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How School System 20/20 Became The Strategic System

The story of how ERS’ vision for school system success has evolved – and how it can help all schools

We all know the statistics from school districts around the country: unacceptably low proficiency rates and graduation rates, which can limit life outcomes.

And still, there are schools that beat the odds and manage to provide an excellent education to all students, regardless of race or income. They’re places like Queens Metropolitan High School in New York that use data to drive instruction or the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in Boston that targets intervention to individual students to catch them up. They’re “doing school” in new ways.

But schools shouldn’t have to beat the odds. If we truly want every single school to prepare every single child in this country for the challenges of tomorrow, we need to change the odds for schools by creating strategic school systems. Restructuring the use of people, time and money makes this possible. 

Enter School System 20/20

Since 2004, Education Resource Strategies has worked hand-in-hand with the leaders of over 40 school systems and several states to transform how they use resources (people, time, and money) and move towards strategic school systems that enable every school to prepare every child for tomorrow. Since 2013, we have captured our vision for school systems in a concept we call School System 20/20

School System 20/20 was not just a concept. We also developed a diagnostic assessment that spans the seven areas of System 20/20, and a process to review that assessment with district leaders to help them identify changes to system conditions and resource use practices that will lead to improved student performance.

To date, we’ve partnered with 20 school districts to conduct our diagnostic assessment, and leaders have found the insights to be valuable in helping to gain consensus around the biggest challenges and prioritize opportunities to reallocate resources.

Insights Drawn from the School System 20/20 Analysis

For example, in one district partner, our analysis revealed that a very low percentage of open teacher positions were filled by June 1. As a result, the cabinet decided to significantly increase the number of positions eligible for “early hiring” in February, to get the best candidates as soon as possible in the hiring cycle. This small move could have a big impact on the quality of teachers across the system.

In another, we learned that school leaders were not consistently using the resource flexibility they were offered - for example to target additional time or individual attention to struggling students. As a result, leaders identified the need to support principals more around school design decisions.

And in a third, system leaders knew that having a lot of very small schools could increase costs. But the System 20/20 diagnostic highlighted how such a portfolio also makes it difficult for school leaders to provide a broad offering of academic and enrichment programs. This work proved valuable in rallying support for revisiting and reimagining the school portfolio in that community.

We also published three in-depth case studies of school systems that were making inspiring progress in these areas – Lawrence Public Schools (outside Boston, MA); Aldine Independent School District (outside Houston, TX), and Denver Public Schools.

The Evolution to The Strategic System

We are excited by how System 20/20 has helped education leaders identify their strengths and challenges and move into deeper conversations about resource use. But over time, we realized that we wanted to make the framework simpler and more broadly applicable. Moreover, we wanted to move our concepts around school design into the center, to reflect our belief that schools are the unit of change, and that school systems need to be designed to support their success. After much consideration, we decided to evolve the System 20/20 name and framework to The Strategic System, visualized below:

Though all parts of the framework are crucial to student success, at ERS we focus our work on five “resource-intensive” areas, visualized below:


The Strategic System still reflects the core ideas of School System 20/20, just in a slightly different package. We still believe that to achieve academic excellence, equity for all students, and efficiency of resources, we need strong, strategic school systems. We still work with school systems and school leaders to help them identify their goals, analyze their use of resources, make choices and tradeoffs, and reorganize their resources to better prepare students for tomorrow. And we still believe that school systems can use their resources more strategically, as we capture here:

We also updated the System 20/20 Diagnostic Assessment based on our experience using it with school system leaders, as well as to reflect new research in the field. We now call it The Strategic System Snapshot.

By changing the name from School System 20/20 to The Strategic System, we hope that all school systems – and policymakers, state leaders, and communities – can see themselves in the framework. We’re making sure to root our work in the experiences of the students and teachers that make learning happen. This is captured in a new overview presentation that we created to capture ERS’ belief about why we do our work, and how:


New Ways to “Get Started” on System Transformation

We also reorganized our website to make it easier to find the tools and publications that will help district leaders transform their systems. In the Get Started section, visitors can dive in to “Do-It-Yourself Tools and Research” and focus on District Design or School Design. Within each section, visitors can walk through the elements of the framework and access our most important worksheets, Excel tools, case studies, reports, and videos. For those that remember it, we have removed the “School Design in Action” section and incorporated all of those materials in our new School Design section.
And of course, visitors can still find content by topic and audience in the Tools and Publications section or by using the “search” option (The magnifying glass in the top right corner)

Into the Future

We are humbled and inspired by the hundreds of education leaders we have worked with over the past 13 years. School System 20/20 and The Strategic System framework are based on our experience working through real world challenges and seeing examples of progress. We hope that this vision helps inspire and guide education leaders to ensure every child is prepared for tomorrow.


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