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A Comparative Study of Four Suburban Philadelphia Grades K-12 School Districts

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The CEO of LeadershipEnergies (LE) was asked by another company to lead a study team of educators in an examination of four school districts to determine if the home district performance results were appropriate for the level of money spent. The answer to this question was determined by comparing: home district achievement with all students state-wide, with similar school districts state-wide, with three similar regional school districts, and a measure of the performance quality in 35 functions and systems common to all four districts in the region.

Industry: Education K-12 School Districts

Project Type: A study comparing achievement results, resources, performance quality, and funding in four similar suburban districts.

This study presented an unusual challenge through its major study question and four subordinate questions. The board wanted to know if the district received performance and outcome value for the money spent. The study was shaped by four subordinate questions.

  1. How effective are the administrative and management functions, including relationships among the board, administration, faculty, parents, and taxpayers?
  2. Does the district effectively staff and organize administrative services, including transportation, food service, purchasing, facilities, and security?
  3. Does the district offer the highest quality education services, including curriculum and instruction, mandated and non-mandated programs and services, vocational education, special education, program evaluation, data management, student assessment, and others?
  4. How effective is the district’s performance in the areas of financial operations, including payroll, budgeting, accounting, computer services, human resource management, and labor relations?

The solution required four different types of study methodologies.

  1. A comprehensive internal review of the employing district was conducted. Every classroom in the district was visited utilizing a planned checklist. Every administrator and supervisor was interviewed. All interviews included the same basic questions before interviewers pursued participant interests. Focus group meetings were held with board members, administrators, heads of departments, teachers, students, and parents. Internal reports and files were examined. Frequent follow-up meetings were held with key personnel.
  2. An 84 item survey was prepared for non-certificated employees, students, teachers, administrators, board members, general community, and local Chamber of Commerce members. Twenty-two hundred surveys were mailed and 850 scantron answer sheets were returned. Each item required two responses on a five point scale, ratings of present performance on the area described and ratings of desired performance in the future. These responses provided data for discrepancy analyses. Results were reported for the district and each school.
  3. Several visits were made to three similar regional school districts. Interviews were held with all administrators, supervisors, and department heads. Selected classroom, office, and departments were visited by study team members. Those interviewed were given an opportunity to rate the performance of district and school functions and systems. Since the names of these three districts were not going to be revealed, the study team received very reliable data.
  4. The state department of education supplied student performance data in all districts and sub-divided the data by socio-economic groups so that comparisons with the employing district could be made. Financial and other data, such as cost per pupil; tax effort, student attendance, graduation rates, class sizes, and much more were available for all school districts. More detailed data was supplied by the DOE about the four regional districts. Data about administrator and faculty member ages, degree levels, experience in education, and others collected by the state were made available to the study team. (All the data used were published by the state.)

    The study team met frequently to review the data collected by members carrying out their study responsibilities and slowly the findings took shape. From the four methods of collecting data, there was substantial agreement about what strengths existed, what concerns needed to be addressed, and what efforts could be made to improve performance by optimizing available resources.

Although the study team found many performance strengths in the employing district and several performance areas recognized as best in-class in the performance comparisons with the other three districts, overall, the study team found that the district was not receiving full value for the money that was annually invested in the local school district. Specific recommendations were made to address weaknesses found in district and school performance for each of the four subordinate questions in the challenge section above.

The study team recommended that the district implement best practices in seven areas to improve student achievement.

  1. Board, Superintendent, and Administrator Leadership—to connect all improvement efforts
  2. Frequent Measurement, Analysis, and Reporting of Student Performance—to understand student learning progress and needs for lesson planning
  3. Human Resource Excellence—promoted through professional development and changes to labor negotiation processes
  4. Quality Assurance of Curricula, Student Personnel Services, and Business/Finance Services Programs—provide support for administrator and teacher decisions and for parent and student decisions
  5. Stakeholder Satisfaction—annually assess parent, student, and community satisfaction and report results to employees and students
  6. Strategic Planning to Improve Organization Effectiveness—to engage stakeholders in the planning and execution of plans to improve district and school performance
  7. Technology—expand the use of technology for instructional and administrative purposes

Customer Feedback
“We were not comfortable seeing ourselves as underperforming as was described in the study report. However, the accumulated evidence and the comprehensiveness of the recommendations helped us focus on the characteristics of leadership that board members wanted in their next superintendent and on the priorities which got us to performance levels we thought were appropriate for us.”
—Board Member, 1996-2005

“The study became larger and more complex after the agreement was signed with the board. I thank Dr. Esbrandt for agreeing to manage the project and leading us in a very detailed study that uncovered key practices that influenced administrator, faculty member, and student performance.”
—Matt Lionel, President, Educational Associates, Inc.

VitalInsightA Comparative Study of Four Suburban Philadelphia Grades K-12 School Districts

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