There is much to celebrate as representatives from 150 school districts and 40 states convene in Denver this week to acknowledge the issues among teachers, politicians, and administrators to improve our nation’s failing schools. But rallying around improvement does not necessarily smooth the way. As Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan warned at the first-of-its-kind educational summit, “Progress more often requires tough-minded collaboration, rather than tough-minded confrontation.” Tight financial times can make collaboration even more challenging, but also more important. How will these well-intentioned participants succeed in their mission to improve the nation’s schools?
As we have worked with districts as they confront difficult choices and trade-offs, we observe three underpinnings of strong and successful collaboration that start with strategic resource use:
1. Common understanding of where resources are
What’s the big picture of how resources are being allocated now? A district that can present a clear picture of its use of talent, time and technology across schools, students, and programs gives constituents a common language for decision-making, compromise, and reform. It’s not all that simple to rigorously wade through the data but it’s imperative. (See our series Practical Tools for District Transformation for help.)
2. Common trust in the numbers
Accurate data on resource-use dispel myths, highlight discrepancies, and point to areas where spending may be too high. Data also give the district the opportunity to quantify trade-offs when faced with a multi-million dollar budget gap. Trust that the numbers are accurate requires transparency in the process and methodology and integrity of the analyst.
3. Common commitment to making big picture resource decisionsImproving schools during tough times necessitates changing the way district budget decisions are made. If leaders approach balancing their budgets through line-item cuts, and one by one choices, they will only get less of the same. If, on the other hand, they look at the whole, consider investments with cuts, and create a collaborative process of making tough trade-offs, they should have more success at improving their schools.
It can be hard to step back in the middle of crisis and ask fundamental questions about how to best organize talent, time and technology in information era schools. But, the necessity creates the opportunity. Starting with clear goals, accurate data, and an approach that takes into account the whole rather than isolated changes will help sustainably transform our districts and improve all our nation’s schools.