would be handled — preferably at the lowest level possible in the organization rather than instantly escalated to the superintendent. The school board adopted our recommended template for superintendent evaluation, which only includes the school board’s adopted Goals and Guardrails. And finally, the school board committed to behaving in a more transparent manner with community members about how best to address ongoing challenges.

This unified and collaborative approach clarified expectations and fostered a stronger partnership between the school board and the superintendent. As the superintendent’s real and de facto evaluations began to converge around the community’s larger priorities — the Goals and Guardrails — the superintendent was empowered to focus on initiatives that were more aligned with the school board’s adopted Goals, leading to more strategic leadership and tangible improvements in student outcomes.


The journey from recognizing the importance of aligning culture with policy to actualizing it in the daily workings of a school board is challenging but essential. These vignettes illustrate that a powerful culture of improving student outcomes can emerge when a school board’s actions—how it uses its time, what it recognizes as achievements, and how it evaluates its leaders—are in harmony with its stated policies, including its Goals. This alignment clarifies the path forward for school staff and leadership and sets a precedent for accountability and excellence that permeates the entire educational ecosystem. For school boards aspiring to be intensely focused on improving student outcomes, the lesson is clear: culture is not just a backdrop to policy; it is the very foundation upon which successful policy implementation rests. School boards can create the conditions necessary for all students to thrive by meticulously aligning the school board’s culture with the school board’s policies.


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