Thursday, December 3, 2015

“Batter Up!” Advice as States Step Up to the Plate on ESEA Implementation

With the rewritten Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), responsibility for improving outcomes for students is back where some say it has always belonged—under the purview of states. One thing is clear: as states take on their new responsibilities, they will need to use evidence to effect change, protect what is working, and ensure limited resources are used wisely. Few are well positioned to do so today. Many state education agencies (SEA) have no defined, dedicated research or analysis capacity. State accountability systems are typically blunt instruments and don’t give a lot of meaningful data to drive improvement.

baseball bat and ball

Just in time for a new state-centered education framework, the latest volume of The State Education Agency of the Future (SEAF) explores how SEAs can use data and research to drive key spending, policy, and program decisions.

Still, as states move away from compliance mode toward a more powerful role in shaping K–12 education, they need to tread carefully when using evidence to craft policy and avoid sweeping policy prescriptions. Beginning with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and continuing through the Obama administration’s reform efforts, federal administrators embraced a “what works” approach to school reconstitution, private tutoring, public school choice, and turnaround that often ignored local circumstances.

These policies, of course, did not work as many thought they would. Carefully crafted policies met complicated local realities, where the capacity of teachers and leaders varied, oversight of implementation was uneven, and community support was lacking. As our friend and colleague Rick Hess has pointed out, good evidence doesn’t always lead to good policy because “what works” in one context may be wholly ineffective in another.

As the federal government looks to shrink its outsized role in education and states take on additional responsibilities for advancing outcomes for students, education leaders can take some lessons from recent federal reforms and the role of evidence-building in state education policy. Here’s our advice:

  1. Be wary of the temptation to craft one-size-fits-all solutions. The legacy of NCLB is a painful reminder of how an “evidence-based policy” can backfire. Schools are among the most complicated human endeavors. Prescriptive requirements to replace staff and mandate particular instructional approaches inevitably confront the fact that schools struggle for many reasons and have varying assets and liabilities. States (and the feds) are limited in what they can accomplish through mandates. Instead, they should provide localities the evidence they need to effectively target resources. One example featured in the latest SEAF is “The Nebraska Blueprint,” a plan for the Nebraska Department of Education to provide data analysis tools for districts to use.
  2. Be choosy about what you take on and be prepared to support (directly or indirectly) its implementation. State agencies have limited resources and capacity. With federal encouragement, many states have taken on big new reform initiatives like teacher evaluation and Common Core implementation. Yet few state legislatures have made investments in SEAs that enable this work to be done well. Implementation efforts (see here and here) raise real questions about whether states are positioned to be delivering the kinds of direct supports that schools need. States should think long and hard about the policy levers they pull and determine whether change can most effectively be enacted at the state or local level.
  3. Be clear about who in K–12 “owns” the problem (the SEA, the district, or the school), allow those organizations to craft solutions, and hold them accountable for the results. Though some may find a move away from top-down directives encouraging, one of the biggest challenges of improving outcomes in K–12 education is that responsibility is so muddled; it’s entirely unclear who or what is at fault when things don’t work as intended. The School Improvement Grant program is a case in point where turnaround approaches were crafted by federal regulators, overseen by SEAs, required of and by local districts, and implemented by school principals and teachers. When the program didn’t work as intended, it was unclear whether fault rested with individual principals who failed to implement federally sanctioned approaches with fidelity, districts who constrained the work of local educators, the states who were overseeing the work, or the feds, who ultimately provided the four paths to turnaround that schools were required to use. States should make it clear who is best positioned to solve a problem and empower those individuals to craft solutions that have a chance at working, given local assets and constraints, and hold them accountable for results.

As states contemplate their new role, they’ll have to do more than just push data and evidence out to districts and cross their fingers that things will go well. States need to empower districts and schools to act on the evidence provided in ways that make sense in a local context but keep sensible accountability guardrails in place. There are a number of ways to achieve this. CRPE has developed model legislation that lays out one path by helping to clarify the role of states in K–12 education, enabling SEAs to provide broad oversight complemented by local autonomy.

The stakes are high as states step up to the plate in the education game. Though they may miss some pitches, there should be no excuse for failing to swing.

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