The Weighted Student Formula: A Superintendent’s Perspective

by Arlene Ackerman

As an educator with 34 years of K-12 experience, I have spent most of my career developing and implementing systemic strategies to improve academic outcomes for urban public school students. As a teacher, principal and district administrator, I have been part of myriad reform initiatives intended to raise achievement. Unfortunately, few initiatives manage to sustain student improvement.

Something is missing in the progression of instructional, structural and governance reforms. Too many reform proposals are sold as the answer to what ails public education. This thinking is misguided. No single solution can guarantee success. A strategic alignment of academic initiatives, fiscal and human resources and districtwide accountability systems is required to improve and sustain achievement.

When I became San Francisco’s superintendent four years ago, it became clear after listening to hundreds of parents, educators, students and community members that we needed a coherent plan to address the entire system. The result was our Excellence for All plan, subsequently passed by the board of education.

In this plan, all strategies are aligned and focused on three guiding principles: improving achievement for all students by raising the bar and closing the performance gap; ensuring equity in the allocation of resources; and implementing accountability systems. The weighted student formula is one of the plan’s major initiatives.

Building the Case

Should your school district consider moving to a weighted student formula system that allocates dollars based on student characteristics and under which principals and other school site constituents make more decisions?

Let me suggest a few ways to answer this question. Ask yourself whether the following statements describe your district:

  • Funding under the current system is unfair and/or arbitrary;

  • Parental and staff decision making is limited;

  • Annual site academic plans are of uneven quality, and schools view them as a chore instead of a useful tool; and

  • Central offices are viewed as an obstacle to schools’ success.

    Moving to a weighted funding system is not easy. However, if your school district sounds like the one I’ve just described, it may be a worthwhile strategy to consider for the following reasons:

  • Allocation of resources will match individual student needs;

  • Principals and school communities will have more flexibility and control over staffing and instructional decisions;

  • Parents, teachers and other staff will have ownership;

  • Site academic plans will be more relevant; and

  • The central office will become more service-oriented.

These are the same points I recommend in seeking buy-in from stakeholders. Like it or not, many school districts are closer to the first example and therefore may find the promise of a weighted system very appealing. This is not a process to be undertaken lightly, yet a case for change exists in many districts.

Our weighted student formula now includes about 60 percent of our total unrestricted general funds. Base funding is differentiated by grade levels within a range of approximately $2,520 to $3,350 per pupil. English learners and students from low socioeconomic households receive additional funding ranging from $155 to $530. Each year our advisory committee reviews and can recommend potential modifications to the weights and characteristics.

Central-Office Role

The successful implementation of WSF would require a culture change in most central offices. It may surprise some that moving to a site-based decision-making system requires the central office to be stronger and better functioning. For WSF to succeed, central offices have to do more than simply get out of the way. They must devote a considerable amount of effort to establish systems that support school sites’ expanded authority.

Academic and operational offices must work diligently and cooperatively to provide training, prepare written guidance that addresses potential areas of confusion, respond to school sites’ questions immediately and review academic plans and budgets against quality and compliance criteria. They must provide accurate budget allocations, staffing parameters, site-specific school performance data and other relevant information to allow schools to make appropriate decisions.
District offices must coordinate their efforts carefully and must exceed schools’ expectations to persuade the inevitable skeptics. To measure the quality of service and support they provide, central-office departments can be evaluated annually through surveys of school staff and governance teams.

Our central-office staff members now see their role as facilitating the work of school sites, not arbitrarily declining requests because “we’ve never done it that way.” Generally they are happier with this new role.

Our budget and human resources staff members appreciate being included, for the first time, in discussions with colleagues on how to read and evaluate school academic plans. Most importantly, staff members from all central departments now see much more clearly how their work can support schools’ success. After all, no one comes to work for a school district central office hoping to frustrate school principals, but bureaucratic forces sometimes lead to these types of relationships. Many central-office staff members welcome the changes prompted by a weighted formula as much as anyone does.

Responsive Assistance

The most important test of whether a WSF system is working is how well the district’s principals and other school site representatives can perform their additional responsibilities. This requires high-quality written materials, effective training and responsive technical assistance.

Our training and written resources emphasize several key components: building an effective site-level team; using data in developing school site plans and budgets; and monitoring the implementation of the academic plan. We conduct training throughout the year and have designed modules of training targeted to specific needs and varying degrees of familiarity with the subject matter.

It is also crucial to provide enough time and support to principals and site teams, particularly as they undertake the process for the first time. This may include being prepared to provide a principal who is struggling with hands-on technical assistance, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a knowledgeable staff member if necessary. A sign of true success will be principals and site team members over time increasingly assisting and sharing effective practices with each other and with counterparts across school sites. In fact, some of our best and most articulate spokespersons for our work with WSF are our principals, teachers and parents.

The Academic Link

The weighted student formula can be emphasized as a budget allocation methodology, but in San Francisco it has become much more closely linked to the district’s academic goals. The increased emphasis on site-based decision making has led to higher quality site plans and more effective planning and monitoring. School governance teams are working more effectively, and parents and teachers are more consistently engaged in academic planning.

For example, school community meetings at one of our more challenging elementary schools that formerly drew only a handful of parents are now attracting dozens. The meetings are also conducted in Spanish and English, for the benefit of the school’s large immigrant population.

Our schools’ parent clubs used to focus most of their time on booster activities, fundraisers and the prom. Now, parents, teachers and principals are working together in schools across the city to prioritize academic services and interventions for students once they study disaggregated achievement data.

The assistant superintendents who supervise the schools are deeply involved in supporting the local school planning and budgeting process and in monitoring the implementation of academic plans. Academic plans are prepared, reviewed, revised and approved more thoughtfully, and budgets are more closely aligned to identified student needs. Finally, plans are linked to principals’ evaluation and district instructional strategies. In other words, the WSF is not an isolated budgeting tool but is strategically linked to other elements of our comprehensive instructional reform strategy.

Right Direction

Just over three years ago, San Francisco began implementing the WSF in tandem with other reform initiatives and redesign efforts. We began this initiative with a clear recognition of the amount of work involved but also a vision for the significant potential rewards.
Initially many voices expressed caution and skepticism. Today, our site-based decision-making initiative is well-established and clearly recognized as an important aspect of how education works in San Francisco. Most importantly, our implementation of WSF and other reform initiatives has resulted in increased student achievement.

Will San Francisco Unified School District sustain its progress? Only time will tell. For now, I am convinced the academic gains our students have made over the last four years indicate that an unrelenting focus on improving student achievement coupled with a strategic instructional plan and the alignment of resources will keep us moving in the right direction.

Arlene Ackerman is superintendent of the San Francisco Unified School District, 555 Franklin St., San Francisco, CA 94102. E-mail: