If you were rushing to complete your schools' SARCs at the end of March, you were not alone. Everyone we talked to said they worked harder than ever. If you factor in the extra work that CALPADS required, the total workload for SARCs may have tripled. But in the clutch of this moment when "just getting SARCs done" seemed to be a high-minded goal, the value of accountability reporting is at risk of being forgotten.
Three years of financial strain and extraordinary cutbacks in staff have changed the way schools work. This strain is likely to be evident in your schools' vital signs: average class sizes are probably higher and spending per site is almost certainly lower. These stresses may have resulted in facilities that aren't as well kept as before. Are your SARCs telling that story?
When your board members are asked how these tough times have affected schools, your SARCs should provide evidence to support the answers. When your superintendent goes to the Chamber of Commerce and is asked how teacher layoffs have affected middle school class sizes, SARCs should help him answer the question. When your principals are asked by parent leaders if building maintenance has slipped in the past few years, principals should be able to hand their SARC to those parents to provide answers.
ACCURACY COUNTS AND SO DOES CANDOR
The challenge in simply getting the correct statistics has been far higher this year. If you have data but aren't sure if it's right, should you release it for publication in your SARC?
Our view, shaped by 11 years of experience in accountability reporting, is "yes... but." Yes, you should share what you know with your staff and public but if you aren't sure the data is correct, make your uncertainty known. You can do that by adding footnotes to data tables. You can also add precautions to the text that explain your data. Publishing data that you're not sure is perfect is far better than not publishing it at all.
This approach is also affirmed by the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB). For about ten years, they have guided public sector leaders in how to report their results: benchmarks, key performance indicators, financial management factors, and financial accounting statements.
In 20032004, Professor Gary Blasi of UCLA conducted a study about the readability and understandability of the SARC template. That study concluded that the document was less readable than the IRS tax form for the Alternative Minimum Tax, less readable than the patient precautions for the drug Vioxx, less readable than Prop. 98 itself, which brought the SARC to life in 1988. His team based its readability analysis on several measures of linguistic complexity, each of which were based on counting syllables in words or the numbers of words in sentences.
To measure understandability, Prof. Blasi assembled two panels. One of them was a Rotary Club of 45 members in Los Angeles and the other was a focus group of 24 employees of UCLA, including janitors, cafeteria staff, professors, and lawyers. Their findings were devastating. Both panels found that the SARCs they reviewed were "unsatisfying" at best. They commented on one section on teachers and staff a rather straightforward section that "30 percent were dissatisfied with its format and content, 19 percent rated it as 'Fairly Uninformative' and 11 percent rated it 'Not Informative At All.' "
More damaging than these criticisms of unintelligibility were what the panel members inferred from such an opaque document. "The lack of clarity and difficulty understanding of the SARC led many parents to conclude that they did not trust the school and thus would be concerned about sending their children there." That a failed report can erode the trust between parent and district is not obvious. However, when you consider that the document's purpose is to shed light on a school's vital signs, the cost of failure becomes understandable.
To rely on the SARC template today to report results is a high-risk, high-cost proposition in the face of this financial downturn, when newspapers have carried news for three years of budget cuts, and parents' confidence is rattled. When every enrollment is worth between $7,000 to $9,000, depending on a district's funding, any superintendent who wants to add revenue should be commanding every resource to build confidence in her schools' effectiveness and her district's solidity.
If you take enrollment's impact on district finances seriously, Prof. Blasi's study is well worth reading.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Getting SARCs done is a relief, but the real goals should be getting them done well so they help parents understand how your schools are doing and making sure they are well read. Putting them in parents' hands is no more complex than putting report cards in parents' hands. If your board is considering turning to local voters to approve a parcel taxa survival tactic in tough timesyour voters will wonder if your district is ready to share the truth about its schools' conditions. SARCs are part of that truth-telling.
1. Share what you know. If you don't know everything that your SARC should report, just report what you know and clearly note the omissions. Explain why some facts are missing. Your public will appreciate that you trust them.
2. Share your knowledge of imprecise data. If you are troubled by numbers that you know are not exact, welcome to reality. Real life is messy and inexact. Why should the statistical summary of real life be expected to be neat and perfect? Simply share the best estimate you have at hand, and then share your knowledge of the degree of imprecision in these numbers.
3. Put your organization's muscle behind your reports, and put them where parents and staff can see them. This can be done frugally. The visible display of key facts about your schools' vital signs can appear on a wall in the reception room of your district office. You can ask each school to make a poster board of its six-year API trends and put it up for all to see in the office. You can print one-page summary reports of your SARCs and mail them home to parents along with students' report cards. (The message is consistent: "Here's how your child is doing, and here's how our school is doing.")