As a sports fan, I enjoy the common debate over who is the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan or LeBron James. Sports is a unique situation in that oftentimes, athletes do not have the luxury to choose who they are compared to. Performance, standards, history, and experience are not always accounted for when making such comparisons.
Unlike sports, school district leaders find themselves in a different position: they do often have the ability to choose who they will compare their organization to. With that choice can come the temptation to compare against peers that seem to perform similarly or maybe not as well as your district in certain areas. In doing this though, you potentially miss out on many benefits associated with optimizing peer comparison data. To realize the full benefits of benchmarking, here are some tips for optimizing the process:
Move beyond your region.
Many school districts tend to compare themselves only to their neighbors. Comparing regionally is helpful, and in many cases a necessity. However, I also encourage clients to also look across the state, or even nationwide, to find districts with similar enrollment, demographics, revenue, etc. Not only can finding ‘like’ peers be an educational exercise in and of itself, but having two groups with which to compare yourself (regional and ‘like’) can strengthen or challenge current views.
Another benefit of finding similar districts is that it can also help expose differences between your organization and your neighbors. It is all too easy to get into the habit of comparing yourself with the same districts you’ve always compared to. Showing your district’s stakeholders just how different you are — be it size, demographics, revenue, etc. — can build support for moving beyond borders in your benchmarking.
Think about your buildings.
While district-level comparisons are incredibly helpful, don’t stop there. How do your individual buildings compare with their own respective peers? Do you have a handle on how similar elementary buildings, for example, in the state are staffing, achieving, etc.? In many cases, each building within a district has its own needs, its own initiatives, and its own challenges. All the benefits realized from district-level comparison can be extended to each of the buildings in your district.
Regardless of the criteria chosen for optimizing peer comparison data, be consistent with your method and approach. Clearly define your metrics and stick to them. Additionally, make sure these metrics are clearly communicated to all appropriate parties. Every methodology will have its limitations, but being clear and up front with what you did and did not factor in and why, will only build trust and confidence among stakeholders. Adhering to a methodology for peer group construction will also allow you to easily see how your peer group might change each year. No school district is static, which means some years a district may ‘qualify’ as a peer and other years it may not.
One last tip to forming peer groups at either-district-or building-level, is to compare against the best. For most, there are a handful of school districts like you who are ‘knocking it out of the park.’ While you might look like the lowest achieving among this group of districts, understanding what is happening differently at each of the ‘high achieving’ districts can provide insight as to how your own organization can improve. Identifying a path to your desired success is essential, and there is perhaps no easier way to learn how to navigate that path than by speaking to someone who has already traveled it. Aim high and see what the ‘best’ are doing already that you can emulate.
Take advantage of having the opportunity to choose your peer comparison group. Incorporating these tips into your peer comparison methodology will allow you more opportunities to make prudent decisions for the good of your organization and ultimately, the students you are serving.
Wes Karsten is the Partner Program Manager at Frontline Education where he partners with over sixty education associations. Previously Wes served as an Advisor with Forecast5 Analytics, where he helped school administrators utilize data analytics for strategic decision-making. His career has been spent building relationships by connecting clients with valuable tools and services, assessing and addressing needs, and promoting positive client experiences.