An Unbiased Tool for Linking Budgetary Decisions to Achievement

BY SHAWN K. WIGHTMAN/School Administrator, October 2017

 Shawn Wightman
Three years ago, when I came on board as superintendent in Marysville, Mich., I followed a 90-day entry plan — like many incoming superintendents do at the start of their tenure — to collect qualitative and quantitative information. During a “listen and learn” tour, I spoke with stakeholders. I also delved into the district’s improvement plan and analyzed demographics, perceptions, student learning and more.

I soon realized no clear focus or vision existed for the district’s schools. Everyone’s work was headed in different directions. Concerned, I turned to Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit organization in Watertown, Mass., to find out more about a tool called Resource Check that a former superintendent had recommended.

ERS’ tool gave us an effective way to gauge our strengths and misalignments against best practices. Its purpose is to help the district organize its resources — people, time, technology and money — to ensure every student succeeds.

Resource Check has allowed us to focus on what matters most — improving student outcomes. Since adopting this tool, we have effectively connected budgetary decisions to strategic teaching and learning goals and used the tool to develop the district’s strategic plan.

Prioritizing Actions
At the outset, we introduced the tool to explore opportunities for restructuring our resources. First, a cross-section of employees, including central-office administrators, principals, teachers and support staff, took the Resource Check assessment.

Individuals responded to statements about seven transformational strategies: standards and instruction, teaching, school design, leadership, school support, funding and partners. These are areas ERS has identified through research as central to raising student performance. Each strategy area is broken down into several subcategories.

Author Shawn Wightman and an Educational Resource Strategies consultant talk about how the Resource Check tool can facilitate staff discussions and build consensus while writing a new strategic plan. The free 37-minute webinar is available here.

Inherently, Resource Check enabled everyone in my district to objectively understand what areas we were doing well in and what areas we had to improve. The results identified areas where resources did not support the transformation of our schools. Notably, we discovered our lowest strategy area was in teaching. This sparked constructive dialogue about providing core teachers with at least 90 minutes per week of collaborative planning time. It also led us to offer more professional development and growth opportunities driven by individual and team performance needs.

Data also identified perceived areas of strength, which led to positive discussions about existing practices. For instance, participants identified funding as a strength because students with similar needs receive the same level of resources, regardless of what school they attend. Moreover, our principals are empowered to make hiring, staffing and scheduling decisions for their schools and our budgets are reported transparently, in a format that is easy to understand and compare across schools.

Focused Synergy
The seven transformation strategies that ERS identifies carry over to our strategic planning document. We distill the highlights into a single page that identifies our district’s goals, vision, mission, guiding principles and objectives for the coming year.

Every year, we review, revise and disseminate the document to all staff. We post the plan in every working environment (schools, classrooms, offices, conference rooms, etc.). This brings a synergistic awareness of our joint focus as a system.

Often, new superintendents review data, talk to stakeholders and use this information to contrive their personal agendas. These can lead to disastrous results due to a lack of buy-in from staff. Even so, using an unbiased tool with key stakeholders, examining results and having sometimes difficult conversations about data quickly brings everyone together. This was extremely helpful to me.

The process also enabled everyone in the system to take ownership of informed decisions, exemplifying shared leadership.
SHAWN WIGHTMAN is superintendent of Marysville, Mich., Public Schools. E-mail: Twitter: @DRSKWIGHTMAN