A Stunning Court Ruling

Start over.

That was the blunt message a Connecticut Superior Court judge delivered in September, ruling that the state must overhaul the way it funds public education. Ruling in a 2005 case known as Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding vs. Rell, Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher said the state was “defaulting on its constitutional duty” to ensure all students receive an adequate education. The state, he said, was letting children in low-income districts fail while helping children in wealthy districts.

What started as a funding equity issue quickly morphed into a school reform issue.

An ‘Irrational’ System
Connecticut is not alone. Other states, most notably Kansas, have similar court cases pending. Ironically, this ruling came down in a state with a long tradition of high-quality education. Connecticut is known for its top-notch public schools – but like most states, pockets of struggling schools exist.

The judge’s decision is reverberating across the country. Governors, state legislators, judges and state boards are paying attention. Judge Moukawsher called the state’s education system “irrational.”

“Requiring at least a substantially rational plan for education is a problem in this state because many of our most important policies are so befuddled or misdirected as to be irrational,” the judge wrote. “They lack real and visible links to things known to meet children’s needs.”

His key points:
·       Teachers’ compensation should not be based on years of service and graduate credit.
·       The funding of new school buildings was driven not by need, but rather by how much clout individual legislators might have.
·       The teacher evaluation system and high school graduation standards were all but meaningless.

The judge told the General Assembly it first had to determine how much money schools actually need to educate children, and then allocate funds to meet that goal. It has to decide “what you are trying to do before you decide what you are going to spend,” Moukawsher wrote.

A Complete Overhaul
The judge’s order also states that officials must submit plans to update the state’s formula for distributing education aid to districts and schools, develop a statewide high school graduation standard, and assess eighth-graders to determine their readiness for high school.

The judge ordered the state to overhaul teacher evaluations, school funding policies, graduation requirements and special education services. In fact, he said some children may be too disabled to be educated. That’s troublesome to me personally. I’m a parent and grandparent of several disabled children. To think they are not worth educating is out of the question.

Under Attack
I believe this ruling can be viewed as part of a growing backlash against “the establishment.” Many in this country are frustrated with the establishment. They believe it doesn’t work, that it’s self-serving and self-protecting.

We need to start paying attention as educators. Like it or not, school administrators are “the establishment” in many communities.This ruling, combined with issues I’ve raised in previous blogs, suggest the time has come to get serious. We must fundamentally change how we organize and fund our schools, once and for all.

It’s time. We can’t wait any longer.

Budgets and Future-Focused Schools

I met with one of my top staff people a few weeks back. Dr. Linda Lucey is Executive Director of Program Design at the International Center for Leadership in Education. Among other things, she’s responsible for bringing to life our keynote event, the annual Model Schools Conference. Smart? Very!  She knows just about everything and everyone, and I wanted to get her thoughts on zero-based budgeting, a concept long-practiced in the private sector: How does it work in public education?

“What do you think?” I asked.
After a long pause, she replied. “What is zero-based budgeting?”

A Different Approach
Exactly. Zero-based budgeting is an alien concept to most educators.
Under zero-based budgeting, an organization assumes a base budget of zero dollars and must justify each program and dollar requested – rather than justifying only those new funds that exceed the prior year’s budget base.

Using this approach, an organization builds a budget based on future needs, not past results. It provides the budgeting strategy to develop a growth mindset.

Are there drawbacks? A few:
·       Because staff salary costs carry over from year to year, a zero-based model might be impractical.
·       Pulling together a district’s budget using this model is incredibly time consuming.
·       Finally, administrators using zero-based budgeting must realize that the validity and reliability of criteria used to budget will vary depending on the team who prepares it.

A Success Story
The 94,000-student Fulton County Schools district in Atlanta might be the model success story for zero-based budgeting in public education. Fulton County is known for its data-driven decision making. Administrators also are skilled in aligning actions with strategic plans. District leaders decided their budget process should match that approach.
So, in 2013, the district adopted a “modified zero-based” budgeting model. Fulton adopted a template used by the Government Finance Officers Association called “Budgeting for Outcomes.” It requires a budget be developed from the bottom up, starting with a base amount, while accounting for priorities based on need.
“We budget by thinking about long-term goals,” says  Chief Financial Officer Robert Morales of Atlanta Public Schools. “Budget planning should start with goals and objectives first and align with strategic plans,” says Fulton County Schools Budget Director Marvin Dereef. “Then we decide what resources we need to apply."

“With incremental budgeting, people forget why an item was there in the first place, or one-time events get rolled over. We need resources in exactly the right place instead of sitting around unused somewhere.”
The bottom line? In fiscal year 2014, the district saved $17 million, gave everyone a 3 percent raise, maintained healthy reserves, and avoided going to taxpayers for a millage increase. Not a bad start!
What’s important about this approach is that it forces educators to focus first and foremost on student outcomes. Students should always come first – but rarely do.

Zero-based budgeting insists on it.

Growth Mindset or Fixed Mindset?

How can we improve our schools?

We’ve studied that question for decades at the International Center for Leadership in Education, and we believe we’ve found the answer.

Great schools embrace a growth mindset philosophy—you may have heard me discuss this before. But today, most schools operate with a fixed mindset philosophy. Leaders in these schools base their decisions on what already exists. They weigh whether or not they can, or are willing to, change anything that is now in place.

The challenge here is that most people support change—in theory—until it impacts them personally. Then watch out! No need to change anything, thank you! What’s going to happen to me?
Nothing much changes in a fixed mindset school.

The World Beyond School
Schools that have a growth mindset, a concept developed by psychologist Carol Dweck, operate differently. First and foremost, they focus on getting their students ready for the world after school. They don’t obsess about the next test, the next grade or even the next level of education.

Instead, they try to envision what society and the workplace will look like in three to five years. Then they build their academic programs back from that point. They examine how technology, information systems and the global economy in general will change what employers expect graduates to know and do.

Create a Culture to Support Change
These successful schools take a systematic approach to change. First of all, they create a culture–at all levels–that supports change. They ask questions: What is your vision for students? What are your core values? What are your goals? How will you achieve them? What do you believe about student learning and achievement?

You’ve heard this from me again and again: Culture trumps strategy. Until you can articulate a vision, you’ll get nowhere. Until you create a positive culture for change, any strategy you employ ultimately will fail. That’s the roadmap successful schools use. It’s not easy. It takes time. But it will pay off for students in the long run. And that’s what it’s all about.