Evaluating Financial Policies and Processes to Support District-wide Personalized Learning Initiatives

by Scott Milam & Katie Morrison-Reed

Due to advances in technology and promising early results, leaders in education are increasingly attracted to personalized learning models as they seek to meet the needs of students.

However, converting to or starting a personalized learning school is an operational challenge. When adopted as a district-wide educational model, the challenge is greater still. While individual schools can demonstrate what is possible through personalized learning, districts, networks, and regional structures must create an environment within which models can be built successfully at scale. The finance policies, processes and systems currently in place at most traditional-model school districts are not well suited to sustain and scale next-generation academic models.

Afton’s recent engagements have placed us alongside districts and regions working hard to implement personalized learning programs, through the Next Generation Systems Initiative (NGSI) and Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) Regional Funds. Through this process, we’ve become convinced that effecting meaningful changes at the scale needed for a larger school system is more difficult without corresponding changes to and support from the finance and budget infrastructure.

Consider the likely scenario of a district that funds its schools using a per-pupil formula or position allocations, having different funding rates or positions for students at different grade-levels. Adopting a new competency-based model suggests grouping pupils by mastery of skills and content, rather than on the traditional model that allocates funding by age, seat-time or grade. Such a change would dramatically impact school funding and district budgeting policies and practices.

Navigating Change: Three Phases

Faced with a decision to move to personalized learning or another innovative educational model, then, districts must assess finance policies and procedures across the board—and establish which ones need to evolve to help those models flourish.

As a foundational step, districts should establish what personalized learning means, specific to their district. Administrators need to review what the intended academic strategy requires in terms of facilities, resources, and personnel at individual schools; they also need to know what supports and conditions the altered model will need at the district level. Only then can districts begin adopting changes to allow for new school designs to succeed—identifying policies and processes that need to change. Such policies might include those relating to budget and financial planning, capital planning, financing strategies, financial reporting and accounting, board governance, and even school funding.

Typically, this analysis has three phases: assessing the finance function’s current state, reviewing how it needs to change, and drafting a roadmap to effecting the changes. The first phase depends on understanding the current goals of finance policies and procedures, describing and documenting them, and identifying which ones need to change if the district adopts a different pedagogical approach. In this phase, the review should also identify what adjacent spaces the finance function affects through these policies and processes.

In the second phase, district leaders need to discuss and decide on how the finance function needs to change to support effective implementation of personalized learning. This means articulating the goals of the future finance function, then describing policy and then process changes.

Lastly comes a planning phase, which sets out a practical approach to effecting changes, including priorities for effective implementation. This plan gives the finance function a timeline for adopting both the policy and procedural changes. Of course, communicating about the need for change is important, as is educating finance personnel about how to alter familiar practices in order to encourage adoption. And it makes sense in this planning phase to anticipate how changes in finance might demand corresponding changes in other departments.

The Way Forward: Adopting Best Practices

Effecting meaningful change, whether in a single classroom or in a district, takes patience. It makes demands on people’s time. It can require creativity and flexibility. Implementing the financial practices necessary to helping a new personalized learning model to succeed is similarly demanding: it means forging a strategy that meets the needs of all the district’s stakeholders—including not only finance leaders but academic ones as well. Correspondingly, districts should examine the steps necessary to ensure that finance supports their new academic plans—and review best practices for doing so.

As we further explore this space, Afton intends to develop a set of best practice policies and procedures for districts converting to personalized learning academic models. We will document our examination of several benchmark districts’ policies and processes across various finance components in an upcoming series of posts here. So keep an eye on updates from Afton as the months go by—and good luck with effecting positive change!

Scott Milam is co-founder and managing director of education finance advisor Afton Partners; he is based in Washington DC. Katie Morrison-Reed is a director at Afton; she is based in Charlotte, NC.