From ERS Executive Director Karen Hawley Miles
District wide data on resource use can be a powerful catalyst for school improvement efforts at the local level. A district that can present a clear picture of its use of people, time and dollars across schools, students, and programs gives constituents a common language for decision-making, compromise, and reform. Accurate data on resource use dispel myths, highlight discrepancies, and point to areas where spending may be too high, revealing tough choices required to improve. Data also give the district the opportunity to quantify trade-offs when faced with a multi-million dollar budget gap. Although gathering and sharing data can be challenging, there are some steps districts can take to jumpstart the process and initiate difficult yet critical discussions. (See Practical Tools for District Transformation, available for download at no cost).
Recent efforts in Syracuse illustrate the power of data to inspire collaboration among diverse sectors of the community even in tough economic times. Like most urban districts nationwide, Syracuse is facing a deep and painful budget crisis and will be forced to cut nearly 15% of its budget. That could be as many as 1000 jobs in less than two years. This past November, despite these very hard times, School Superintendent Daniel Lowengard brought together a multi-sector coalition of school community stakeholders including, school and city leaders, representatives from the county, union, University, a local foundation Say Yes to Education, Education Resource Strategies (ERS), and several other national consultants. The meeting started with the in-depth resource analysis that Syracuse leaders had completed with ERS’s help the previous year. The data enabled an objective, action-oriented discussion in which all participants were committed to one goal—helping students realize their dreams even in tough economic times.
This kind of collaborative conversation is not new to Syracuse—though the painful nature of budget cuts is. Say Yes to Education provided seed money to Syracuse a couple years ago around the promise that every child would receive college tuition if they completed high school. The entire city has organized resources around a vision of supporting students to reach the goal of college readiness through frequent review of student progress and needs, providing after school and summer programming, support for social and emotional wellness needs and college access. That initial investment has been far reaching for many Syracuse students but the investment has also built a foundation for district leaders to look carefully at what they’re doing, strategically aligning resources towards improving instruction and support, and making tough choices with shrinking budgets.
Starting with data is not about budget-cutting. It is about using analysis to help everyone see clearly how districts are allocating resources, decide where they want to go, and then realign resources to get there. The economic crisis should not hinder this collaborative improvement process. In fact, it could play a role in accelerating it.
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