Earlier this year Superintendent Devin Vodicka of Vista Unified School District in Southern California gathered his leadership team to revise their Local Control Accountability Plan.
To inspire the team, he used the metaphor of a house. He compared his district’s budget right after the 2008 recession to a storm-battered cabin. It had been ravaged, but it also gave the district an opportunity to rebuild better – to “dream big and think differently.” The new dream house could look many different ways, he said, but the important thing is that it be built deliberately and on a strong foundation.
With the announcement of the new state budget earlier this month, California districts can look forward to new resources to help build that dream house. The budget agreement increases funding for the Local Control Funding Formula by $6.1 billion, bringing the total very close to “full funding” that was expected to take 8 years to come in. The question is, with the influx of new funds, will school districts rebuild their houses the way they were, or will they seize this opportunity to dream big?
Last year, The Education Trust – West did a detailed analysis of 40 LCAPs and a shorter review of 100 more. They concluded that “In general, districts offer only modest innovation in the first year,” noting that most districts “are shoring up rising staffing costs, restoring programs and personnel cut during the Great Recession…and adding one or two new programs for high-needs students.” The Legislative Analyst’s Office and the Public Policy Institute of California also raised concerns about how well the proposed action items aligned with goals.
This is understandable. California districts are still reeling from years of severe cuts, and under LCFF, had to learn to exercise unprecedented planning authority in a relatively short period of time, and in accordance with changing state guidelines. Districts are preparing to submit their first annual LCAP Update, and those may reflect exciting, productive changes.
But “modest innovation” will not solve California’s chronic education problems. How can district leaders use the prospect of new dollars to truly transform their systems and schools—and ensure that every new and old dollar is doing the most to help all students? This will mean taking a hard look at the way they currently allocate resources – including people, time, and money – and considering what they can do instead, not just in addition. It means considering structural costs that might be controlled by more than one central office department, like teacher compensation, hiring and staffing policies, and how students and teachers use their time during the school day. If the proverbial budget house is drafty, it means being willing to tear down and rebuild a room more effectively, rather than just patching the holes in the slats.
For example, if elementary reading is a trouble area, a typical district might budget for extra professional development or a new literacy program. But a strategic district will consider systemic changes that improve instruction for the long term. This might mean reorganizing school schedules to ensure struggling students get more time in reading or to provide enough collaborative planning time for teacher teams led by expert coaches. Or it could consider policies to attract and retain excellent teachers, such as hiring earlier and more strategically, or increasing compensation for teachers who take on leadership and responsibilities. These strategies can be tailored to most clearly support high-need students, but they also help all students succeed.
Adjusting these fundamental structures is likely to provide a greater return on investment (ROI) than just adding new programs to what’s already there. Many people associate ROI with cold and calculating businessmen tallying profits. But it’s simply about improving the impact of limited resources – in this case, impact defined as student learning, parent involvement, or any of the other priority areas laid out in the Local Control Funding Formula. Districts can estimate the ROI of different strategies by looking at their own data, national studies, or the experience of peer districts. It’s not necessary to calculate an exact number that summarizes the ROI of a particular strategy – even labeling different options as likely “low,” “medium” and “high” ROI is enough.
We call this system-strategy return-on-investment thinking. It’s about starting with fundamental student needs and asking not “Which program is better?” but “What resources will meet this need?”
Vista’s superintendent Vodicka says that system-strategy return-on-investment is a “fabulous concept” and the “wave of the future,” but notes that, in his experience, it is challenging to implement it immediately. For starters, districts’ data systems are often not integrated with each other, making it difficult to track the impact of a particular strategy. In Vista Unified, they are working to make their data systems “talk to each other” so that one day, the district can better measure and monitor progress. And he cautions that there are at least some crucial budget cuts that simply need to be refilled.
But if system-strategy return-on-investment sounds daunting, it doesn’t have to be. At Education Resource Strategies we have developed a series of tools and resources that can help California districts apply a system-strategy return on investment approach to their strategic planning. The two most important aspects of this approach are stepping back and looking beyond the normal solutions to consider shifts in fundamental resource use, and using data – however incomplete – to prioritize investments by their likely impact. It is, after all, what the proposed LCFF evaluation rubric calls for: not “continuing historical practices” but “selecting [investments] based on evidence of effectiveness.” It’s not about rebuilding the kitchen or adding a wing, but remodeling the edifice for the 21st century.
Karen Baroody is managing director and Melissa Galvez is a writer at Education Resource Strategies, a national nonprofit that partners with districts and states to analyze how districts use their resources and design new strategies aimed at increasing student success.
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