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Sustainable School Improvement: What States Can Do to Help

While financial austerity is forcing school districts to make some immediate and difficult decisions, states can help districts make the right choices for the long haul. Investing in educational improvement at a time when dollars are scarce is no easy feat. Recent research by Bellwether Education Partners has found that despite the influx of stimulus funds, very few districts have been able to advance reform. Instead, dollars were used to plug holes in antiquated cost structures that offer little promise of improvement. States, however, are in a position to help change this pattern.  Key state actions were highlighted at a recent conference hosted by The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and attended by state educational leaders, philanthropic funders, and national experts, including ERS. Although the challenges are many, when states link their vision to resources, they can provide the knowledge, scale, incentives, limits, and legislative authority to support sustainable school improvement.

Remove Barriers

States can begin by adjusting conditions and policies that prevent districts from making the most of people, time, and technology.  High-performing schools and districts target resource decisions toward strategies that center on effective teaching for all students and prioritize time and individual attention around core academics.  For most school systems this requires collaborating with state leaders and teachers unions to work around sizable barriers including:

  • Funding systems that create unintended inequity and inflexibility
  • Compensation, benefit, and evaluation systems that are not linked to teacher contribution
  • Hiring and staffing policies that fail to place strong teams of teachers where they are most needed
  • Expensive class size limits that fail to produce the intended boosts in instructional quality
  • Scheduling and seat time requirements that do not prioritize core instruction or student need
  • Over-placement of students in rigid, specialized special education programs with little investment in early intervention and integration

Communicate Thoughtfully

States can also help with communications. The challenge of gaining public understanding and approval of these much needed resource shifts can be considerable, requiring education and thoughtful dialog with the public and key stake holders.  Frameworks Institute, a non-profit think tank that works to facilitate the public conversation about educational reform and other social issues, offers states and districts some key insights that were featured during the CCSSO conference.

As daunting as the immediate job at hand may be for state leaders, they are not alone as they work to make the most out of painful fiscal hardship. By working across states to find solutions to common problems and tapping into the work of such organizations as Bellwether Education Partners, ERS, the Fordham Institute, CCSSO, and Frameworks Institute, state leaders can untangle the outdated cost structures that impede progress and free precious resources for much needed innovation and improvement.

For more information on how to focus on maximizing resources during tough economic times see:

ERS series: Practical Tools for District Transformation.

ERS Ed Week Commentary: Doing More with Less: A State Checklist for Sustainable School Transformation.

Stretching the School Dollar: A Brief for State Policy Makers, by Michael Petrilli’s and Marguerite Roza, listing 15 critical areas for state intervention in district policy and finance. 

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