Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Transformation or Decline? Using Tough Times to Create Higher-Performing Schools: Seven Key Strategies Can Be the Difference between Hunkering Down While the Fiscal Storm Rages on and Facing a Bright New Day Stronger Than Before

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Transformation or Decline? Using Tough Times to Create Higher-Performing Schools: Seven Key Strategies Can Be the Difference between Hunkering Down While the Fiscal Storm Rages on and Facing a Bright New Day Stronger Than Before

Article excerpt

Instead of doing less with less during these fiscally challenging times, school districts can seize the moment to usher in school transformation that will leave schools, families, and communities better off. They could follow the lead of districts like Baltimore City, Syracuse, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg to think outside traditional cost structures and better align their use of people, time, and dollars with a vision for the future.

Unfortunately, even with the temporary influx of stimulus funds, few school systems have moved beyond the status quo to advance reform (Mead, Vaishnav, Porter, & Rotherham, 2010). Districts are scaling back on the most crucial investments such as prekindergarten, information systems, expert coaching, and collaborative time for teachers--the very priorities that enable schools to meet learning needs in the information age.

But there is a strong case to be made for the powerful transformation that results from linking important priorities to restructuring resources in ways that can reduce spending in the short term while moving toward a new long-term vision.

THE NEED TODAY

Over the past three decades, student performance has seen little improvement, yet spending on public schools, adjusted for inflation, has nearly doubled (Guthrie & Peng, 2010). Eighty percent of this spending increase has gone to pay for smaller elementary school class sizes, increased benefits, and rising special education costs without changing basic student experiences or school structures, such as isolated classrooms organized by subject and grade and with short, rigid time blocks. Districts have layered innovative programs on top of old, ineffective structures, and thus have not seen the system wide results they seek.

Annual teacher salary increases, escalating benefits for both active and retired employees, and underused school buildings and programs cost districts an estimated 3% to 5% more each year before inflation just to maintain current services. Thus, district leaders and those who support them face a critical choice. They can keep the current structure in which costs will continue to rise in ways unrelated to improving performance, forcing them to cut jobs and services when they should be investing in improvement. Or, they can take this opportunity to define their vision for the 21st century, tackle antiquated cost structures, and build more effective education systems.

7 RESTRUCTURING PRIORITIES

Education Resource Strategies (ERS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping urban school systems organize talent, time, technology, and money to create successful schools at scale. Through this work, we have created a framework that describes seven priorities for restructuring resources. These represent the largest opportunities to free unproductive resources and at the same time move toward higher-performing designs for schools and systems.

These priorities provide opportunities to shift and use resources more effectively, some more immediately than others. For instance, while a district might see immediate savings from strategically raising certain class sizes, restructuring compensation may require more time, political will, and investment in evaluation systems. Determining the right order in which to tackle the above priorities requires assessing current district practices objectively, quantifying the size of opportunities, and weighing the difficulty of making the changes (Education Resource Strategies, 2010). We focus here on four of the most promising opportunities to leverage limited resources for long-term transformation.

Strategy #1. Restructure one-size-fits-all teacher compensation and job structure to foster individual and team effectiveness and professional growth.

Though we know that teaching effectiveness is the most important school-related factor in improving student performance, teacher compensation, which represents 45% to 55% of most district budgets, is not structured to encourage or reward effective teachers and teams. …

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