The SGS Levers


4 // Focus central office on creating the conditions & culture for innovation and support


+ Lever 4 involves exploring ways to adjust your central office to create the conditions and culture to encourage innovation. A central office in a System of Great Schools is focused on pushing resources to schools and supporting school-based efforts to serve their students.

Each Sublever represents a significant and impactful policy change. Sublever 4.1, for example, contemplates multiple policies, each of which is a significant undertaking. To get started, think about what potential autonomies or flexibilities may already exist in your district:

Can principal’s set their own schedules? What about budget? What are the implications of giving principals more autonomy in these areas?

Not all schools need to be granted autonomy right away. How might you structure a pilot? What autonomies would grant first? Who would you grant them to and why? What would you hope to learn?

Many of these policies, even more than the other levers, will represent a big shift for your district. Start small, communicate, and focus on what you already have in place that can be improved or adapted.

In SGS districts, the school is the “unit of change.” Your leaders and teachers are closest to the students and your most valuable resource. Lever 4 policies unleash the potential of each school, ensuring that leaders and teachers see the central office as a supporter and enabler of success, not an impediment.

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4.1 Establish and Define School Autonomy Provisions 


+ School autonomy acknowledges school leaders as the primary driver of school quality based on the assumption that an empowered leader is the best positioned agent to make decisions about how to serve their students.

Proponents of the SGS strategy identify schools as the “unit of change.” This means that schools should be where most of the decision-making power is located because, on a daily basis, the actions taken by school staff affect students the most. The SGS strategy holds that as much authority as possible should be “pushed down” to the school level so that individual school leaders can develop, adapt, and react to the specific needs of their school community.

School autonomy can be enacted through a specific set of policies designed to give the school leader the authority to make key decisions for their school.

Districts implementing school autonomy provisions generally adopt some or all of the below four basic policies to push authority to school leaders. The specific types of autonomies granted, and who they are granted to, will naturally differ from district to district. Consider the below a high-level set of potential freedoms that you can consider offering to school leaders.

People: Principals have full and final decision making power regarding hiring and firing of staff. Ineffective teachers are no longer force placed into schools and may be dismissed through a process based on effectiveness, not seniority.

Time: Principals are given authority to redesign school schedules to include additional learning time for students and to allow for greater collaboration and professional development for teachers.

Money: Schools control their own budgets for salary, operations, curriculum, assessment, and professional development.

Program: Schools control what curriculum they use and have funds dedicated in the budget to pay for curriculum and program offerings.

Districts implement autonomy provisions in a number of ways, but it is important to keep in mind that school autonomy does not mean “absolute freedom” or “no accountability.” The central office must always hold school leaders accountable for results.

+ Accountability and autonomy go hand-in-hand in SGS districts. These districts have implemented this exchange of autonomy and accountability in a variety of ways.

Earned Autonomy: The district identifies criteria for gaining autonomy in critical areas and requires school leaders to meet these criteria before granting authority. For example, a school leader may be required to achieve a high-rating on her evaluation in the area of finance before being granted increased control over her budget.

Full Autonomy with Expectations: A district may also choose to grant full autonomy to all school leaders, with the expectation that certain performance benchmarks must be met to retain authority. A leader may be granted initial autonomy in hiring, but if he starts the school year with a number of vacancies that exceeds a pre-determined benchmark, that autonomy will be revoked. This option should be approached with caution given the potential for variant outcomes, some principals may perform well with increased autonomy while others may struggle.

Specific Programmatic Autonomies: A district may adopt a request for proposals process, asking school leaders to request specific autonomies and outline a plan justifying why these autonomies are needed to achieve a specific set of outcomes.

School autonomy can take many forms, but in every case, it is imperative that the central office has a plan for holding leaders accountable to ensure that all students are receiving the services they need. Many districts outline accountability through “performance contracts” with individual schools. These contracts outline the autonomies given and the expected outcomes, and provide specific criteria for how and when the district will intervene if outcomes are not met. See the Resource Exchange for some examples of performance contracts.

4.2 Design and Implement Student-Based Budgeting Processes and Supports


+ Student-based budgeting is a critical component of the package of policies that create more autonomy for school leaders.

Student-based budgeting allocates funding to schools based on the number of enrolled students with each student receiving a need-based “weight”. The amount of funding is determined by the weighted student formula, and discretion to use the funding is generally given to the school leader.

Student-based budgeting can greatly increase the transparency, equity, and flexibility of district funding.

+ Effective student-based budgeting requires the right conditions for success including sufficient resources, strong leadership, and an improvement strategy that leverages the flexibility accorded by student-based budgeting to achieve a broader vision.

Student-based budgeting is not necessarily right for every district. Education Resource Services (ERS) outlines the key factors to consider when deciding to pursue student-based budgeting. Below is a quick summary, but please also refer to the study from ERS for a more detailed exploration of student-based budgeting. You can also check out ERS’ website for other useful resources and tools.

Resource Availability and Flexibility: Your district needs enough potentially flexible resources to make school-level budget flexibility a transformational lever (i.e. if resources are constrained by state requirements or collective bargaining agreements such that student-based budgeting will only give principals a marginal increase in control, the effort to implement student-based budgeting may not be worth the payoff).

Capacity at All Levels: At least some principals must be motivated and capable of making use of financial autonomy to make smart, strategic decisions. Central office staff must be able to challenge the status quo and creatively rethink how they will support schools. The district leadership team must have the vision and commitment to face the inevitable challenges that will arise from managing change.

Data Infrastructure: Student-based budgeting requires timely, accurate, and integrated data across finance, human resources, enrollment, and operations. The accuracy and integrity of your district’s data are paramount to a successful rollout of student-based budgeting and ongoing administration to capture the benefits of increased transparency and equity that student-based budgeting can offer.

+ If student-based budgeting might be a fit for your district, the next step is identifying a project team to manage the work.

This section summarizes a rich discussion of team and rollout developed by ERS - please refer to these materials for more detail. Student-based budgeting is a significant project that requires policy changes and the implementation across multiple functional areas.

Successful implementation will likely require a dedicated project manager with sufficient content knowledge, seniority, and cross-functional relationships to build credibility and oversee this work.

A finance liaison is another important role, given that the majority of the student-based budgeting work will be undertaken by the district’s finance team. This individual needs to have deep knowledge of the district’s budget, an understanding of the vision behind student-based budgeting, and strong analytic skills.

As with other SGS work, student-based budgeting implicates multiple divisions. Districts should consider starting a cross-functional team to inform development and implementation.

For more information, refer to the Sub-lever 4.2 materials in the Resource Exchange and be sure to check out ERS’s comprehensive treatment of student-based budgeting on their website.


4.3 Organize the central office to serve a diverse set of schools


+ Executing on Sublevers 4.1 and 4.2 will result in schools doing some of the work that the central office has done in the past. This does not necessarily mean that central office is doing less. Instead, it means that the central office must do some things differently.

Think about a “new normal” for your district in which empowered school leaders are setting their budgets and schedules, conducting hiring, and picking their own programs. These are all things that the central office does in a traditional district.

The question is: what does the district do in this new normal?

+ The central office has resources, dedicated staff, and strategic “bird’s eye view” of the district. These are assets that can be deployed to support autonomous schools in an SGS district.

In a district of autonomous schools, the central office possesses unique assets that it can deploy to support schools.

The district has financial resources separate and apart from school budgets that can be used to support autonomous schools. Public and private dollars can be granted to schools pursuing innovative or successful programs. The district can also use these resources to bring in service providers to provide specific technical assistance.

The district has specific expertise on multiple fronts that can be deployed to support schools. Some examples of financial expertise such as how to deploy Federal Title resources efficiently or curriculum development specialists. It likely will not make sense for schools to carry staff with such specific expertise and, therefore, the district can make sure it has staff that can fill these gaps.

The central office also has time. Principals and teachers are rightly focused on the day to day activities of running a school. District staff can supplement school teams with extra capacity to work on longer-term projects.

Lastly, the district has a strategic perspective that individual schools don’t have. This means the district can take a long view on the overall needs of the school system and hire or contract accordingly to meet them. The district can also facilitate knowledge-sharing among schools.

+ Deploying these assets has implications for how your central office is organized. Consider how to structure the central office to provide high-quality, integrated support to schools while holding them accountable to results.

Many districts have implemented a network structure. Schools can opt-in to different networks based on the services they need. The central office is then organized to serve these networks with support teams representing different critical functions assigned to each network.

The benefit of these structures is that they provide a full set of integrated services and supports for schools. Instead of assigning a single point of contact for all schools in Academics, an academic staff member serves on a network support team with other functional area staff. These teams can then work together to coordinate support for the schools.

Lastly, it is likely that you will pursue a phased rollout of autonomy provisions. Consider dedicating a team to continuously evaluate the success of current autonomy provisions (and other devolution efforts) and work on a gradual devolution of other centrally held authority after you have built a foundation to support autonomous schools.