Wednesday, December 18, 2013

State Chiefs Need To Cage-Bust, Too

There is no escaping the idea that state education agencies (SEAs) need to step up their acts. Most are gigantic bureaucracies designed to administer state and federal programs and to hold school districts accountable for reporting and fiscal requirements. It’s not that the work of a typical SEA is totally disconnected from school improvement efforts, but most observers agree that the boldly stated goals of initiatives like Common Core State Standards, Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grants pose challenges that most agencies are not prepared to meet.

At CRPE, we’ve been exploring how state governments can support education innovation, accountability, and performance. A new CRPE report by Ashley Jochim and Patrick Murphy looks into the current SEA transformation efforts underway in 10 states and has some interesting findings about what is most likely to stand in the way of SEA effectiveness. Though most state chiefs would love to have more funding and more legal authority, this report shows that most SEAs are not making the most of the legal and financial resources they already have. Ashley and Patrick found, for example, that:

  • Few SEAs engage in the type of budget analysis that would enable them to assess whether their investments align with their priorities or are paying off.
  • Funding levels bear no relationship to better data systems or to more comprehensive accountability systems.
  • SEAs put serious money behind assessments, but not interventions.
  • SEAs have often failed to hold districts accountable for implementation of the federal School Improvement Grant program, deferring to “local control” in situations where districts had already failed.

The study also finds that SEA recruitment strategies are too weak to attract and keep the great talent needed to support statewide school improvement strategies (here are some ideas for how to address that). Some aren’t aggressive enough in recruiting new SEA staff. Others rely on multiple reorganizations, seeking to squeeze something better out of the same people.

So what will it take for SEAs to take better advantage of the power and money they have today? My colleague Ashley argues that the will to act is often the biggest barrier. Maybe no surprise to many, appointed SEA chiefs are more aggressive than elected chiefs in restructuring their agencies and changing how they function internally. In many states, SEA chiefs cannot get elected without union and school board association support. It’s not likely, then, that these chiefs will turn around and act more aggressively to intervene in the status quo.

All of these findings are very much in line with Rick Hess’s book on cage-busting at the local level. The implication is not that policy and money don’t matter. But SEA leaders too often wring their hands about not having any control over districts instead of finding ways to take advantage of the current leverage they have. They can partner with districts to support and fix low-performing schools, and create incentives for districts to act with purpose and urgency. And as our new report points out, sometimes SEAs need to simply get better at staying out of the way of districts and schools that are already doing good work.

Mon, 11/15/2021

Use the Canopy project interactive data portal to search for innovative schools by region, level, focus, and more.

Thu, 10/28/2021

Three new policy memos provide recommendations to start a discussion about how state leaders can ensure these shifts lead to better teaching, learning, engagement, and well-being for students.

Tue, 10/12/2021

School system leaders can draw lessons from small pandemic learning communities to better support their students’ well-being and learning.