School board member: How we 'ignite a fire'

  • Robert Bruno is serving his first term on the Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 school board.

    Robert Bruno is serving his first term on the Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 school board.

Posted5/2/2018 12:27 PM

Editor's note: Robert Bruno is a member of the Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 school board. A retired District 41 teacher, Bruno is now a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was elected to his first term on the school board in 2017.

By Robert Bruno


Special to the Daily Herald

Education is messy.

I have been an educator for nearly a quarter of a century, but it wasn't until serving on a local school board for 10 months that I really appreciated the metaphor that education was "not the filling of a pail," but the "lighting of a fire."

To understand what it means to be a school board member first requires a healthy appreciation of the boundaries and obligations of the job.

Elected locally, my primary responsibilities include following federal and state mandates. I am legally responsible to the state and politically responsible to local voters.

For instance, under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to have measures of "school quality" in their accountability system. Committing to school quality is the easy part. The hard part -- and where I come in -- is what comes next.

Determining the best way to educate children is more art than science, more mystery than mathematics. The Illinois School Code determines the operational requirements of a school and the academic standards that must be met. School districts then design their own educational programs to meet federal and state standards.

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What's my role in the development and implementation of all this grand architecture? It's functionally rather small, but principally extremely important. I share in the responsibility for making sure that quality happens and that the educational aspirations of the community are realized.

In order to monitor performance, however, requires that I acknowledge that learning is complex. In any given classroom, there is a wide variation of student learning needs and styles. Decisions about curriculum and organizational delivery of curriculum have to be puzzled out. However, the opportunity to do what needs to be done is not limitless.

In my first year as a board member, the function of time has served as a subtext for every action the district has taken. Time to teach reading and mathematics, as well as art, a foreign language, music and physical education. Time for teachers to plan and collaborate.

Time considerations also operate in another perplexing way. We want our children prepared for the ever-evolving world they will inherit. How then do I properly value the future, while constructively supporting my district's efforts to educate students in the present? After nearly a year on the job, I've learned a few things. By all accounts, foreign language competencies would be valuable and so would problem-solving skills, working well in teams and exposure to the arts.


Whatever direction schools choose to go, their purpose is to develop students' cognitive and social-emotional development. As a school board member, I examine a fair amount of test data. The quantity of student scores has given me a nuanced appreciation for the complexity of assessing academic performance.

It is not obvious what counts more -- proficiency, growth, percentiles, targets and comparisons to national or local norms. Most of our elementary and middle school students take multiple tests that generate divergent scores but represent the same students.

In the end, neither may matter much, because as education writer James Herndon notes, the "test could only mean something if you never looked at the kids themselves." I've learned that board members should act cautiously. It is really messy.

Making it more complex, classrooms include children with special learning needs, accelerated learning capacities, limited English proficiency and the crushing burdens of insufficient family resources. All students have to be equally and well educated. Timing, again, may determine everything. Research shows that preschool and full-day kindergarten are strongly associated with children advancing their intellectual and social-emotional development. According to Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman, it also returns increased economic gains as the child grows into adulthood.

Quality, however, does not come cheaply. No parent wants their kid educated on the margins. My job includes approving a budget. Discussing the revenue that our district needs has highlighted for me the limitations imposed by Illinois' overreliance on property taxes to fund K-12 schools. Overall, the state of Illinois provides just 40 percent of the revenue needed to operate schools; only four states contribute a lower percentage.

School spending decisions reflect what is valued. However, if property taxes remain the primary source for funding education, a constant tug-of-war will ensue within and between residents who want to honor the value they place on educating their children but are aggravated by incrementally increasing property taxes. In reality, property taxes are likely to go up no matter what the school board does. School boards are reflexively blamed for raising taxes but also expected to provide the financial and human resources necessary to meet ambitious education goals. When that happens, every school dollar spent becomes something over which to fight. Man, it's messy business.

I also know from the 5Essentials Survey, developed by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, that our schools perform better when parents are engaged in their children's learning.

To cultivate parent-school relationships, we have a districtwide multilayered engagement plan to ensure that all students have equal access to any activity. Families with one or more parents holding down two or more jobs or speaking a first language other than English have structural impediments to increased involvement.

My job as a school board member is to respect the interconnectedness of multiple factors like preschool and kindergarten classes, high quality teachers and principals, curriculum coaches, resource staff and, most importantly, an effective superintendent. The list is long and my learning curve is steep.

Yes, teaching is messy because learning is messy. It is not linear. It is not the product of an algorithm. No two students can be standardized. Getting myriad questions right requires extensive deliberation, the contributions of experts, and respect for the teachers, support staff and principals who literally hold our children's hands.

Determining the nitty-gritty of a school day and classroom experience is the job of staff and administrators. My role? Help people succeed. After nearly a year of service, I have come to realize that the best way for me to make the most meaningful contribution is to abide by what we teach our students: hold a growth mindset.

Arriving at educational decisions requires an ability to act creatively and to be comfortable with ambiguity. It is to embrace essayist and English professor Harry Crews' insight that "teaching, real teaching, is -- or ought to be -- messy business." It is trial and error. It demands an extraordinary degree of reflection and humbleness.

Education is indeed messy because, to be honest, kids are messy. Not messy bad, but messy as in a glorious process of development. What I've learned so far is that the more I embrace the beautiful messy process, the closer I'll get to understanding what our students need.

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