After the Pandemic, School District Strategy is More Important Than Ever

Susan Miller
11 min readMar 15, 2022


In the United States, the fundamental unit of sustained performance improvement in K-12 education is the school district. With few exceptions, state education agencies are much less powerful than districts, which are much more powerful than schools.

The design of school district strategy is therefore critical. Unfortunately, it is rarely done well. District mission/vision/strategy processes usually involve a large number of people and almost always produce a final result that uses vague language in an attempt to smooth over conflicting views.

Moreover, these strategies usually focus on aspirational goals and avoid the far tougher issue of how to achieve them. The end result of the typical school district strategy process is minimal change and preservation of the poorly performing status quo which fails to adequately prepare students to meet the challenges they will face in the 21st century.

What does an effective strategy process look like?

First, what do we mean by “strategy”? In my work with consulting clients, and I’ve long used the following definition:

“A strategy is a causal theory, based on a set of assumptions, of how to achieve an organization’s critical goals with limited resources, in the face of evolving uncertainty and opposition.”

Plans (plural) implement strategy (singular). And plans are usually adapted along the way to achieve the strategy’s goals.

Establishing the Context: Trends, Uncertainties, and Scenarios

Strategy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, it must be based on a set of assumptions about what the future environment could look like. Too many districts base their strategy on an unspoken assumption that the future will be just like today. In contrast, successful strategies (and their associated risk management plans) are designed to achieve critical goals under a wide range of future scenarios.

Scenarios reflect combinations of assumptions about trends and different future outcomes for critical uncertainties. For example, a trend is declining birthrates and the potential number of students. An uncertainty is what percentage of these students will attend district-run versus other types of schools.

Here is a partial list of the trends and uncertainties districts face as they design their strategies:

  • States will find it increasingly difficult to increase tax revenue because of worsening inequality and the ease with which the rising number of companies whose assets are mostly digital rather than physical can move from one jurisdiction to another. At the same time, rising spending on social safety net programs, underfunded public pensions, and infrastructure (including infrastructure demands driven by accelerating climate change) will put more pressure on K-12 revenues.
  • Many districts will face declining student enrollment, due to falling birth rates and increasing competition.
  • Parents’ increasing awareness of what their children will need to thrive in the 21st century economy, and their increasing dissatisfaction with the results that district-run schools are delivering (a trend the pandemic has accelerated), competition from non-district-run schools (including, charter, private, parochial, and home schooling) will increase.
  • The capabilities of cognitive (i.e., AI) and physical (e.g. robotics) automation technologies are improving at an accelerating rate. Employers face a shortage of the talent they need to implement these technologies. As McKinsey and others have shown, companies that succeed in attracting and retaining this talent are enjoying much higher profit margins than those which cannot. Higher margins also mean these companies can pay more to keep attracting talent, creating a vicious cycle that is leading to widening gaps between the most successful companies and their lesser competitors in industry after industry (and worsening income inequality among employees).
  • Many districts still seem unaware of this dynamic, as well as employers’ rising demand not just for students who are proficient at reading, writing, math, and traditional science subjects, but also areas like data science. For example, just ask a group of K-12 leaders what an integrated STEM curriculum should look like, much less how it should integrate with CTE programs. See, for example, Adrian Wooldridge’s excellent column on Bloomberg, “America is Facing a Great Talent Recession”).
  • At the same time, achievement results have been flat for years (in part because of worsening inequality and its multiple impacts on families), and have recently been made much worse by COVID related student learning losses and increasing mental health issues (contrary to what some adults fervently believe, many kids haven’t proven to be resilient). Whether districts’ change management capabilities are up to meeting these challenges remains to be seen. Unfortunately, history does not provide much evidence for optimism.
  • Collectively, these trends suggest that in the near future districts will be faced with a rising number of students facing significant academic and social/emotional challenges, as well as demands from parents for much better CTE programs (employers’ continuing interest in partnering with school districts is an open question, as a growing number are increasing their investment in automation technologies).
  • There are also growing demands from other parents who are painfully aware of the rapidly changing requirements for success in the 21st century economy.
  • Another critical factor is that most school districts today still have a weak understanding of their cost structure. To be sure, they understand the budget categories they’ve used for years. But few understand the relationship between the activities they perform at the school and district level, and how those activities drive both their costs and their results.
  • For example, many school districts do not understand the inescapable tradeoff between the size of an elementary school, the programming it offers, and the cost to operate it. You can have any two, but not all three (i.e., parents’ common goal of small size, extensive programming, and low operating costs).
  • Here’s a second example: few US districts seem to understand the multiple interacting effects of a common, knowledge rich curriculum and related high quality instructional materials (as I experienced when we lived in Alberta). Some of these benefits include freeing up teacher time for planning, tutoring and other high value-added activities, the increased efficiency and effectiveness of new teacher training and ongoing professional development, and increased comparability of performance measures to drive more effective parent decisions on choice.
  • Though many are loath to admit it in public, most districts face a worsening talent and culture crisis that goes far beyond the current crisis over the availability of substitutes. This crisis has multiple dimensions. To cite a few:
  1. School districts are awash in data but they lack the talent to make full use of it (e.g., the use of productivity boosting predictive analytics in K-12 is minimal, and lags far behind the private sector’s application of these technologies).
  2. The inability of many districts to effectively adapt to the COVID pandemic was in part due to shortcomings on the part of managers whose careers had been spent in a slowly changing sector that has remained largely unexposed to competition (and who have received little management training during their careers).
  3. As evidenced by declining SAT scores at undergraduate education schools (and other indicators), the quality of incoming teachers has weakened, and many leave teaching less than five years after they start.
  4. Perhaps as never before, the pandemic demonstrated to the public the power that teachers’ unions have in our schools, and their penchant for resisting change and putting adults’ needs over children’s.
  • When it comes to competition, public education advocates who fight against charter school expansion and the expanded use of Education Savings Accounts and vouchers to support choice may be aiming at the wrong target. Companies like Out School and Great Hearts have been expanding the market for high quality remote learning (for which the pods that appeared during the pandemic are a complement). At the same time Guild Education has been rapidly expanding companies’ use of adult education as a benefit to drive employee reskilling. As the gap grows between what it takes to thrive in the 21stcentury economy and what K-12 districts are delivering, it is possible that private K-12 education may also become a benefit that can be used to attract the scarce talent that companies will need to survive and succeed.
  • A final uncertainty (at least in this list) is the extent to which the pandemic (and global warming) will generate a substantial increase in demand for better indoor air quality and HVAC systems in schools.

Here are examples of three scenarios that cover a range of future conditions under which a strategy must achieve a district’s critical goals:

Accelerating Decline

  • Districts confront more students who are significantly behind academically, and have a greater number and range of mental health needs
  • Substantial decline in district revenue
  • Increased costs for pension contributions and healthcare
  • Increased cost to comply with new HVAC regulatory requirements
  • Accelerating loss of talented teachers and managers as academic and other results decline at quickening pace, leading to more vocal attacks on public education, and especially district-run schools

At-Risk Students Dominate District-Run Schools

  • Reduced funding available for different programs and extracurricular activities causes parents who can to flee district run schools
  • Increased conflict over charter schools, which increase their enrollment, as do parochial schools
  • Companies heavily dependent on attracting and retaining highly talented employees begin to offer private K-12 education as an employee benefit
  • Other parents leave traditional public schools not just for charters, but for new offerings, like pods enabled with new remote learning technology
  • Districts confront more students who are significantly behind academically, and have a greater number and range of mental health needs
  • Substantial decline in district revenue
  • Increased costs for pension contributions and healthcare
  • Increased cost to comply with new HVAC regulatory requirements

Rising College Costs Drive Sharp Increase in Demand for High Quality CTE

  • Rapidly rising college costs deter more HS graduates from immediately going on to higher education and instead to seek high value credentials and employment
  • Increased employer demand for talented employees also leads to demand for districts to expand CTE programs with a focus on high value credentials, internship and apprenticeship programs, and much more effective job placement
  • Districts confront more students who are significantly behind academically, and have a greater number and range of mental health needs
  • Substantial decline in district revenue
  • Increased costs for pension contributions and healthcare
  • Increased costs to comply with new HVAC regulatory requirements

The District’s Critical Strategic Goals

Given the range of future scenarios it could face, the district must achieve these three critical goals:

1. __% of district 11th graders will meet or exceed the college career ready standard on the Evidence Based Reading and Writing SAT (or the ACT equivalent) by [DATE]. To ensure students get off to a fast start, ____% of third graders will meet the state proficiency standard in English Language Arts.

2. __% of district 11th graders will meet or exceed the college career ready standard on the Math SAT (or the ACT equivalent) by [DATE]. To ensure students get off to a fast start, ____% of sixth graders will meet the state proficiency standard in math.

3. During high school, __% percent of district graduates will have experienced a career internship and/or apprenticeship, and will have earned a minimum of [NUMBER] high value CTE credentials (based on third party assessment of different credentials’ market value) by [DATE].

How to Achieve These Critical Goals With Limited Resources in the Face of Uncertainty?

The district will undertake four main initiatives to achieve its goals:

  1. Adopt standard high-quality ELA, math, and science curricula (including Data Science, such as the Introduction to Data Science course developed by UCLA for the LA Unified School District), with associated instructional materials and common curriculum aligned district-wide professional development. As part of this initiative, we will also rigorously and systematically implement MTSS and make much greater use of predictive analytics to identify and address learning shortfalls before they compound.
  2. Implement Activity Based Cost Management and Multiyear Financial Forecasting and Planning. Given our assumption about future resource scarcity, this change is essential.
  3. Expand CTE programs and substantially improve their quality, including the hiring of more instructors and other staff with substantial business experience.
  4. Improve accountability for results across the organization by realigning its structure, processes, and systems (which today seem intentionally designed to diffuse accountability for results).

Critical Risks to the Strategy, and How to Manage Them

One thing that is missing from far too many district strategies is a recognition of the most dangerous threats to their success, and how to manage them.

  • Opposition to critical initiatives by teachers unions and the advocacy groups that support their agenda:
  1. Build closer relationships with the business community, not just to improve CTE, but, far more importantly, to create long term support for difficult district changes in the face of predictable opposition. Substantial and sustained business support was a critical part of the substantial improvements in K-12 performance in both Massachusetts and Alberta.
  2. Strengthen finance, operations, and other non-academic staff functions by hiring more experienced private sector staff with turnaround and performance improvement experience.
  • Inability to attract and retain the talent required to implement the strategy
  1. Increase the use of non-traditional certification to attract more mid and late career talent to teaching, including use of a college-type adjunct model in high school and for tutoring (MTSS)
  2. Hire and adequately compensate more people with business experience to build the CTE programs, including closer relationships with multiple employers
  3. Make better use of technology, including leveraging staff with the most talented platform/lecture skills (e.g. via video) in combination with those with superior small group and tutoring skills. Also, combine predictive analytics with greater use of online tutoring (e.g., via Kahn Academy) as NWEA has been piloting today. Outsource some of these activities (perhaps via multidistrict coops rather than performing them in-house).
  4. Use technology to provide personalized professional development to teachers that includes immediate feedback and support.
  5. Take steps to reduce high levels of teacher absences (and the need to find substitutes) due to use of sick and personal days.
  • Insufficient system resiliency and organizational adaptability to respond to unexpected internal and external changes with minimal loss of district effectiveness and efficiency
  1. Rigorously review the district’s response to COVID, identify things the district did well and poorly (however painful that may be), and seek their root causes and lessons learned. Use these insights to change district policies, processes, procedures, and preparation.
  2. Designate a senior district officer (most likely the CFO) to develop future strategic crisis scenarios and simulations (e.g., a major funding drop, system-wide cyber attack, another pandemic, etc.) and develop and rehearse team reaction to them (in the same manner that district security teams do this for school safety scenarios).
  3. Use these simulations to identify and rectify system weaknesses that could inhibit the district’s ability to initially absorb and then quickly adapt to future negative shocks.
  • Some will claim that insufficient funding is also a critical risk to the success of the strategy. That is only the case if we keep doing the same things we have in the past and expect to achieve a different result. There are too many frustrating examples of school districts that received increased financial resources yet still failed to improve results.
  1. We will focus on using existing resources more effectively and efficiently (e.g., through implementation of activity-based cost management) and only ask the public for additional resources once we have already demonstrated significant progress towards achieving the goals we have set.
  2. This approach is far more likely to meet with success than the traditional approach of asking for more financial resources and then failing to improve academic results.

Next Steps

Plans, plural, implement strategy, singular.

The next step is to create a set of integrated, time sequenced functional plans and associated metrics and feedback mechanisms that will drive the implementation of this strategy and achieve its goals, in a highly uncertain environment with limited resources.

At minimum, these plans must cover five critical areas:

  1. Academic/Career and Technical Programming and Performance (including curriculum, instructional materials, professional support, student supports, and parent/community and partner engagement)
  2. Facilities (Education Adequacy, Facility Condition, and Facilities Master Plan)
  3. Technology (hardware, software, connectivity, and security)
  4. Organization/Talent (processes, systems, structure, and staffing), and,
  5. Finance (operating and capital budgets and long-term financing, reserving, and capital structure).

About Susan Miller: I advise school districts, superintendents, and boards around the country on enrollment, facilities, financing, academic improvement, leadership and other issues. I also serve on the Board of Education for Jefferson County (Colorado) Schools, the nation’s 36th largest school district. My writing represents my personal views. Follow me on twitter: @miller4students.