School & District Management

Districts Take Performance Strategies Partway

By Lynn Olson — May 17, 2005 3 min read
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A study of 28 urban districts identified as front-runners in “performance-driven practices,” which are designed to focus their school systems more squarely on student achievement, concludes that even those sites still have quite a way to go.

The study, “Anatomy of School System Improvement: Performance-Driven Practices in Urban School Districts,” is available from the NewSchools Venture Fund.

“Not a single school system studied fully embodied all of the attributes of a performance-driven organization, although some are further along than others,” says the report, prepared for the San Francisco-based NewSchools Venture Fund, a philanthropy that raises capital to support innovations in education. The report was released May 5 at the fund’s annual conference in Redwood City, Calif.

“Districts are at different stages in different areas,” said Lisa Petrides, the president of the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education, the nonprofit research group in Half Moon Bay, Calif., that conducted the study. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all model.”

Researchers interviewed the superintendents and three other senior-level administrators in each district—112 interviews total—to identify promising practices, examine the extent to which they have been adopted, and explore the barriers to their use.

The study found that becoming a performance-driven organization has as much to do with managing the people and processes within a district as with particular goals, policies, and programs.

“Performance-driven practices enable districts to systematically connect many of the seemingly disparate elements of educational reform—for example, standards, assessments, curricular developments, and even information technologies and organizational culture—into an integrated whole that can drive improvement,” the report says.

In an interview, Ms. Petrides said: “Districts that are doing more cross-functional work are further along. If you have a chief financial officer who has 20 percent of his bonus based on student-achievement outcomes, that’s a really different model than we’ve been seeing.”

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Chart: Limited Implementation

All the districts studied reported adopting clear and well- articulated goals that helped focus the system around student achievement. But districts were less successful at matching resources to those goals. Fewer than half, 12, had processes in place that allowed district and site leaders to review regularly the cost- effectiveness of their academic and professional programs. Two-thirds reported substantial budgetary challenges as an obstacle, while 12 described collective-bargaining agreements as limiting their financial flexibility.

Moreover, although almost all the districts were concerned about recruiting well-qualified teachers and reported that it was a high priority, only one-third had designed recruitment strategies. And despite general agreement that instructional leadership is a critical skill, few districts provided evidence of having in place in-depth training for principals and teachers to take on that role.

Weak Information Systems

Districts identified antiquated information systems as one problem. Two-thirds reported they had reliable information systems in one area only, such as payroll or student-achievement data. Only six reported that superintendents had access to data that they could break down in meaningful ways from their desktops, while one-third reported that top-level administrators had that capability. Even fewer provided the option for principals and teachers.

Few districts had linked human resources and payroll systems to finance and budget systems, and even fewer had linked student-information systems as well.

Districts were further along with student assessment. Three-quarters already had or were in the process of developing district tests that they could use to analyze student performance, identify curricular gaps, and target instructional practices or interventions for specific students.

Districts viewed state tests as far less useful, in part because they provided insufficient information or because results came back too late in the school year.

While having data is important, said Ms. Petrides, the key is using it for continuous improvement. “It’s not only being able to make a decision that you’re then monitoring in some way,” she said, “but there’s this whole feedback loop, so that if you make some decision, is that the right decision a year from now? It’s really about continuous learning and how the organization puts structures and processes in place to help that. It’s not just about having data.”

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