COMMENTARY - The Sleeping Giant Awakes: To Focus on School Performance, State Departments Must Adapt

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

COMMENTARY - The Sleeping Giant Awakes: To Focus on School Performance, State Departments Must Adapt

For decades, the primary function of state education agencies (SEAs) has been a passive one: to ensure compliance with a vast array of regulations and rules. That won’t be enough for SEAs of the future. To meet growing expectations—and achieve better outcomes for students—SEAs will have to take an active role in managing the performance of schools. States are increasingly recognizing this challenging new mission, but few are prepared to meet it.

Beginning with the 1960s Great Society initiatives, the federal government paid states to monitor compliance with its grants. In the last ten years, however, federal initiatives caught up with early state-led efforts to focus on performance. Initiatives like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants now place state departments of education at the center of efforts to improve the performance of the nation’s lowest-performing schools. Outcomes are what matter now, not process. The adoption of Common Core standards will only reinforce this shift.

To date, there has been limited insight into how SEAs will meet this unprecedented challenge. Reform-minded state education chiefs acknowledge that the traditional approach has become irrelevant. But they are able to provide only a broad outline of how to adapt.

Most SEAs have made progress in collecting student performance data, which is crucial. A Center on Education Policy (CEP) survey found that by 2011, around 40 states had already implemented various elements necessary to create a longitudinal student database, such as establishing benchmarked standards with aligned assessments and assigning unique student identifiers.

Managing for performance, however, requires more than just the capacity to collect data. Take the task of improving underperforming schools. This used to be something districts largely tackled on their own, with little to show for it. Now once the school is identified as failing, the SEA is expected to step in and provide a solution for actually improving the school. These measures could entail managing the school directly or identifying a new operator to run the school—uncharted territory in nearly all states.

State departments clearly have investments to make and a crucial supporting role to play. But few have made any progress in thinking through what that means. As of last year, CEP found, more than 20 states had not yet begun to work with districts to develop school improvement strategies or recruit the best people available (as opposed to just those who are nominally qualified). Only 20 SEAs reported having a plan to identify and recruit charter school operators who could replace persistent underperformers with new schools. Of that 20, only 3 had actually rolled out a program. And, according to a CRPE study, SEAs typically have relatively few personnel assigned to work with the lowest-performing schools.

Researchers at CRPE recently studied eight states that have done better. In these leading-edge states, chiefs reorganized their departments around new roles explicitly designed to manage performance. The old Louisiana Department of Education contained bureaucratic silos around specific federal programs and state grants; the new one features divisions focused on learning outcomes, such as graduation requirements or literacy. Tennessee and Michigan created new offices—the Achievement School District and Education Achievement Authority—that directly manage the improvement of failing schools.

The states we studied are working to clarify what an effective school looks like and how to know when a school is neither benefiting kids nor improving. Indiana, for example, moved from a collection of confusing adjectives to describe school performance to an A-F letter-grade system that makes it clear to all where a school stands. And all of these states have used their relationship with the federal government to their advantage, not just using federal dollars to support their work, but also using the feds’ insistence on performance outcomes as cover for politically difficult actions, such as school closings.

These states differed in how they engaged local districts in the improvement process. Some, such as Louisiana, Tennessee, Indiana, and Michigan, have chosen to remove failing schools from district control. In Minnesota and Rhode Island, in contrast, the SEAs partner with districts to find the right mix of changes needed to turn around underperforming schools. New Jersey offers a third approach: It has created a group of regional support networks, each responsible for developing strategies to improve a specific set of low-performing schools. These states’ experiences could provide important lessons for other SEAs seeking to become better performance managers.

The challenges of performance management

SEAs will face significant constraints as they seek to transform their organizations. These challenges include:

  • Limited resources. In general, it is unlikely that additional federal or state resources to increase capacity will be forthcoming. SEAs will have to take on this new role using the resources currently on hand.
  • Limited time. Both in terms of the federal regulatory requirements and political expectations, SEAs do not have much time to implement changes. If state agencies are going to play a role in school improvement, they will have to institutionalize that focus quickly.
  • Rapidly escalating demands. With the possibility of a reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act on the horizon, combined with ambitious governors and active state legislatures, the rules that bind SEAs are in an unprecedented state of flux. In fact, it would be difficult to find a state-level agency that is facing a more changeable landscape. Reform-minded state administrators, therefore, are likely to find themselves building and flying the proverbial airplane at the same time.

CRPE is in the middle of a study designed to address how SEAs making this shift will have to change both the substance and processes associated with their work. We know the broad outlines of what will be required: SEAs will have to figure out how to reorganize around school improvement, and how to change a routine-oriented compliance culture. They will need to find both the right people to pull this off and the money to employ them. To transform their agencies, state superintendents must be granted new support and authority from their governors and legislatures. Given that most money in SEA administration comes from the feds, they will need to find or negotiate flexibility and leverage in all federal program requirements, ranging from school nutrition to Title I.

Looking beyond the SEA

It makes sense, for now, to focus attention primarily on the SEA office in the state capital. But if states are to make a complete transformation to performance management, the vision will have to broaden beyond the SEA. Questions we’ll have to address in the future include:

  • What do district leaders committed to higher performance need from their SEAs?
  • Are there examples or tools from other sectors or countries that could be applicable in the SEA setting (for example, the use of business analytics)?
  • What steps can the U.S. Department of Education take to facilitate states’ transitions to performance management?

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is committed to helping policymakers and administrators understand how state education departments can become better performance managers. It is too early to conclude whether one approach will prove more successful than another in terms of turning around schools. In the end, we may find that different approaches fit better in different circumstances. What is certain is that SEAs will continue to be expected to take responsibility for managing the performance of the schools in their states, and that this requires organizational change.

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