Building a School Performance Framework for System Management and Accountability? Lessons From Washington, D.C.

At its core, a school performance framework (SPF) is a data-based tool to support local decision making. An SPF designed for system management and accountability provides data and information about system-wide goals to district- or city-level leaders overseeing multiple schools, helps leaders hold schools accountable for student outcomes, allows leaders to understand which schools are performing well and which are not, and informs system-wide improvement strategies and the equitable allocation of resources. 

Our recent publication “School Performance Frameworks: Lessons, Cases, and Purposeful Design,” a website and report available at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, identifies system management and accountability as one of three primary “use cases” that can shape SPF design decisions. A “use case” (a concept borrowed from the field of technology and design) helps designers think through their end users’ needs. Our work imagines local leaders as designers and considers how the choices they make can meet the needs of different end users, including parents, school principals, and district leaders. Among the five long-standing SPFs we looked at in detail for our project, four prioritized the use case of system management and accountability in their SFP design. 

We also found that too many SPFs try to fulfill multiple uses at once, without clearly thinking through priorities and potential tradeoffs. This post is the third in a series that looks at SPFs through the lens of each use case to highlight design considerations and relevant examples.

SPFs built for system management and accountability can inform consequential decisions made at the district level about which schools should be rewarded, replicated, or expanded, and which ones require improvement, intervention, and possibly closure. These SPFs get the most attention when the data they produce result in school closures or other highly visible consequences. While closures may grab headlines and garner resentment for SPFs, a well-designed SPF can actually inject transparency, equity, and fairness into even the most challenging decisions and increase opportunities for students and families by highlighting success and supporting the expansion of quality school options. 

An SPF created for system management and accountability should include:

  • Valid and reliable metrics that align with the system’s long-term goals for students: A mix of data points should differentiate among schools and show system leaders which are meeting key benchmarks, improving, or struggling. Aligning to established system-wide goals provides school leaders with clear “goal posts,” but will not necessarily dictate a road map on how to get there. 
  • Clear policies and processes for how results will be determined and used: Policies and processes regarding how data will be used need to be clearly documented and made transparent. How will SPF results factor into the identification of schools for recognition, intervention, or closure? What will it mean when a school is performing well or poorly on SPF metrics? What is the timeline for actions or decisions? What opportunities will school leaders and other stakeholders have to engage in the process, and how will their input and feedback factor in? All of these questions should be answered and documented, along with processes through which the SPF itself may be reviewed and revised. 
  • Strong communication with school leaders and the public: An absence of strong and proactive communication increases the risk that school leaders and community members will lose trust in the tool. School leaders should never be surprised by SPF results or the potential actions that may follow from those results. And systems should provide ample resources to build understanding of the SPF, and the policies that surround it, within the broader community.  

Among the five long-standing SPFs we examined, all except for New York City explicitly name system management and accountability as a primary use, but each is customized based on the local context. The only SPF in our analysis that applies exclusively to charter schools, the District of Columbia’s Performance Management Framework (PMF) supports D.C.’s charter school authorizer, the DC Public Charter School Board (DC PCSB), in rating schools as either Tier 1, 2, or 3 based on a consistent set of standards, but with separate ratings systems for adult, early childhood, and alternative schools.

portrait of DC Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson

Photo of Scott Pearson, DC PCSB Executive Director, by Alexander Drecun

Schools in Tier 1 are eligible for expansion, while schools in Tier 3 may be subject to a review process that could lead to closure. On our Eight Cities storytelling site, DC PCSB’s executive director Scott Pearson explained: “A lot of our energy is spent on ensuring that any fair-minded person who looked at the process would say that this was even-handed.” Although the PMF rating is not the only determinant the PCSB uses to make decisions about expansion and closure, some school leaders and advocates have raised concerns that PMF results strongly correlate with the percentage of at-risk students a school serves. These critiques raise the issue of whether the PMF’s design could undermine or disincentivize schools from focusing on high-need populations. With the announcement that Pearson will resign at the end of his term in May 2020, it remains to be seen if future leaders will modify the tool. 

Because SPFs designed for system management and accountability need to apply equitably across a number of schools and link to system-wide goals and strategies, they tend to focus on higher level, often summative, data points such as academic achievement and growth across student subgroups. As a result, this use case is probably least compatible with SPFs designed for school continuous improvement, which require more granular and frequently assessed data to inform school leaders’ day-to-day decision making over time. 

SPFs used for systems management and accountability are often also used to communicate with families and community members about school quality (see our third use case, Family and Community Engagement). The systems we profiled take different approaches to blending the high-level, systemic data that best support district-level decision making with additional information that may be valued by families making decisions for their children. Some rely on existing tools to provide the most accessible and useful data to families, while others have made changes to their SPF systems to better align with families’ needs and preferences.

To learn more about other use cases for SPF design, and other long-standing local SPFs, visit SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org.