Season 2, Episode 4 Part 2: The Power of School Boards

North Dakota State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler is back for part two of our two-part series. Baesler shares her perspective as a longtime member of her local school board and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers on the importance of quality training for school board members. She also discusses how this innovative approach may be scaled across the country.


Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the “Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.

Today is the second part of my conversation with North Dakota state school superintendent Kirsten Baesler, who also serves as president of the Council of Chief State School Officers. We pick up on the work happening to provide training or school board members for the job, an issue close to Kirsten since she spent nine years as a local school board member herself.

Kirsten, this focus on school board members is important, not just in North Dakota, but across the country. How’s it being received by your colleagues?

Kirsten Baesler: I’m so thrilled to see the response. I had first kind of pitched the idea to a small group of my peers in late September, early October. There were about half a dozen to a dozen of them, and all of them were like, “Wow, this is really timely. I’m working on the same sort of thing. Tell me how to do that.” I was fortunate enough, CCSSO—that is my actual presidential platform—is serving students through effective governance. So, students are at the core of what my platform is and through student service. So later this month, several of the states will be convening just before the Education of the Commission of the State’s annual meeting in December starts. And we will be going through a mini workshop that will replicate what our school boards go through. At the end of that mini workshop, the people that have helped me customize this for North Dakota will be there providing information how they too can customize it for West Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Alabama, Vermont. We have plain states, we have southern states, we have eastern states and western states that are saying, “We need to know more about this, and we want to learn how we can customize it.”

So, it’s being well received because, Jim, when you think about it, 90% of the COVID dollars that were provided to every state were delivered out to local school boards to make decisions about. In my state, 90% of the state general fund is delivered out to our local school districts to make decisions about. So, when we have 90% of billions and billions of dollars being delivered to leaders to make funding decisions about, we owe it to them to provide the support. SEAs owe it to them to provide the support and the training and development that they need to make those good decisions and to be empowered to start doing things that make a difference and stop doing things that aren’t making a difference on student outcomes.

Jim Cowen: It does feel like, if you’re an education leader, this would be a great thing to have because it’s something that’s endorsed by your peers, by other states, and it’s an action you can take without having like 20 disparate things where you’re trying to help boards [inaudible at 3:37].

Kirsten Baesler: When you talk about diffusing that and disparate, we just dilute so many of our initiatives because there’s so much. When you stay laser focused on student outcomes, when a board stays laser focused—right now we’re talking about local school boards, but we’ll even talk about state boards of education—when they’re trying to do so many things, they are diluting the efforts that can really make a difference. You know, this example was shared, AJ Kriebel, who is my partner on this, he actually brought this from Missouri to Texas and then Texas is what we use to customize ours. And he talked about “is there coding board meetings?” There was a board that spent over three and a half hours discussing the color of school board buses. Like what is the best color as it relates to safety, maintenance, all of those other things. And so, what do you think that superintendent and his executive team spent the next two weeks focusing on? How much does it cost? How much will it cost to replace our fleet? What’s the best color? And then the next meeting, two-and-a-half hours of board reports on the color of school buses. Now that may seem silly, but that actually happens across every state in this nation instead of asking, “can you tell us about what effective strategies there are for improving our third-grade reading proficiency?”

Jim Cowen: And can I ask just a silly question, too? Is there any other color than yellow for a school bus? I don’t think I’ve seen any one in my life that’s not yellow.

Kirsten Baesler: I will get you in touch with the superintendent that painstakingly had to research that.

Jim Cowen: Anyway, what are we arguing about this for? They’re yellow. Done. You started to talk earlier about your platform and that was what I wanted to go into now. You’re just coming into CCSSO, so it’s a fantastic role for you. I’m excited to see you start this position. What did you tell people last week when you, when you started?

Kirsten Baesler: So, I began and ended with, “Theodore Roosevelt is a revered, adopted son of North Dakota. He came to the Dakota territory to hunt buffalo and he stayed for a number of months and years. He came back two different [inaudible at 6:13] bought two ranches, and actually has said that had it not been for his time that he spent in Dakota territory, he would never become president. But in 1903, so over a century ago, on Labor Day part of a speech he said, ‘there’s no greater prize in life than working hard at work worth doing.’” And that’s what I laid out for the chief state school officers, was that this is hard work, but there is no better work that we can be doing. Our students are relying on us. Our families are relying on us. Our nation is relying on us as state chiefs. We must be laser-focused on students—student outcomes. There’s a lot of things that could distract us from our mission of education, but together we can do this. And the best way for us to begin is to begin focusing on our behaviors, our adult behaviors. We must ask ourselves a question with every decision that is made, “how are the children doing, and how will this decision make it better for our students?” Our students need to be loved, yes. But they can be loved all they want and if they don’t know how to read, or do computational math when they leave us, all the love in the world isn’t going to get them through life. So, they need both. And so, we focused on that and I just hope I was inspiring and said that this is hard work, but it’s work worth doing. And together, through the organizations, by coming together and finding—I mean the EduRecovery—finding out what we’re doing, we can spend this next year learning from each other, sharing best practices with each other. And that’s what we did a lot of in Austin, and we committed, I set us out on a course to say there is this belief out there that states aren’t spending their money on good things with these COVID relief dollars that local school districts aren’t spending their money. It couldn’t be further from the truth. So, let’s band together. Let’s share those great stories. Let’s share those best practices and let’s support each other as we have to make tough decisions about stopping the things that aren’t working. And being courageous to start the things that are working, whether it’s happening in Wyoming or it’s happening in Florida or in North Dakota or in California. Be courageous together and we can do this. We need to do this.

Jim Cowen: I’m really happy to hear you say that in that way, too. We, at the Collaborative, have been like the rest of the education field and like the rest of the country. It’s been news cycle after news cycle about the bad news, right? We’ve heard: ACT scores? Down. Long-term trend data from NAEP? Down. NAEP scores? Abysmal. I don’t think anyone was really expecting to hear good news out of it, and I don’t think anyone should really be trying to spin that into good news either. But we are also hoping to hear states acknowledge the problem, talk about what are your bold investments that you’re doing to deal with it and getting on with it. And being willing to share information and practices across the board. And that’s where we are feeling. So, to hear you stated that way, it gives me a lot of hope because, you know, to be honest, when the NAEP scores came out, we were a little disappointed that some states didn’t come out and say like, “it was bad, and here’s what we’re trying to do about it,” particularly around math and around English. What are states doing? Are there any thoughts you have kind of like right off the bat on how you want to encourage cross-state sharing that you’re talking about?

Kirsten Baesler: That’s what we spend a great deal of time at our annual policy forum in Austin. We will be convening again. A group of us will be convening again before Education Commission of the States, as I said, to learn about effective governance and how we can help our school districts do that. We will convene in February. But even more than that, we meet monthly as a group of state chiefs to share ideas, to talk about issues. We need to continue to do that. I appreciate the words that you’ve used as you were just asking me that question. You said, “let’s get on with it.” I used very similar words as I closed out my first address as the president. I said, “Let’s get to it.” And it is hard, but we were laser-focused, and I think CCSSO and Education Commission of the States and convenings, you know, that our partners—the Hunt Institute. I could go on and on—they’re being very intentional about convening chiefs to share those ideas for the very specific purpose. And not just ideas, but actual programs. Like, tell me the language of that program that you set up. What were your guardrails? Can I see your application for that? Talking in visionary ideas, but really practical application implementation efforts, and so it’s going to be important that we convene virtually and in person to share those things.

We are laser-focused on math and reading because that is what we measure, right? There is a lot of conversation about social-emotional, health issues, those are inputs that we must address to create student outcomes. And if we can start to have those conversations about inputs that lead to outputs, but are all focused on outcomes for students, student academic outcomes—of course there is the recruitment and retention of teachers—how do we do that without diluting the quality of the people that we’re putting in front of our students every day? How do we grow your own? So, there’s lots of conversation about academic programs, the inputs of high-quality instructional materials, culturally relevant efforts, teacher recruitment and retention. But still putting that in the perspective of, yes, those are all things that we must invest in, but we have to monitor them and make sure that they are resulting in better student outcomes. Because if they’re not, then it’s all for nothing.

There was a lot of conversation about pay for performance. Not for teacher pay performance, but vendor contracts with professional development and or curriculum materials or intervention strategies. So, how do we help our partners be more accountable? If there’s a lot of money out there, a lot of money being spent, how do we better equip our SEAs and our LEAs with results-based contracts to these partners that are helping them coming into their schools, training their teachers, or providing instructional materials.

Jim Cowen: And giving them the air cover that they need to say no, right?

Kirsten Baesler: That’s important; what you do is as important as what you stop doing.

Jim Cowen: Yeah. Thank you for your time. We are very excited to see what happens over the next months and years as you continue on in this work. So, good luck and thank you for everything that you’re doing.

Kirsten Baesler: Thank you to you and your group for your partnership. We’ve talked about that before. States can’t do this alone, so I’ll just leave with you with that. We can’t do this alone. To come together, as the old saying of, “it’s going to take a village to raise a child,” it will take this entire nation to help our children recoup the lost learning time and grow up to be the productive citizens that they want to be and deserve to be.

Jim Cowen: Kirsten Baesler, the state superintendent for the great state of North Dakota. Thank you.

Kirsten Baesler: Thank you.

Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. Where each week, we showcase ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.

About Jim Cowen



Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.