As districts navigated COVID-19 and worked to meet the needs of students and families last spring, they faced unprecedented demands for coordination—from delivering food to devices to instruction.
Our analysis of district responses nationwide in the spring found many districts that responded quickly used a “tight,” centralized response and strong leadership to set expectations and provide for the basic resource needs for all students.
This raises questions about how decentralized districts, including those embracing the portfolio strategy, can respond effectively to a crisis. Do district central offices need to seize more control, or can they empower school leaders to meet community needs?
We interviewed leaders in three Texas school districts with in-district autonomous schools through the SB 1882 partnership program about their response to the crisis last spring. The conversations suggest “tight” or “loose” is not an all-or-nothing proposition. These portfolio districts helped schools respond by centralizing basic logistics, critical resources, and baseline expectations while allowing space for schools to identify how to best provide instruction.
A strong centralized response can be complemented with “looser” flexibility for autonomous schools to provide instruction in a way that works for their students and families, and fits with their own school culture and model. But defining these responsibilities is crucial. Without clear roles, communication can fall through the cracks and cause confusion for families.
Centralized district operations helped the autonomous schools provide for basic family needs quickly and at scale.
Autonomous schools needed access to the resources that the districts had the economy of scale and operational capacity to provide quickly: meals and devices. For autonomous schools, organizing these resources on the fly may have been more challenging without existing programs, staffing, or access to more affordable pricing due to their small size. In all three districts we spoke with, autonomous schools used the meal distribution system the district set up and, if the district provided devices, students enrolled in autonomous schools were given devices, too.
Flexibility around instructional strategies helped some autonomous schools go beyond expectations.
The districts and the state education agency also provided “tight” expectations for a baseline of instruction, but the autonomous campuses retained their flexibility on how to provide it. The Texas Education Agency required districts to provide instruction while closed in order to continue to receive funding, and provided guidance on approaches for instructional continuity. While each district approached this differently, districts we spoke with generally asked teachers to, at minimum, monitor students’ academic progress and check in with students as they accessed self-paced instruction from an online platform.
Schools and teachers had the freedom to go beyond this baseline, and autonomous schools had the flexibility to use different curricula or platforms for instruction. The districts provided “tight” expectations, but “loose” flexibilities on how the autonomous schools met those expectations. District leaders told us that most of their autonomous campuses took advantage of this flexibility. The autonomous schools generally had access to the district remote learning plans and curricula as an option, but chose to use different strategies. District leaders told us that most of the autonomous schools also asked their teachers to provide more instructional hours per week than the district-operated campuses.
But without clarity on roles, responsibilities, and expectations, communication can be a pain point.
As in other districts around the country that took decentralized approaches, sorting out who should take the lead in communicating to families posed a challenge for districts that did not already have a strategy for coordinating on this front.
In two of the three districts, leaders of the autonomous campuses were already closely connected with district leadership and decision-making processes. In one district, the leader of their autonomous network is in the superintendent’s leadership cabinet. Both of these districts reported that navigating new responsibilities of the schools and communicating clearly with families about resources and expectations during school closures was fairly simple because the school systems already had procedures in place, and experience making decisions together.
But the third district did not have such strong systems for communication with their autonomous campuses in place. It took time for the district to share information with its autonomous campuses, and for the schools to then coordinate with their own network offices before sending messages to families. In the early days of the COVID-19 response, this created some mixed messages and confusion for families about who was in charge, what expectations were, and what was provided to families.
In the rapid-response nature of COVID-19 response last spring, “looseness” around instructional approaches allowed the autonomous schools to focus more on instruction and the student body, while they benefited from the capacity and resources of the school district and the “tight” baseline of expectations.
As Paul Hill recently wrote, “The core idea behind the portfolio strategy is totally relevant now: meaningful choices for parents provided by diverse schools, all overseen by a district that supports school distinctiveness and good matches for kids.”
As the next school year begins, each school faces myriad logistical and resource challenges—and they will need ample support and clear guidance from leadership. Families need to know what measures schools will take to prevent the virus from spreading, and what kind of learning experience their children can expect. And it likely makes little sense for individual school leaders to grapple with critical logistical questions, like ensuring safe transportation and providing testing for students and staff.
Yet, more than ever, schools and individual teachers must be able to flex and find ways to accommodate the changing needs of each student: accelerating learning, differing levels of caregiver availability, access to internet connectivity, and much more. If resources, training and operational support, and expectations are “tight,” many schools may benefit from some “looseness” around the specifics of instructional models and approaches. For example, flexibility to organize teaching staff to provide instruction and student support in different ways, choosing the right mix of live instruction and independent work, or making other curriculum and instruction choices that feel useful and relevant to students this year. The right configurations of operational and instructional strategies may need to vary across schools.
Of course, some testing and variation with these configurations will be necessary as schools move into a new school year fraught with uncertainty. But by navigating the complex logistical challenges, like public health, student nutrition, and connectivity, and setting clear baseline expectations for all schools to meet, education system leaders at the state and local levels can create the conditions for schools to build and refine their strategies as they go.