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Two-Way Conversations

How first-year superintendents are using data to build political capital that enables system change

When Lewis D. Ferebee was named the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) in 2013, the district faced a $30 million deficit. As he spoke with local constituents, Ferebee tried to understand the district's financials in greater detail.

The result: Contrary to what the community believed, IPS actually ended the year with an $8.4 million surplus. Ferebee was able to negotiate a teacher contract that provided Indianapolis teachers with a much-needed raise and introduced new leadership opportunities for teachers.

Many first-year superintendents embark on "listening tours" at the start of their tenures to grasp the realities and needs of their constituents. But the politically savvy superintendent seeks not only to learn. She or he brings new facts about the district to each conversation, so that one-directional listening becomes a two-way dialogue.

ERS teammembers David Rosenberg and Karen Silverman interviewed a dozen current and new superintendents to learn what they wish they knew as leaders of a new school district. In the magazine School Administrator, David and Karen share five examples of how superintendents leveraged key data points to create fertile two-way conversations. 

Reprinted with permission from the October 2016 issue of School Administrator magazine, published by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

Or flip through the article as it appears in print.

Gathering the Data

Every new superintendent will face different challenges and opportunities, so the facts they gather will be different. But some potentially helpful data points include:

  • How does our per-pupil spending compare to other districts? What about when weighted for student need? How has this changed over time?
  • How are effective teachers and leaders distributed across different kinds of schools and students?  Is it equitable? How do we compare to leading districts?
  • How do schools organize the time and talent they have?  Do struggling students get enough instructional time to catch up?  Are the best teachers focused in the highest priority courses and with the neediest students?
  • Do we retain the most effective teachers and leaders, especially where we need them the most? How do our retention patterns compare to districts nationwide?  What are other districts doing to address these issues?

ERS has created a variety of tools to help districts dive into their data and fact base:

1) Resource Check 

This self-assessment allows superintendents and their leadership teams to rate their current use of resources across the district and compare to ERS' experience with "best practice" principles. Resource Check allows district leadership teams to identify areas of strength and opportunity for change. in this webinar, new superintendent Dr. Shawn Wightman of Marysville Public Schools in Michigan explains how his leadership team used Resource Check as a first step to writing their strategic plan.

2) School System 20/20 Diagnostic

Building on over 10 years of experience partnering with district leaders to make strategic resource decisions, we’ve recently developed an integrated, comprehensive assessment that looks at district conditions and resource use compared to peer districts and research-based best practices. The School System 20/20 Diagnostic can help new superintendents hit the ground running by quickly providing a comprehensive yet concise fact base about how people, time and money are allocated at the system and school level, as well as how district policies and structures encourage or hamper school success. The process involves stakeholder interviews as well as some data analysis.

3) Data Decision Briefs

Each of these short briefs highlights a key data point that districts may not normally track, yet can reveal crucial opportunities to better serve students. Each brief comes with a simple worksheet to help district leaders calculate their metrics right away.

If your district is concerned about...

You may want to calculate...

In this Data Decisions Brief

Supporting the critical 9th grade year

Cost per pupil in 9th grade vs 12th grade

Prioritizing 9th Grade Math

Providing struggling students with effective teachers

Percent of struggling students who are assigned an ineffective or novice teachers

Matching Teaching Talent to Student Need

Providing expert support for teacher professional learning

The ratio of instructional coaches to teachers, broken down by school level

Investing in Teachers in the Age of Common Core

Engaging and fully preparing 12th graders for college and career

Percent of 12th graders’ day in unassigned/ free time

How Much Free Time Do 12th Graders Really Have?

Supporting struggling students through extra instructional time

Percent of day that below proficient students spend in core subjects

Do All Students Get the Learning Time They Need?



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