Five Lessons on School Performance Frameworks from Five Cities

While an increasing number of cities have implemented school performance frameworks (SPFs), very little has been written about how these tools compare with one another.

SPFs provide information on school performance and quality across a variety of measures to numerous stakeholders, and New York, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have all had their own version for, in some cases, more than five years.

Still, few resources exist for district leaders interested in SPF redesign or development. That’s where Bellwether’s newest project comes in.

“School Performance Frameworks: Lessons, Cases, and Purposeful Design,” a report and website available at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org, analyzes long-standing school performance frameworks in five cities.

Here are five key findings:

  1. SPFs have three primary purposes.

Who are SPFs designed for and how are they intended to be used? These answers vary, but based on our analysis, SPFs generally have three purposes. We refer to these primary purposes as “use cases,” a term adopted from the world of technology which helps designers envision how their product will be used in the end. In the case of SPF design, the three primary use cases are:

  • System Management and Accountability: SPFs designed to give system leaders a clear sense of performance across a wide variety of schools and support data-driven action to manage and improve performance.
  • School Continuous Improvement: SPFs designed to provide school leaders with detailed information to drive continuous improvement in their school, and support budgeting, staffing, and programmatic changes.
  • Family and Community Information: SPFs designed to give families and community members understandable, actionable information about school performance to help make choices for their students, engage in their student’s school, and/or advocate for changes at the school and system level.
  1. No SPF can “do it all.”

It is possible for an SPF to serve more than one purpose, but it is difficult for any SPF to completely meet the needs of system leaders, school leaders, and family members all at once. In fact, system leaders we spoke with acknowledged that trying to design an SPF that “did it all” was deeply problematic and confusing, and in some cases meant that no stakeholders were served well. Instead, at the outset of the SPF process, system leaders should:

  • Lay out clear goals for the SPF
  • Identify the primary and secondary use cases the SPF will serve and clearly communicate which purposes the SPF will not serve
  • Identify other tools and resources that already serve the needs of user groups to avoid redundancy and confusion (e.g., state ESSA report cards for system leaders, or community-based resources to help families choose a school)
  1. Intentional communication with stakeholders is critical.

The purpose of an SPF is to communicate information about school quality to district leaders, school leaders, and/or families. In order for an SPF to be successful, leaders must proactively consider the needs and priorities of these different groups, and the best methods to communicate with different audiences — prior to implementing an SPF. This means that district leaders should begin the process by developing a strong communications strategy to engage key stakeholders and then solicit their input.

  1. SPF metrics and methods must align with system goals.

Almost every district has long-term goals for student outcomes. Regardless of which use case the SPF intends to serve, an effective SPF should align with these goals. This means that if a district has set a goal of emphasizing student growth, this should be reflected in the SPF. In this example, it would be illogical to base school ratings entirely on student achievement.

  1. SPF creation can be a time- and resource-intensive process.

District leaders should determine if they have the staff capacity, data, and expertise to lead an SPF creation process. Leaders interested in a truncated, simpler timeline might consider adapting the state rating system to meet local needs. Creating or substantially revising an SPF could take at least one school year or longer, and even then, system leaders will need time and a strategy to help all users understand the system and its goals.

Want learn more about how the cities we studied incorporated these lessons and others into their SFP development process? Find multimedia profiles of each city’s SPF at SchoolPerformanceFrameworks.org and read more in our report available on the same site.