Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Leading State Education Agencies Focus on Data, Worry about Access to Talent

Seattle, WA - As both the federal government and states face unprecedented challenges in raising standards and increasing outcomes for all students, state education agencies (SEAs) need to take a new approach; one focused less on compliance and more on performance management.

For most SEAs this is a daunting and complicated task. A new study from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington provides help by showing what states at the forefront of this change are doing to improve their lowest-performing schools. The authors find that these states follow one of three main strategies, but common to all is a focus on evidence-based decisions and the need to find enough talent to drive and sustain the transformation.

In Modernizing the State Education Agency: Different Paths Toward Performance Management, researchers Patrick Murphy and Lydia Rainey examine eight SEAs—each on the leading edge of the school turnaround movement. Murphy and Rainey reviewed documents and conducted in-depth interviews with reform leaders in Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Tennessee. These states share certain elements of change: a commitment to federal reform priorities, reliance on data-based decision-making, and strong leadership. Yet they differ when it comes to the overall strategic visions that have guided their efforts to improve schools.

The authors identify three essential approaches for SEAs, particularly in how they interact with local school districts:

  • The “All-In” strategy aggressively restructures the SEA and establishes a separate entity to take over failing schools. This model, found in Louisiana and Michigan, represents the greatest departure from the status quo.
  • The “Results Without Rancor” strategy restructures parts of the SEA for performance management but invests more effort in building capacity at the local level to improve failing schools. This approach, found in Minnesota and Rhode Island, focuses on building relationships and is the least disruptive, leaving the job of turning around schools primarily in the districts’ hands.
  • The “Bounded Disequilibrium” strategy structures incentives and disincentives—ranging from offers of resources to threats of state takeover—so that districts act to improve school performance. Florida and New Jersey are among those taking this approach.

According to Dr. Patrick Murphy, one of the authors, “These states are pursuing some of the most aggressive reforms in the country, but they are choosing strategies and making compromises that fit their own historical and political contexts. It remains to be seen which strategies will best pay off in dividends for kids.” The single most common challenge: “Nearly every state education chief and senior staff member we spoke with said the scarcity of talent is a major challenge.”

State education agencies are early in the process of reorienting their missions. The SEAs examined for this study are among the most active and intentional in addressing the charge to improve their lowest-performing schools. As other states begin to engage the challenge of managing the performance of their schools, they may wish to examine the lessons learned by this group. While it is premature to label one approach “better” than another, it is clear that the ability to recruit enough talent to drive the effort will be critical to success.

This is the latest in a series of reports and resources from the Center on Reinventing Public Education as part of its initiative to help policymakers and administrators understand how state education departments can become better performance managers. This project was supported by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

CONTACT: Debra Britt