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States face challenges when it comes to school reform

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.

The authors identified 13 innovative and successful former and current state school chiefs and interviewed them to discover what they see as obstacles to implementing reform and how they were able to overcome those obstacles and improve their states. The authors spent nearly a year researching and interviewing.

The authors found:

  • SEAs are overly focused on compliance. Traditionally, SEAs administer state and federal funds and ensure that the SEA complies with the law instead of focusing on increasing student achievement. Many SEAs are stuck in outdated routines, and many state education leaders can’t identify creative solutions to change their agency’s habits.
  • There is a lack of transparency. State agencies spend millions or billions of dollars each year, but it is hard to find basic information on how the agencies function and how they spend that money. Agency websites are often difficult to navigate, and rarely do they publish detailed operating information. Researchers, legislators, and the public often have problems understanding what is really happening within the agency.
  • Federal funding can hinder SEA operations. Federal funding is essential to state educational operations, but it comes with restrictions. It is tied to specific programs or employees, and state education leaders often have little or no control over how funding is allocated. Some state school chiefs are examining ways to reorganize their agencies around function, rather than funding stream.
  • There are bureaucratic obstacles to reforming SEAs. An SEA must adhere to state rules and regulations, including hiring processes, pay scales, and civil service laws. These can all hamper the education chief’s ability to recruit talent and change agency culture. The state education chiefs contacted for the report acknowledged that these laws can be very limiting, and they indicated that creative strategies were needed to work within the system.

After conducting their research, the authors made several recommendations to guide SEAs as they improve their operations and strive to better assist low-performing schools.

Federal and state government recommendations…

States should grant SEAs more flexibility on hiring, staffing, and salary decisions. “Without greater autonomy, SEAs will continue to find it difficult to attract and retain talented employees,” the authors note. This will limit states’ potential for reform. State hiring rules, salary scales and caps, and civil service guidelines slow down this process.

“At the state level, one thing that came through repeatedly was just how hamstrung SEAs are when it comes to staffing and compensation,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the report’s authors.

“We seem to have come to a consensus that we want SEAs to play a larger role in driving school reform,” Hess said. “Unfortunately, SEAs are … asked to operate within byzantine state staffing requirements” and other salary limitations.

States should weigh giving SEAs authority to take over abysmally performing schools and school districts. States sometimes clash with local figures or unions when it comes to chronically underperforming schools, but they should consider giving SEAs the authority to take over those failing schools or districts in an attempt to provoke change at the local level. This is not “an easy solution,” the authors warn, and states “must carefully assess their capacity before setting foot in a school.”

The federal government should provide political cover to states to drive improvement. At the federal level, the government can use funding and rules to promote change in SEAs. “It can also provide political cover to SEAs to move forward an agenda that governors, state legislators, and state school board members would not have agreed to on their own,” according to the report. Reformers However, school reformers must keep in mind that the federal government can’t force states to take actions they don’t want to take.

The federal government should grant flexibility around federal strictures. Rules–many of them antiquated–have accumulated over the years and weigh down SEAs’ staff. “When the No Child Left Behind Act was adopted in 2001, officials became accountable for new school performance outcomes, yet they were not relieved of the rules and regulations forcing them to continue with outdated compliance-focused activities. The U.S. Department of Education, Congress, and the Office of Management and Budget need to review these rules and regulations and
assess which can be loosened or removed to free SEAs from obsolete regulations,” the authors wrote.

The federal government should scrutinize how federal demands shape culture and practice in SEAs. SEAs are split into two branches because federally-paid employees are physically separated from state employees. These federally-paid employees often are viewed as “privileged employees” with their own resources. Plus, SEA officials have to deal with decades of outdated rules that help to repress progress.

Often, education chiefs who assume leadership positions and set out to change their SEA’s culture meet with substantial conflict and pushback, and the federal government should examine how it can empower these forward-thinking education chiefs to turn their state education agencies around, Hess said.

“SEA units that manage federal dollars tend to be siloed off,” Hess said. “For a state chief coming in and trying to assert control, it is a huge problem when you have whole units that say, ‘Well, my real directions come from Washington, not from you.’”

Actions for SEA chiefs…

SEA chiefs, more than anything, need to approach their job with the attitude that they’ll find a way to alter routines. “Chiefs can creatively and thoughtfully change the practices of the agency, to work around or exploit existing laws. While this is not easy, it is not impossible, and the chief has the power to chart the future course of the agency,” the authors wrote.

SEA chiefs need to regard themselves as political operators, and to build and deploy their political capital in smart ways. An SEA leader holds a political position, and must work to build relationships that will help him or her redirect the agency’s focus.

SEA chiefs need to do a better job of making basic operating information publicly accessible. “Basic SEA operating information has not been collected in 17 years and such information is not readily accessible today,” according to the report. “Most SEAs do not report clearly how much money they spend, what they spend those dollars on, what percentage of their funding is federal, how many individuals they employ, or what those employees do.”

SEA chiefs need to build agency capacity and philanthropic foundations can provide the resources to change the game. Owing to the still-stagnant economy, education leaders should look to philanthropic foundations to help support the SEA as it moves toward a change and pushes for reform.

The report should “provide the basis for a complete re-examination of the role of state education agencies and their chiefs in transforming the SEA into an agent of change that can assist districts in the crucial task of remaking our public schools to meet the needs of our children in the 21st century,” the authors wrote.

In addition to Brown and Hess, the report was written by Daniel K. Lautzenheiser and Isabel Owen. It was distributed by the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute.

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