5 ideas for generating better school district improvement plans

State education department should seize the opportunity to drive change

GATEWAY CITY EDUCATORS returned to school following the winter break pinching themselves. Just before the holidays, Gov. Baker signed the Student Opportunity Act (SOA), a landmark bill that promises to deliver $1.4 billion annually in new state aid. Districts now have until April 1 to file spending plans with the state detailing how they will use the funds they will receive in increasing installments over the next three years. If state education commissioner Jeff Riley provides strong guidance with respect to how districts deploy these resources and monitor success, these documents will go a long way toward ensuring that schools maximize the opportunity the SOA presents. Here are five ideas to help the commissioner hone his thoughts.

First, offer guidance on what portion of the new funds should go to general unmet needs versus new strategic initiatives. Gateway City leaders will be under pressure to use new dollars to backfill basic needs, such as reducing class sizes and rehiring custodial staff, librarians, and nurses that were let go during the lean years. They will likely also encounter calls to raise salaries. Spending in these areas is not inappropriate. However, the intention of the SOA is to close opportunity gaps by offering disadvantaged students more robust learning experiences than ever. From the outset, schools and districts must devote some portion of the new funds to transformative initiatives.

Second, offer guidance on reserving funds for school-level initiatives. The SOA’s fast-approaching April 1 deadline will make it difficult for both schools and districts to identify and align strategic priorities. The risk here is districts will produce plans that encumber all of the anticipated new revenues for the next three years. This would be unfortunate. These new funds are an opportunity for school communities to improve their planning processes and assume more autonomy for identifying and meeting their unique needs and aspirations.

Districts can empower principals and school councils to rise to the opportunity the SOA presents by reserving a portion of the new dollars for strategic initiatives established independently by each school over the coming year.

Third, clarify that schools and districts have the freedom to set their own goals and determine multiple measures to demonstrate their progress. The SOA presents an ideal moment to depart from past practice. Standardized test scores and graduation rates, the baseline performance measures dictated by state and federal law, have been the overwhelming focus of school improvement efforts for the past two decades. Many district leaders believe the state will continue to look for them to structure their plans around this narrow accountability framework. This is not the case. The SOA explicitly asks communities to provide students with a wider array of learning experience, which means coming up with new and different measures.

For example, districts that choose to direct new resources to early education cannot wait five or more years until students take the third grade MCAS to demonstrate success. They will need robust early learning indicators. Similarly, districts that want to increase post-secondary completion by investing in early college programs must utilize measures that can gauge success after high school.

In return for the flexibility to devise their own performance measures, the state should ask communities to identify independent auditors who can ensure that the data they employ are statistically valid and reliable. This may sound fanciful, but we must remember that these are relatively large urban districts making significant investments in a handful of high-priority strategic initiatives.

In addition to ensuring that all parties have confidence in the data they report, outside assistance will enable communities to make informed choices in selecting their measures and determining their goals. Equally important, this assistance can ensure that districts can demonstrate progress with multiple measures. For instance, a decline in the number of out-of-school suspensions cannot demonstrate the effectiveness of a restorative justice initiative on its own; schools must show simultaneous improvements in school climate as reported by students, parents, and teachers.

Fourth, offer guidance on how communities account for spending on strategic initiatives. By investing in programs with documented results, educators should be able to defend their program budget and back up their calculation with respect to the learning gains the program can produce when implemented with fidelity. Planning and goal setting in this manner would represent a marked departure from the past, when leaders regularly established goals simply based on whether or not their target appeared sufficiently ambitious.  

Finally, the commissioner should encourage districts to use the measures identified in their plans for principal and superintendent evaluations as appropriate. Prior guidance by the department leads districts to evaluate the performance of principals and superintendents using entirely subjective rubrics rather than actual improvement in student achievement. In order to position communities to hold their leaders more accountable for results, they must make measurable progress on strategic initiatives a central component of annual evaluations.

While this step is fraught with the risk that data will be used inappropriately, the new era introduced by the SOA is an opportunity to depart from the past. Strategic initiatives will be backed by evidence that they can deliver, implemented with sufficient resources, and evaluated using reliable metrics and assistance from an external audit team.

Education reform leaders who believed the SOA should include strong accountability provisions discounted the ability of plans to call attention to underperformance and prompt corrective action. This concern was not unwarranted. Last year, MassINC published a series of reports drawing attention to the history of poor compliance with school improvements plans required by the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act.

This pattern is certainly cause for concern, but research indicates strong strategic plans lead to positive outcomes for students. A prime example is the turnaround plans generated by low-performing schools designated by the state for intensive intervention. Evaluators have found that these documents laid the groundwork for sustained progress with well though-out strategic priorities, mutual understanding among all parities responsible for executing an aspect of the plan, and regular and transparent monitoring and reporting of results.

The SOA will send an unprecedented amount of new dollars to Gateway City districts. The guidance Commissioner Riley provides these communities in the coming days will provide us with an important early indication of how much benefit for students we can expect this new investment to yield.

Meet the Author

Ben Forman

Research Director, MassINC

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

About Ben Forman

Benjamin Forman is MassINC’s research director. He coordinates the development of the organization’s research agenda and oversees production of research reports. Ben has authored a number of MassINC publications and he speaks frequently to organizations and media across Massachusetts.

Ben Forman is the research director at MassINC, the nonpartisan public policy think tank that publishes CommonWealth.