The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

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 The Three Essentials: Improving Schools Requires District Vision, District and State Support, and Principal Leadership

Strategies of Highly Supportive Districts

  • Give schools greater autonomy and flexibility with the use of time, organizational structures, teacher assignments and alternative systems for delivering instruction in exchange for holding principals and faculty accountable for results.
  • Involve principals in budget discussions by allowing them to present well-conceived plans, aligned with district and school improvement plans, for using district resources to improve schools.
  • Strategically direct resources to address the district’s most pressing needs, most challenged schools and most at-risk students, rather than treating all schools the same, and use resources to support comprehensive middle grades and high school reform that can change impersonal, negative school climates to caring climates in which teachers, administrators and students believe academic success is possible and necessary for all students.
  • Treat time as a critical resource — and perhaps the most critical resource — for districts, schools, principals, teachers and students.
  • Encourage an entrepreneurial spirit among principals in seeking outside funds to support school improvement aligned with the strategic plan.

Find Ways to Allocate Discretionary Resources

Many districts have limited resources available for discretionary use in supporting improved learning, and as a consequence, schools and principals have limited resources to help them raise student achievement. After accounting for salaries, facilities maintenance, technology needs and transportation, resources that are left for schools and principals to use in addressing critical problems unique to the school, including achievement, promotion rates, graduation rates and school climate, are severely limited. The chief financial officer for one district estimated that schools in his district have discretionary control over only $19 to $20 per student. Some schools receive revenues from parking passes, athletics ticket sales, vending machines or other limited sources. In most cases, however, schools lack the resources needed for significant changes. Across the nation, according to one recent study led by management expert William Ouchi, principals control about 6 percent of their school’s budget. The study found that systems that have decentralized, such as Chicago and New York City, have provided principals with discretion over 14 percent to 85 percent of their school’s budget, and that schools under decentralized management were more likely to make decisions that would reduce the number of students each teacher works with.30

Archer County has found innovative ways to allocate significant resources for schools to use for their greatest needs. The district has a system in which schools are assigned points based on the number of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches, student mobility and other factors indicative of a high-need school. For example, if 70 percent of a school’s students qualified for free and reduced-price lunches, the school would receive two points for additional staff positions. One point earns a school one full-time-equivalent teaching position. The principals have flexibility to use points to hire additional staff of their choice or to modify teacher contracts to provide time for program planning, professional development, mentoring and data analysis, as long as their decisions are consistent with their school improvement plans.

Principals also have flexibility to decrease class sizes. Archer County’s average class size is about 20 students, and the state cap for class size is 32. Principals can schedule some classes for the maximum size of 32 students, while decreasing class sizes for ninth-graders or at-risk students. The district even has found a way to grant each of its high school teachers a second preparation period for common planning, observing other classrooms, and implementing instructional strategies that have been shown to improve student achievement.

Archer County also has a safety-net program that allows schools to apply for money to address the needs of at-risk students. This budget item was created specifically to meet the needs of at-risk students and to provide schools with programs to help them meet AYP. The source of the safety-net funds is the Extended Day money for tutoring and student support services received from the state, plus about $250,000 added by the school board. One respondent said the principals and their schools compete in an open budget process for those safety-net dollars. This process requires principals to consider carefully how they will use the funds and allows the district to allocate its resources for the greatest leverage. From the beginning of his tenure, the superintendent has told his principals that he will hold them accountable for good results, but he also gives them the resources they need to be successful. The system is committed to increasing resources, autonomy and expectations. An assistant superintendent in the county said that, with the safety-net program, “the message that is sent out is that we’re expecting you to make progress on this and tell us what you need to make progress.” The assistant superintendent added that this was the third system he had worked in, and he had “never seen a system or been in a system where the board and the superintendent are as willing to change and direct resources at the request of a principal.”

Archer County is not particularly affluent. Its economically disadvantaged population approaches 50 percent, yet the district learned to better manage and allocate its resources to support schools. The points and safety-net programs provide principals with flexibility while also offering additional resources to schools with the greatest needs. The safety-net program costs an additional $250,000, and the points program about $3 million in the $131 million annual budget. Despite the relatively modest funding, the superintendent and district leaders see these programs as critical in empowering principals and giving them the tools to meet their school improvement goals.

Some of the districts also tap large grants from the government and other organizations. For example, one of the districts in this study has received grants to organize its high schools into small learning communities. In this instance the grant was not successful because the district did not have a vision for organizing large high schools into effective small learning communities. The district lacked the necessary policies, the will and the expertise to support the schools in using these funds effectively. Thus, an opportunity was lost in creating more personalized and relevant high schools where teams of teachers and a school leader could take the ownership for more effectively addressing the needs of a smaller group of students within the high school. Lack of resources is not always the issue holding schools back; in many cases, it is the absence of leadership, expertise and the will to use resources effectively.

Benson County, a moderately supportive district of medium size, was the only one of the seven districts that appeared to be aggressively and strategically taking advantage of grant funding to support school improvement initiatives. The district reported it had a full-time grant writer and had garnered the support of prominent philanthropists in the region who provided grants to create an accelerated math academy.

Give Principals a Voice in Budget Decisions

Several highly and moderately supportive districts have implemented other practices to give principals a voice in setting district budgets, allocating additional resources to higher-need schools, and effectively using the time of principals, teachers and students.

Officials in three of the four highly and moderately supportive districts indicated that principals had a significant role in setting district budgets, whereas only one of the three minimally supportive districts indicated that principals had a voice in budget discussions. Two districts in different states described their approaches to involving principals in budget discussions similarly. An assistant superintendent described the process in his county as follows:

    “Every year in January or February, we have budget hearings. ... Every principal is given the opportunity to come present. [They are asked] ‘Do you need additional teachers? Why do you need them? Do you need additional programs? Why do you need them? What would be the outcome?’ … So they get to present all of that to the committee ... to prepare our budget. Unfortunately, we’re in a county that doesn’t get a lot of extra funding. I’ll give you an example: This year, we received $1.9 million in new money. Of that, about $1.1 million is mandatory items such as salary increases, benefit increases, utility increases. And whatever is left over, of course, then goes to [fund] whatever these new programs were. ... I think we had something like $7 million worth of requests. So, lots of good ideas out there, but very little money.”

A superintendent who followed a similar process found that the district needed about $2.2 million for the first round of requests for improvement initiatives. He sat down with his principals to define the greatest needs. Consensus was not reached in all cases, but even those principals whose requests were not approved had an opportunity to present their case and received an explanation for why their requests were denied.

A truly collaborative budget planning process improves district efficiency and culture by:

  • enabling each principal to articulate his or her school’s unique needs in the context of the district strategic plan.
  • allowing for new and creative ideas to emerge from educators who are most familiar with the problems.
  • providing a way for principals and district leaders to have ongoing dialogue on the district’s vision and plan in the context of specific school problems.
  • creating an environment of mutual understanding, respect and ownership.

A radical and promising model of giving schools control over their own budgets currently is being implemented in New York City’s Empowerment Schools Organization. The Empowerment Schools are given a budget for specific district support services and can use those funds either to purchase services from the district, or to go outside the district and purchase them. This practice gives principals the opportunity to develop a thoughtful plan about what their school needs in order to better achieve district goals, and requires district staff to understand the schools’ needs.31

Direct Resources to Schools and Grade Levels With the Highest Needs

Three of the four highly and moderately supportive districts reported that they allocated greater resources, both in funding and in staff, to struggling schools. The superintendent of Benson County explained:

    “Schools that are considered more at risk receive extra teaching positions so they can have smaller class sizes. They are also given some extra funding, particularly for remediation and for materials and resources they might need. ... They have total flexibility. The only thing they cannot do is use [the extra funding] for administrative positions. It must be used for working with students. It could be remediation, it could be the lower class size, anything like that.”

Several respondents explained that equal allocation was not always equitable and that resources should be allocated to meet the different challenges faced by each school’s students.32 Between 2003 and 2008, Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland cut achievement gaps in elementary math and reading in half, while doubling the number of black students passing AP exams. One of the keys to Montgomery County’s success in closing gaps was increasing resources to its “Red Zone” schools (averaging 80 percent minority enrollment, 30 percent English-language learners and 51 percent low-income students) while holding resources steady at its “Green Zone” schools (averaging 43 percent minority enrollment, 10 percent English-language learners and 12 percent low-income students).33

Many of the districts in this study have high ninth-grade failure rates, yet they maintain a higher student-teacher ratio in grade nine than in other grade levels and they continue to assign the least experienced teachers to ninth-grade classes. Through the establishment of measurable district goals to reduce ninth-grade failure rates — while raising student performance and achievement — districts can provide principals with the political cover and support they need to redirect their teaching resources to better serve ninth-grade students by placing more effective teachers into the ninth grade with smaller classes.34 Districts also can provide resources that allow principals to extend the school day or the school week for students who are struggling to meet standards, especially as they prepare to transition from the middle grades to high school or from high school to college and careers.

Recognize Time as a Critical Resource

One of the biggest differences between highly supportive and moderately or minimally supportive districts was the frequency with which respondents volunteered comments recognizing time as a valuable resource. Principals frequently stress the importance of using all instructional time and teaching “from bell to bell.” Highly supportive districts seemed to be more aware of this need and, consequently, attached greater value to time and to ensuring that educators’ time is spent on high-quality instructional activities.

While half of the respondents from the two highly supportive districts made statements indicating their districts tried to protect principals’ and teachers’ time to focus on improving school and classroom practices, only three of 25 respondents in the moderately and minimally supportive districts volunteered such comments. (See Table 9.) A few respondents in the minimally supportive districts alleged that they saw a pattern of principals being called away from their schools for central office meetings without clear purposes, or that central office meetings with principals routinely started late or ran past scheduled ending times. Such practices disrespect principals’ time and create a culture in which principals can similarly disrespect their teachers’ time.

Table 9
Comments Indicating District Leaders View Time as a Critical Resource

District Level
of Support

Percentage of
Respondents Viewing
Time as a Critical

Total Number
of Comments

Comments per













Optimize Resources With Flexibility, Autonomy and Accountability

Highly supportive districts involve principals in developing budgets and give them flexibility in deciding how they use resources — including funds, personnel and time — while also holding them accountable for maintaining a focus on student learning. However, accountability works both ways. A district cannot hold school principals accountable when it does not have a high-quality staff to support the schools or when the role of district staff is so poorly and narrowly defined that it is not held accountable for providing the support services schools need. Where districts lack the expertise to assist schools, they need to establish procedures through which schools can obtain support from outside the district. In pushing more decision-making to the school level, the district office must align the expertise and assignments of the district staff with the needs of the schools and hold the district staff accountable for enabling schools to develop and successfully implement plans for improving student learning.


“Dollar bills do not educate children. Teachers with particular instructional approaches, principals capable of instructional leadership, schools with supportive climates, and many other resources do.”

—W. Norton Grubb, “Correcting the Money Myth: Rethinking School Resources” 35

In a Time of Scarcity, Make the Most of Resources

The current economic downturn and sharply decreased tax revenues at state and local levels necessitate maximizing the use of schools’ limited resources. While money can make a difference in improving outcomes in education — higher teacher salaries improve the quality of candidates, higher teacher-student ratios allow for more personalized schools, guidance and advisement systems support every student — money alone will not improve schools or reduce achievement gaps. Changes in district and school culture can occur independent of, and are more important than, spending. Setting high expectations for all schools, teachers and students is far more important, as is placing a focus on doing what works and eliminating what doesn’t. Waste continues in some school systems, and the strategic redirection of resources is a more likely and sensible approach than the infusion of new resources. Districts can take three steps to redirect resources toward school improvement:36

  1. Look for wasted time and resources. Teachers’ time often is the most wasted commodity in a district. Another frequent source of waste is half-implemented initiatives or programs that are either started by a superintendent or principal and not finished after a leadership change or conceived as stand-alone solutions (e.g., lower class sizes, more technology) that are adopted without accompanying professional development or other necessary support.
  2. Decentralize decision-making about resources so that principals and school councils — those closest to the classroom — can decide how best to leverage resources for school improvement.
  3. Provide professional development to increase the capacity of principals and other school leaders to wisely use resources.

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