THE CURRENT STATE
During the annual budget process, one of the most important questions district leaders wrestle with is what new investments should be made to accomplish the district’s improvement priorities. With a few exceptions, the options generally originate from each individual department. First, department heads propose investments to address issues that are thought to be under their respective responsibilities. Then, the proposals are reviewed and decision are made by the superintendent and chief financial officer, with or without the involvement of the other senior leaders on the superintendent’s cabinet depending on the local context and nature of the proposals. As the result of those decisions, resources are allocated to the departments whose proposals are approved for implementation.
This model has two obvious strengths. One is that it shines a light on certain issues that of high interest to the district (e.g., instruction, behavior, equity, teacher retention, etc.). The other is that it is easy to allocate budget, manage implementation, and hold people accountable for the success of the investments.
At the same time, however, this model has some serious limitations that have hindered leaders from working together to solve some biggest entrenched problems. First, when departments propose to invest in new programs or positions, they tend to focus on their own designated area of responsibilities and pay little attention to problems that are perceived to belong to other departments. However, complex issues such as achievement gap, student behaviors, or chronic absenteeism often result from multiple problems (e.g., poverty, racial bias, curriculum, lack of minority teachers) interacting with and compounding each other, and require a holistic approach that tackles the problems comprehensively.
Second, proposals submitted by one department rarely receive input from other departments. As a result, proposals are often approved as is when they could benefit from multiple perspectives and constructive critiques from other leaders for improvement or enhancement. This can be particularly problematic when the implementation of a new investment requires support, coordination, or collaboration from other departments when those leaders are not provided with opportunity to provide feedback.
Third, once a new investment is approved, the responsibility of implementing it falls squarely on the department that submitted the proposal. That department usually feels no obligation to inform and update other departments during the implementation. At the same time, other departments generally do not pay much attention to the new initiative because it is not their program. As a result, all these improvement efforts are isolated and disconnected when they could and should support and strengthen each other. In a worse situation where conflicts arise due to competing demands for time and attention from schools and lack of coordination, each department will tend to protect their own initiative(s) at the price other departments’ programs.
In many districts, it is probably not surprising to find siloed and disjointed programs, poor communication and coordination between central office departments on those improvement efforts, and overlapping initiatives. All of this often leads to confusions and frustrations felt by schools that are demanded to implement these improvement efforts all at the same time.
AN IDEA FOR THE FUTURE STATE
With departmentalized focus and responsibilities, district leaders receive neither incentives nor pressures to work together to solve big complex problems that demand collaboration and coordination. This is not to say that collaborations between departments are non-exist. However, those collaborations tend to rely on personal relationships and are thus sporadic and limited instead of being systemic and comprehensive. Therefore, the challenge is to create incentives or pressures for leaders to collaborate under the current departmentalized organizational structure.
In this section, one idea is proposed to meet that challenge for building shared commitment and ownership. First, at the beginning of each budget season, district leaders identify problems to tackle and set measurable goals for each targeted problem, such as reducing both suspension and behavioral referrals by 5% in three years, lowering percentage of students not meeting standards by 3% in four years, increasing percentage of minority teachers by 5% in three years, etc.
Next, departments are asked to submit proposals to solve the targeted problems. While department heads can certainly focus on their own area of interest and responsibilities, they are encouraged to:
- Submit proposals that take a comprehensive approach to the identified problems and explicitly specify collaboration and coordination needed from other departments
- Submit proposals jointly
Then, district leaders vet the submitted proposals and provide feedback to those that are under consideration for approval. The feedback could cover areas that concern collaboration and support requested by the proposing departments or point out things that matter to them but are not addressed by the proposals. When it comes to decisions, one criterion should be whether the departments asked for support and coordination endorse the proposal.
For department heads, programs developed in this way cover areas of their concern or interest and contain their ideas about implementation, even when it is funded through another department. Compared to programs that focus on departmental interests and responsibilities only, such programs have built-in incentives for departments to collaborate and are more likely to receive care and support needed from other departments for successful implementation.
Because preference is given to proposals that are co-submitted by multiple departments with a well-thought-of plan of how they will work together to solve the targeted problems, departments will be pressured to collaborate so that their joint proposal has a higher chance of be funded.
In districts where there is a research department, any newly approved investment that needs implementation and progress monitoring should include the research department as an integral part of the shared commitment and ownership. With their skills in data collection, analysis, reporting, and interpretation, the research department staff can provide critical support for successful implementation of the new investment and its continuous improvement. In our experience, we have seen repeatedly educators doing their best to build solutions (mainly using Excel and/or Google Sheets) for monitoring and evaluation. Despite their best efforts, there are many problems and limitations in those solutions.
With the proposed change, district leaders are more likely to think together and work together to solve some biggest challenges the district faces, which require collective wisdom, commitment, and collaboration. As a result, the increased organizational coherence will provide greater clarity in guidance and expectations as well as stronger support to schools to help students succeed.