Peer comparisons have long been used as a tactic to help districts drive strategic action. The general idea is that every district can identify a set of peers that operate under relatively similar circumstances that they can look to for best practices and strategies that can help drive excellence. Peer comparisons are also helpful for districts wanting to quickly identify any areas in which they might be lagging. To ensure that districts are getting the most value from peer comparisons, we have outlined five critical considerations.
Peer Group Formulation
Districts tend to look to their geographic neighbors for comparisons because it is often easiest to gather data from districts closest in proximity and officials usually have more knowledge of areas that are close by. While it is often appropriate to use this strategy, districts should remember that proximity does not guarantee that peer districts will share similar demographics and other local conditions.
At times, it may be necessary to look outside of the state or the typical peer group to find districts with similar characteristics. When formulating peer groups, districts should consider such factors as revenue per-pupil, expenditures per-pupil, student demographics, political climate and city type. Additional factors may be necessary to ensure that peer comparisons are appropriate.
Objectively Measurable Attributes
In addition to selecting an appropriate peer group, districts should confirm that they are comparing attributes that are objectively measurable across each district.
For example, comparing custodial cost per square foot across several districts may be an objective comparison. However, if one were to compare survey results for school-level building cleanliness across multiple districts, the results could vary wildly and make it challenging for districts to find any meaning or value in the data. Focus on more objective attributes such as health benefits cost per enrolled employee or grant funds as a percent of the total budget to provide truer analysis with less individual biases.
Create Your Own “11 Herbs and Spices”
When doing peer comparisons, districts that attempt to reverse engineer the nuanced “recipe” that makes up another district’s success often become sorely disappointed. Peer comparisons are great at quickly highlighting who is doing well in a particular area, but the specific reasons for the success are often difficult to isolate.
Districts must understand that attempting to determine the true nature of what drives a given district’s success can be an exhaustive waste of resources. Instead of obsessing over identifying exactly what makes a particular district excel in a given area, districts should focus on the commonalities present between their district and their “goal” district and look for ways to improve their own processes and procedures.
Focus on What You’re Doing Right
Overly focusing on peer comparisons can negatively impact employee morale. District employees can easily become dismayed when too much focus is put on peer comparisons, especially when there is doubt about how closely the districts and its peers match. Be sure to include key employees in discussions as you develop your comparison set and clearly communicate the measures that you wish to compare.
Consider conducting intra-district comparisons. There are often pockets of excellence within the district that can be explored, and it is generally easier to expand on something already happening versus implementing something new that is learned at another district.
Context is Key
Finally, it is important to contextualize any comparisons. Accounting for demographic, financial, or other differences can have a significant impact on the results you glean from peer comparisons.
There may be a good reason why a district is not leading in a certain area. Perhaps that particular district has chosen to prioritize something more critical. Without this contextual explanation, it is easy to draw incorrect conclusions.
On the other hand, while contextualization is important, take care to avoid leaning on it too much to explain away differences, or to fall into traps of complacency. In the end, peer comparisons should ultimately help effectuate change and improve outcomes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cory Edmonds is a District Partner for Allovue, where he works to support our districts to ensure that Balance and strategic services meet the needs of our districts. Cory is the former Model Operations Leader for Breakthrough Charter Schools where he led operations and finance for a network of six schools that served 2,000 students. He also previously served as the Director of Finance and Operations at YES Prep Public Schools in Memphis and as a Senior Budget Analyst for Atlanta Public Schools. Finally, Cory served as an Education Finance Consultant for districts across the country while working with Education Resource Strategies and the Edunomics Lab. He is a graduate of the Broad Residency in Urban Education and holds a MPA from the University of Georgia.