A new report recommends ways the federal government might help SEAs.

With a renewed focus on student achievement and school reform, many state education agencies (SEAs) find themselves under pressure to change operations and show positive results, and a new report gives several suggestions for how state education leaders can work within their states, and with the federal government, to effect change.

Once a relatively low-profile job, the position of state education leader has become more prominent with increased scrutiny on performance and test scores under No Child Left Behind, combined with President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative and its emphasis on school reform.

SEAs, often referred to as a state’s department of education or department of public instruction, administer state and federal laws, allocate state and federal resources, and offer guidance to districts throughout the state.

State Education Agencies as Agents of Change: What It Will Take for the States to Step Up on Education Reform” examines what is known about the capacity of SEAs to be effective leaders in school reform, what obstacles prevent them from tackling today’s education challenges in the most effective way possible, how the most successful state education chiefs’ experiences have helped them form a vision of what their role should be, and how reformers or policy makers can help prepare SEAs for new challenges.

The report reflects “perhaps the most extensive research into state education agencies in, we think, 17 years,” said Cynthia Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress and co-author of the report, during a panel briefing to discuss the report.

“It’s clear that the demands placed on SEAs have dramatically increased, but it’s unclear if they’re ready to meet those demands,” she said.