Competitive, Coherent, Creative: The 21st Century School District

Through our advocacy, advisory and coaching services, we work with impact-oriented partners (including innovative school districts) to invent the future of learning. This post is part of a blog series designed to share lessons learned, case studies, and thought leadership from our projects and campaigns. To learn more about our services division, visit

By Tom Vander Ark and Juan Cabrera

The United States has, compared to other developed countries, a thick middle management layer. Between the federal government and schools sits three layers of bureaucracy: state education authorities, intermediate units (e.g., BOCES, ESD, RSD, county), and local education authorities usually called school districts.

There are about 13,500 school districts serving over 47 million students–with 10% of them clustered in a dozen mega districts. The top 100 districts serve at least 40,000 students. But they are the exception–more than 11,500 districts serve less than 5,000 students.

There are at least four reasons to ask about the existence and value contribution of these middle managers of education:

  • The feds will be less involved going forward–in policy and investment–and in most states, there is no new money for education. With more state and local control, there is a new opportunity to consider how we spend $600 billion a year (an average of $11,600 per student).
  • There are as many non-teaching adults as there are teachers in America. That includes a lot of student support services but it’s also a lot of middle managers. Automation has wiped out much of the middle management in business–do we still need all these layers in education? Is there an opportunity to reinvest in American classrooms?
  • Urban districts face more competition–about 10 million students attend charter, private and homeschools. How does competition change the role of school districts?
  • With the explosion of learning models and tools, what is the role of districts in intermediating innovation?

For all of these reasons, it’s a good time to reexamine why school districts exist, how they work and what value they add.

Superintendents Have Four Full-Time Jobs

If your superintendent seems busy, it’s with good reason. Good K-12 system heads fulfill four key roles and, depending on context and priorities, they can each feel like a full time job:

1. Governance: Facilitating the work of the board. Adopting standards, assessments and accountability in the 90s was a huge policy lift. Reconsidering graduate profiles and adopting personalized and competency-based learning is a similarly big job being taken on by many boards today. Good systems heads lead community conversations that sequence and inform tough board decisions.

  • Outcome: Good governance, sustained leadership.

2. Operations: Fiscal management, constituent services, organizational development and compliance management (and given local policies and agreements and mountains of state and federal policy there’s a lot to comply with).

  • Outcome: Organizational effectiveness and capacity

3. Change Agenda: Organizing and leading improvement and innovation. While the first two categories are largely managerial, this is the work of leadership–facilitating a shared vision, balancing improvement and innovation, and mobilizing and resourcing a change agenda.

  • Outcome: Focused energy, improving results

4. Community Development: Engaging parent, civic, family support, health and business partners in developing infrastructure and support for public education.

  • Outcome: Support for kids and families, economic development

The first three roles benefit from scale. On these dimensions, it would be easy to justify a 50% consolidation in the number of districts. The importance of building strong community connections is a mitigating factor. But it’s worth noting here that American schools operate with an idiosyncratic notion of “local control.” Most OECD countries have a national curriculum, push budgets to school building and don’t rely as heavily on middle managers. (Do we really need 10,000+ curriculum directors?)

Isn’t it Ironic? With the feds out of the accountability business and most states in full reconsideration, there is limited accountability exercised over traditional public schools.

Simultaneously, many districts are adopting broader aims and promoting personalized and deeper learning (check out this list of 30 innovative districts).

On the other hand, the pendulum in the charter space swung from quantity to quality, and restrictive authorizing and accountability based on narrow historic measures (and proficiency over growth) lead to more closures, fewer new schools and less innovative models. The net effect may be that the charter sector–organized to produce innovation—is less innovative than ever, while forward leaning districts are the new place to innovate. (Given limitations to both charters and districts, free or low cost micro schools like One Stone and Acton Academy remain fertile innovation space).

Change Making. Personalized learning models are promising but challenging. What is the role of the district with the shift to digital? McKinsey described the work of building an operating model for the digital world as shifting from “running uncoordinated efforts within siloes to launching an integrated operational-improvement program organized around customer journeys.” For education, that means getting really focused on learner experience (LX)–and not just improving it, but making it dramatically better–and then applying lean process redesign to support it (here are 21 LX questions to get you started).

Innovation usually requires investment–and districts are poorly structured to make capital expenditures (which, broadly speaking, are investments expected to yield multi-year benefits). Districts receive allocations and reimbursements for current year expenditures and may be able to pass a local levy to pay for facilities but the stuff in between–computers, systems and consultants to support implementation–is financially challenging.

A growing number of districts are turning to school and curriculum networks that combine content, a learning model, a platform, and professional learning experiences (illustrated below). These partners reduce the district’s need build a curriculum, invest in platforms and manage an improvement agenda.

How School Districts Work

There are three general operating models for school districts: enterprise, shared and portfolio. They roughly correspond to size–most small districts are enterprise, most medium districts are some version of shared and most large districts are portfolio.

1. Enterprise. Borrowing a business term, an enterprise approach implies common goals, processes and tools. Enterprise districts (like managed school networks) share goals and learning model (curriculum, assessment, teaching practices); school model (structure, schedule, staffing); information systems, learning platform and access devices; and professional learning opportunities.

Enterprise districts (as shown below) define the what students should know and be able to do and how they will learn and demonstrate learning. In systems of managed instruction, this may feel highly directive and come with pacing guides and benchmark assessments. Some districts use distributed leadership developed where teachers have a say and feel supported and where change is top down, bottom up, inside out and outside in. (See feature on Mooresville GSD)

  • Benefits: Everybody on the same page (coherence), using same systems (efficiency).
  • Challenges: Can feel oppressive, may not work for all learners, may lack agility and ability to innovate.

2. Shared. Most districts operate in the middle ground where the central office makes some decisions, schools make others and some are negotiated. Here’s an example:

District-Defined What Shared/Negotiated Decisions School-Defined How

Standards, Grad Requirements

New schools, Accountability

Schedules, Transportation

Employment Contracts


Professional Development

Core Curriculum, Assessments

Learning Platform, Devices


Instructional Strategies

Supplemental Materials

School Climate

The problem is that in many districts, these definitions are fuzzy and poorly documented leading to a lack of role and goal clarity.

Medium and large districts have schools in many performance categories. To rationalize supervision and services, they often create performance categories and provide tiered support–good schools can opt out of services and struggling schools get more directed support (Cincinnati and Boston were early adopters of this tiered support model).

As in Houston, this tiered support system may be augmented by themed and magnet schools to expand student/family options–but with them often comes resentment for schools that receive special treatment.

  • Benefits: School performance defines the relationship with the district; there is a potential for earned autonomy which may add to unique options.
  • Challenges: Complicated to construct and operate.

3. Portfolio. A district that is more like an authorizer than operator is called a portfolio. Most budget and operating decisions are made at the school or network level. Robin Lake, CRPE, said, “The portfolio strategy tries to harness the best ideas for creating ownership at the school level, parent choice, community engagement and government oversight with one end in mind: quality public education for every student.”

Most big districts are portfolio districts but they vary in the extent to which they embrace or resist charter schools. Denver’s portfolio approach keeps district, innovation and charter schools on a level playing field when it comes to incubation, funding, enrollment, transportation and accountability.

In Santa Ana USD, teams of teachers have the ability and responsibility to create coherent personalized learning models and devices that support their plan. (See and listen to interview with David Haglund.)

Portfolio managers may proactively seek options for underserved geographies and/groups or to pilot school model innovations.

  • Benefits: Best strategy for creating quality options by leveraging the capability of school networks and multiple operators; creates options for families; may be able to use common enrollment, discipline, funding, facilities and accountability.
  • Challenges: Confusing to middle managers if the district is both operator and authorizers; too many options can be overwhelming to families; can be challenging for a district to fund the development of networks.


Coherence. District leaders should be clear about their current strategy. Every school leader should have a clear picture of how things should work and who makes what decision so that they can create role and goal clarity for teachers. As Doug Knecht from Bank Street explains, systems should build “a coherent throughline from the central office and pedagogical supervisors to teacher teams and their students.”

EdLeaders should understand the pros/cons of district architecture and should discuss options with employee groups and civic leaders to make the best decision for the community.

Competition. Given the growing number of learning options (and opportunities), school districts should study ways they can radically improve learner experience and support it with increased investment–funded, in part, by transitioning to a smaller central office (perhaps a third non-teaching rather than a half). Opportunities include:

  • Taking advantage of school and curriculum networks, learning platforms and open content.
  • Pushing larger budgets and more decision-making to schools and networks (after creating clarity and capacity).
  • Small districts should consider combining forces and consolidating to maximize investment in schools. States could offer small incentives to encourage this direction over time. Incentives could be offered to employees to return to work in schools.

Creativity. In Smart Cities, we identified the need for every city/region to develop the capacity to take advantage of innovations in learning. That doesn’t mean that every district needs an innovation officer, but it does mean every district needs a point of view on how it supports rather than inhibits innovation.

Smart districts find a way to say “yes”; they inspire, incubate and intermediate innovation, or work with partners that do. Most Rhode Island districts rely on Highlander Institute as their innovation office.

Capacity. Whether enterprise, portfolio or shared decision making, managing a change agenda can feel overwhelming. Our new paper, Preparing to Lead in a Project-Based World, suggests a mashup of change management and talent development: turn the strategic plan into a series of projects, distribute them across the organization by asking every leader and aspiring leader to manage a project relevant to their personal development plan. By serving as an organization-wide project manager, leaders help carry out the change agenda and gain valuable work experience.

With a proliferation of learning models, generic educator preparation is less relevant than ever. It is increasingly important to create tailored preparation partnerships that are specific to a district or network learning model.

It’s time for district leaders to create clarity and coherence by making crystal clear how things are supposed to work. It’s time for district leaders to get more competitive by pushing bigger budgets to schools and building the capacity to effectively handle the added responsibility. It’s time for district leaders to have a clear innovation agenda with the internal and external capacity to support it.

For more, see:

Are you working to invent the future of learning in your district? Whether it is strategic consulting, leadership coaching, or planning support, Getting Smart Services can help. Learn more about our new school coaching and design services at


Juan Cabrera is the former Superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District. For more from Juan, read

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1 Comment

Paul Griffin

Juan, and outstanding article! Mr. Superintendent, your leadership is showing results. Best!

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