By Scott Milam and Katie Morrison-Reed
This piece is featured on The Learning Accelerator’s (TLA) blog. You can download here TLA’s District Guide: Financing to Scale Blended Learning.
Across the county, skilled educators are implementing truly innovative approaches to teaching and learning. At Afton Partners, we’ve had the privilege to work with over 100 school districts and charter management organizations (CMOs) that have implemented blended learning school models to strengthen individualized curriculum and improve outcomes for students with varying academic abilities.
However, as Michael Horn has noted, one of the biggest mistakes that educators can make “is deploying technology for its own sake, rather than to solve a meaningful problem or achieve an important learning goal.” We also believe that one of the challenges facing operators is layering technology and other components of blended learning on top of their existing financial and operating plans, rather than truly integrating this new pedagogic approach in a long-term strategic financial plan.
For any district that is considering implementing blended learning, or those looking to build upon successful outcomes from pilot programs, The Learning Accelerator’s (TLA) District Guide: Financing to Scale Blended Learning will help you build a plan that incorporates blended learning into the fabric of your district. Based on our experience, we have learned several lessons and best practices that are supported by TLA’s Guide:
First, develop a long-term plan. Best practice districts develop a financial plan that reflects the sources and uses of funds to sustain blended learning in the long term (at least five years), well beyond the typical one- or two-year budget cycle. One pitfall many districts face is the development of two or more different plans in silos (by “department” or function). It is not solely a financial plan or an academic plan. It must incorporate the sources and uses of funding, and translate the academic vision into resource requirements.
Plan for sustainability, but consider scale. As mentioned in the Guide, too many districts get “stuck” in the piloting phase of implementing an innovative school model. Why? Part of the reason is not fully considering how blended learning schools will scale and replicate. We consider schools that are fully funded by recurring public funds as sustainable (with a few exceptions). To scale a successful school model, sustainability is a pre-requisite, though there are other cost and funding considerations for district-wide planning, including:
- Benefits of scale: what can be done more effectively due to scale? (ex: purchasing power for technology)
- Central versus school-level roles: what makes sense to manage at the central level versus customizing at the school level? (ex: Learning Management System)
- Recognize improvements over time: how can the district monitor and improve, and potentially reduce the cost per school and per classroom? (ex: job-embedded professional development)
- Existing internal sources: not only should these be evaluated at the school level, but also at the district level (ex: what programs are not delivering results for teachers and students, and thus can be eliminated to fund core components of blended learning? What central office departments can be streamlined under a fully blended school district?)
- External resources: recognize that incremental funds will likely decline or phase out over time; as more schools launch blended learning schools, philanthropic and grant dollars will become less available. Also, how can your district utilize special revenues to support blended learning? We developed recommendations in a separate blog series with Next Generation Learning Challenges on this topic, here.
Challenge your assumptions and iterate. Use this Guide to help develop financial and operating assumptions for your school and district (such as cost per device, device refresh rates, professional development costs, etc.), then customize for your state or district. There isn’t one right answer to develop a sustainable, scalable financial plan, so prepare to scenario plan and iterate. The Guide also recommends including a contingency, or additional, unallocated funds in your plan, which we would highly recommend. As things change in the long term, your district will benefit from having flexibility as funding levels and cost estimates will inevitably change.
Use the financial plan to translate vision to action. Many times, great ideas and innovative school models do not suffer from lack of vision, but the lack of core district resources to allow that vision to be realized. Consider including key district (and even state) resources early in the process, including finance and legal experts, and build the plan together. We have seen districts train and assign financial personnel to partner with school design teams to assist in developing their individual plans, which helps translate financial needs to the overall district budget. The financial plan can help translate the vision for a great network of blended learning schools into an actionable, financially sustainable plan.
Districts looking to radically change how they personalize learning for every child should consider changing how it plans to fund these innovative school models. TLA’s Guide is one useful tool to help districts develop the necessary plans to pilot and scale successful blended learning school models.