Back-Office Process Innovation Can Impact Performance as Much as Tech Innovation

By Sarah Chou

School districts are drowning in paperwork. Ask most school or district employees what they dread most, and there’s a good chance that paperwork will be close to the top of the list for teachers, principals, school site secretaries and district admins.

While it may be easy to dismiss paperwork as a necessary evil, in actuality it’s usually a symptom of larger operational issues facing school districts that could ultimately impact everything from procurement and resource allocation to teacher hiring and onboarding.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s (NCTQ) recent Great Districts for Great Teachers survey, effective management and operations of school districts can be an important factor in recruiting and retaining teaching talent. They note that teachers in districts that support efficient daily operations of schools have better access to basic supplies and adequate facilities, which can have a personal and professional impact.

However, it’s well documented that most teachers wind up spending a significant amount of their own money to support their efforts in the classroom, with 92 percent of teachers reporting at least some out of pocket expense. NCTQ notes that district efforts to improve the availability of instructional supplies could have an effect on virtually every classroom. Additionally, the report adds:

“Likewise, maintenance of clean, adequate facilities sends teachers and students a signal about the district’s investment in student learning and contributes to a positive school climate. Facility quality, as measured by teacher perception surveys, also influences student achievement, suggesting that district investments in infrastructure might make life a little easier for students and teachers alike.”

How can school districts tackle these operational inefficiencies head on?

Designing high-quality processes

As states begin to rollout their ESSA plans, many schools and districts will be eager to understand the impact on their day-to-day operations. While most will focus on the bill’s demands for improving and demonstrating outcomes, leading educational institutions are recognizing the importance of providing quality inputs and processes, including improvements to operational processes, to better support teaching and learning.

As noted in A New Vision for Accountability, published last March by The Center for American Progress, process management can play a key role helping state and local educational agencies manage their accountability systems. According to the report, “In many ways, district-level processes can have the greatest impact on student outputs and outcomes. For example, among all in-school factors, research has shown teachers to have the greatest impact on student achievement. Additionally, low-income students and students of color are disproportionately taught by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers. Districts, not states, control hiring, placement, and professional development processes. Therefore, accountability systems should measure district-level outputs such as equitable distribution of effective teachers and mastery of instructional practice.”

In their multilevel accountability matrix, The Center for American Progress notes that district-level processes can assist in capacity planning, distribution of funds, and school improvement efforts. Additionally, they note that since low-quality processes can lead to low-quality outcomes, schools and districts should look to best practices in process design that include:

  • Consistency: States communicate to districts and schools exactly what to expect in a timely manner.
  • Quality: Inputs and processes meet the needs of districts and schools.
  • Efficiency: Processes aim to minimize cost.
  • Effectiveness: Processes satisfy the goal of college and career readiness for all students.

Creating a culture of operational excellence

Improving district-wide operations starts with establishing a culture of operational excellence. This requires three key steps: motivation, organization and automation.

At Tacoma Public Schools, which has been recognized nationally for its dramatic improvements to graduation rates and college-readiness over the last decade, back-office culture is viewed as being critically important to supporting a climate of achievement. This goal is shared by all staff both inside and outside the classroom.

The Human Resources department at Tacoma shares this vision for how process improvement in the back-office can support the district’s goals, and has a department philosophy that states, “What gets measured gets done.” They support this vision by promoting their values internally through posters that are hung up around the office and state their goal of making Tacoma a district where parents want their children to learn and educators want to work. Both department and district support their processes with tools that help them eliminate unnecessary paperwork and streamline the approval process to ensure timely completion.

To address some of the operational and process challenges in the back office, the district adopted software development methodologies to help them manage and organize the backlog of paperwork associated with district-wide purchasing.

Steve Demel, the director of purchasing at Tacoma, keeps a Kanban-style board within his department so staff can easily share new ideas and provide updates on the status of specific initiatives. As a result, at a glance, everyone within the purchasing department is able to see what items are on the to-do list, what’s currently in progress and what’s been completed. This creates a culture of transparency and shared accountability. Demel’s approach has lead to significant cost savings for the district, and even generated revenue through their effective management of purchasing cards across school sites.

Similarly, Oakland Unified School District is improving the teacher and parent engagement by automating and taking their permission slips digital. Despite being a larger school district, many of the district’s processes were still being managed on paper, which made it difficult to track a variety of issues, including the health-related needs of students that were attending field trips. According to Max Robinson, Technology Analyst at OUSD, steam lining this kind of paperwork is not only more efficient for the district, but it allows them to improve compliance on issues ranging from how many field trips are going on and what resources are needed to support students on those trips.

While operational processes may seem mundane on the surface, the end result of addressing operational inefficiency can increase productivity, eliminate unnecessary costs and increase community engagement for school districts. This can help school districts reallocate resources to high-impact solutions that directly impact teaching and learning, and support their ultimate mission.

For more on school and district leadership, see:

Sarah Chou is co-founder and CEO of Informed K12. Connect with them on Twitter: @informedk12 

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