Shared Instructional Services

Mar 30th, 2011

Shared Instructional Services

By: David N Plank | 11:03 AM | Categories: School & District Reform

Rekha Balu is a doctoral student at Stanford.  In the course of her dissertation research she conducted a survey of school district financial officers, in which she asked them what strategies they have considered to smooth financial turbulence in the current fiscal crisis in California.  The responses were interesting, but one in particular caught my attention:  none of the districts that responded to her survey had considered sharing instructional services with other school districts.
This is both surprising and troubling, for at least three reasons.  First, unwillingness to share instructional services is likely to deprive students of courses that they would like to take.  During my years at Michigan State, for example, all of the school districts in metropolitan Lansing stopped offering Latin to their students. There were undoubtedly students in each district who would have liked to study Latin, but not enough in any one district to warrant keeping a teacher on the payroll.  Sharing instructional services among districts could have given these students access to a course they wanted, without overwhelming the budgets of individual districts.
Second, on-line courses are an increasingly important part of students’ high school experience, with a growing number of states requiring students to complete at least one on-line course as a condition for graduation.  On-line courses are now offered by a variety of providers, ranging from small for-profit start-ups to major universities, and the number of providers and the range of offerings are set to grow rapidly.  In principle, at least, California school districts could put their best or most highly specialized teachers on-line, expanding opportunities for students within the district or around the world, but for now they seem content to leave this opportunity to others. 
Third, shared instructional services are one of the potentially transformative ways in which digital technologies can be more closely integrated into the education system.  The possibility of greatly expanding student access to expert teaching while supporting youngsters with face-to-face and on-line support may simultaneously improve the quality of instruction that students receive and allow for the more efficient use of scarce resources.  This is already happening in so-called “hybrid” schools in California and around the country, but these are almost invariably charters rather than traditional district schools.
The idea of sharing instructional services immediately bumps up against the realities of labor contracts, state regulations and parental expectations, but finding a way to navigate these obstacles could open up the prospect of expanded opportunities for students and significantly reduce instructional costs as well.  It is regrettable to see school districts sticking to familiar strategies—reducing instructional days, laying off teachers, and cutting bus routes—in response to the current fiscal crisis, when far more promising and vastly less damaging alternatives are available.


Regional Occupational Centers and Programs, it seems to me, are a good example of shared instructional resources. When the cost of instruction (including capital) is very high and/or there are too few students to justify a program at a single school site, ROC/Ps are a cost-effective alternative. The differences between ROC/Ps and what you describe are that (1) ROC/P ADA is funded directly by the state whereas your proposal would presumably be funded by the participating district(s), (2) ROC/Ps may be located at a site other than a school, and (3) ROC/Ps have their own teachers. I don't think that any of these are insurmountable obstacles. I know of no reason why a low-demand program must be located somewhere other than a school site. I may be missing something, but I think the biggest obstacle may be getting the participating districts to agree on the amounts that each should pay.

CTA is the elephant in the room. Time will force the issue of shared instructional resources with online education as parents are a key partner in their child's choice and success. The results of the survey showing that no single district was found to share instructional resources does not reflect what takes place in rural regions in California where fiscal resources are significantly lower and where declining enrollment promotes collaboration amongst districts superintendents.

I think you're absolutely right, Rekha. The costs of moving toward shared instructional services may well exceed the immediate benefits, and the incentives facing local leaders (including the obstacles posed by labor contracts, state regulations, and parental expectations that I noted in my original post) generally argue against dramatic changes in traditional classroom arrangements. Conceding both points, though, I am still struck by a couple of things.

First, the move to shared instructional services is already happening, and the pace of change is accelerating. Colleges and universities are moving aggressively to develop and market on-line courses for students around the world. The rapid expansion of home-schooling and "virtual charters" has been supported by a variety of shared instructional services ranging from curriculum frameworks to on-line lectures. The emergence of "blended" instructional models in California and elsewhere depends on the opportunity to share instructional services, both within and across sites. Many school districts are already consumers of on-line services produced by others (including AP classes, for example) and their apparent reluctance to take a more active role is troubling.

Second, zero is a remarkable number. As we watch the number of instructional days fall and the number of students per classroom rise, it's worrisome that sharing instructional services across districts is not even under consideration. If this is a policy failure (and not just a failure of imagination) it would be useful to think through how the state might act to change the costs and incentives facing districts that now impede change.

Two intertwined questions underlie the strategies we observe districts adopting: What cuts deliver the biggest savings for districts and what incentives do the districts face to pursue different savings strategies? Despite the efficiency, savings and learning benefits from shared instructional services that David outlined, districts may not necessarily see short-term rewards. Shared instruction may not deliver enough savings to warrant the coordination effort and time associated with it. Although shared instructional services are more common for special ed or vocational ed districts, K-12 labor contracts may not allow for consolidation of positions or classes so readily. In addition, joint powers agreements often relate more to transportation than to instruction. And the flexibility around use of categorical funds or contracting doesn't necessarily support shared instruction.
If the state were able to incentivize the use of shared instructional services, or more union contracts included clauses to allow for shared instructional services or collaboration for online learning, it would be interesting to see what strategies districts pursue. In addition, if districts simply had more time to react to state budget cuts and explore creative use of resources, reorganization of services through approaches like shared instruction might be easier to implement.