Is Your Budget Designed to Accelerate Student Learning?

ERS has updated Budget Hold’em for Districts to focus on student impact and return on investment

Seven years ago, Education Resource Strategies tried an experiment. We were working with New York's Rochester City Schools, which faced low student performance, increasing student need, and a growing budget gap. The district was considering across-the-board cuts, but ERS team members Regis Shields and Betty Hsu Chang wanted to help leaders consider fundamentally new ways of organizing resources and make difficult trade-offs that might lower costs and improve student performance. They had an idea: why not present investment and savings options on a deck of cards, and allow teams to select a “hand” of cards that met district priorities and the budget target?

The exercise introduced teams to transformational new strategies, prompted discussion of budget trade-offs, brought together multiple perspectives, and to top it all off, it was fun. That sense of possibility reenergized the leadership team to go beyond the standard 10% cut to all departments and refocus the discussion on how the budget, as a whole, could best serve students.

In 2011, ERS posted this game as Budget Hold’em—an interactive online exercise accessible to anyone. We have also facilitated many in-person Hold’em exercises with a physical deck of cards. Hold’em has now been played well over 10,000 times online or in workshops. This includes district leadership teams, advocacy organizations, legislators—even representatives from Cleveland’s teachers union.

What's New Now?

Hold'em encourages districts to move from default ways of cutting budgets to really rich conversations about where to invest to drive dramatic improvements in student learning.

Now, we’ve updated Hold’em to indicate the potential student impact of each investment and savings option. Based on available research as well as ERS’ years of experience, we created a “neutral” to 4-star scale to show the likely relative impact of different strategies. As with all of Hold’em, these are only rough estimates of how an intervention will affect a particular district. But we hope that they spark conversation about “return on investment” that prompts districts to dig into their own data.

We’ve also improved the game in the following ways:

  • More engaging, intuitive game play
  • “Double-down”: Some cards trigger a suggestion to pair certain strategies for greater impact
  • Links to ERS resources on topics like teacher compensation, school design, leadership, and more
  • Clear next steps to play Hold’em in your district, including to get a deck to play in person

The online version is a great introduction to the game, but we have found that districts reap the most benefit from an in-person workshop; see below for more.

How Hold'em Helps Districts Spark New Thinking

We have heard many stories of how districts have used Hold’em. For example, a cross-departmental strategic planning team at San Francisco Unified engaged with Hold’em in 2016 before their yearly budget development process. Director of Special Projects, Courtney Graham, said that the budget team had been looking for a way to discuss the concept of trade-offs and return on investment. Hold’em provided an interactive way for team members to discuss their priorities and think about the budget as a whole, while also gauging the impact of decisions on student outcomes. It helped them begin to move away from the typical “across the board” cuts and toward digging in to their own data to find out what different strategies cost, which significantly increase student learning, and which works well together. “We definitely see value in the tool” Graham says, “It inspires some thinking that might not otherwise happen.”

Over the years we’ve collected many other stories of Hold’em’s impact:

Participants from the Leadership Florida Education Class III play Hold’em in September 2017 as part of their professional development:

Tips for an Impactful Hold'em Session

We have found that Budget Hold’em works best as a visioning exercise before your district begins the annual budget development process or a long-term strategic planning process. It can also be used to communicate budget trade-offs to school boards, parents, legislators, or unions. Here are some best practices:

  • Try Hold’em online to get the hang of it, and to share the game with relevant decision-makers. But the best discussions happen in-person, in a group. The Facilitator’s Guide explains how to play with an actual deck of cards. You can also form a group online.
  • Play with representatives from different departments, especially finance, academics, HR and school support
  • Plan for follow up. Hold’em raises several key questions to investigate further. Who will gather cost and impact data? Who will ensure that “trade-offs” are part of the real budget discussion?

We are always looking for feedback on Hold’em. Don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions. And let us know how Hold’em helps your organization!

Is Your Budget Designed to Accelerate Student Learning?