Dec 15, 2014

As costs continue to soar ahead of school funding, it becomes more and more imperative for superintendents and other district officers to get strong outcomes for the dollars spent on education.

Effective district leadership has become synonymous with streamlining (and possibly re-engineering) systems to increase efficiency. Having the tools and knowledge to drive this continuous improvement in operational efficiency is becoming essential for leaders, and a plethora of new research is providing educators with solutions for understanding and implementing these practices. (Levenson, Nathan, and Ulrich Boser, 2014)

The role technology can have in enabling district leaders to go beyond benchmarking, remove blind spots, and relate operational data across the enterprise in entirely new ways is limitless. But what data-focused technology solutions do school districts have access to, and is this technology being used to its full potential to increase efficiency? (Levenson et al, 2014)

While technology has changed major aspects of our lives and productivity, like traveling, banking, and counting our steps and calories in order to improve our health, surprisingly few technological advances have been made in the field of K-12 education. Although laptops, iPads, and smart boards are popping up in more and more classrooms, compared to the technological changes made to nearly every other industry, education is still behind. (Levenson et al, 2014)

According to The Promise of Education Information Systems: How Technology Can Improve School Management and Success, this trend may be changing. The report explores how school districts are exploring and utilizing new technologies to improve teaching practices and student achievement. Areas like personalized learning, professional development, and online courses are all being notably impacted by this embrace of technology. (Levenson et al, 2014)

However, the study goes on to say, while teaching and learning continue to evolve in the face of new technologies, what is getting left behind is schools and districts using technology to find effective solutions to reduce costs. The solution goes beyond simply access to relevant technologies; schools and districts often times must redesign their systems and processes to fit with the new technologies in order to gain the benefits from data that other industries prosper from. (Levenson et al, 2014)

“It is a given that technology offers the opportunity to change how teachers teach. Yet technology can do so much more—in fact, it can dramatically change the way in which schools are managed. What is needed is a Moneyball approach to education management. That book by Michael Lewis, and subsequent Academy Award-nominated movie, focused on how the Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics used advanced data analysis to make player personnel decisions and build a winning team. A similar management approach in education—one that empowers school leaders to deploy technology in ways that dramatically improves management decisions and in turn productivity—can result in more learning for each dollar spent.” (Levenson and Boser. "The Promise of Education Information Systems: How Technology Can Improve School Management and Success." 2014)

Levenson and Boser go on to use real examples to showcase how embracing technology and data has increased productivity and decreased spending in districts they have studied:

“Off-the-shelf regression software costing just a few thousand dollars helped another district learn that its math intervention efforts were very effective for one type of student, but not for others….other districts have improved staff productivity by using an online tool that collects and analyzes how special education teachers use their time, leading to new schedules that increased instructional hours, reduced time devoted to meetings, and prioritized service delivery models aligned with best practices.” (Levenson and Boser. "The Promise of Education Information Systems: How Technology Can Improve School Management and Success." 2014)

With declining funds for education, it is more important than ever school districts have access to improved technology, and that they find innovative ways to use this technology to increase productivity, ultimately fostering student learning.

Another report by the Center for American Progress, The New Education CFO: from Scorekeeper to Strategic Leader, focuses on the important and growing role of a district’s CFO as a key player to move school districts to strategically using data to make decisions and increase productivity. There is increased attention placed on the district CFO to not only manage expenses against a budget but, more importantly, to ensure each dollar optimizes targeted student outcomes like achievement, graduation, and student engagement. (Hovey and Boser. “The New Education CFO: from Scorekeeper to Strategic Leader.” 2014)

“Strategic CFOs provide chief executive officers and their leadership teams with actionable data and make explicit the choices and tradeoffs required in tight budgetary times…Strategic CFOs understand the “why” behind financial decisions, can effectively communicate that to the public, and focus on building sustainability. Put simply, today’s CFOs look not just backward but forward as well.”  (Hovey and Boser. “The New Education CFO: from Scorekeeper to Strategic Leader.” 2014)

According to the report’s findings, two major changes need to be made by school districts in order to create the strategic CFO that is needed to guide efficiency. First, school CFOs should be made essential parts of the district management culture. Second, CFOs need to have the time, staffing, and technology to do more in-depth data analyses in order to strategize resource use. (Hovey and Boser, 2014)

The study does not suggest that schools should be run like businesses; it is important to keep in mind a school’s culture, community, and goals when strategizing ways to increase operational productivity. Rather, it emphasize that a strategic approach that considers the long-term impact and utilizes data to drive decisions is imperative for an education system’s ongoing success. (Hovey and Boser, 2014)

Read the full report here. (

In 2011, the Center for American Progress initiated a project to evaluate the productivity of major school districts across the United States. They found that low productivity is a deeply pressing problem in the majority of districts, with billions of dollars being lost.  (Boser. "Return on Educational Investment: 2014.” 2014)

The report also found that spending priorities were misplaced, budget practices were inconsistent and unclear, and large funding gaps existed across school districts. (Boser, 2014)

Because of these findings and additional extensive research, the report is able to recommend several solutions, including building the capacity for productivity gains by using performance metrics. “When done well, performance metrics can provide local leaders with better information on their district’s productivity levels and also guide best practices.” (Boser. "Return on Educational Investment: 2014.” 2014)

Dr. Leroy D. Nunery, the founder of PlusUltre LLC and former Acting Superintendent of Philadelphia Public Schools summarizes the need for driving efficiency by saying, "As a consultant in the K-12 space, it is clear to me that there is a rising call for efficiency, efficacy, and economic value. Superintendents have to understand and appreciate the power of data, not only from the classroom but also throughout their entire districts. Central administrators must become smarter and more facile with information, and lead their districts to become ‘high performing public educational enterprises,’ able to plan ahead, and allocate resources to effectively meet challenging academic demands."

How does your district respond to demands for increased productivity? What, if any, technology solutions are you using to drive data-based decisions? Please share any questions, thoughts, and suggestions that you have on this topic.

By Mary Conroy Almada


1) Levenson, Nathan, and Ulrich Boser. "The Promise of Education Information Systems: How Technology Can Improve School Management and Success." Center for American Progress (2014): n. pag. Web.

2) Hovey, Don, and Ulrich Boser. "The New Education CFO."Http:// Center for American Progress, 26 June 2014. Web. 21 July 2014

3) Boser, Ulrich. "Return on Educational Investment: 2014." Center for American Progress (2014): n. pag. Web.

Topics: Research District/School Leadership