The New SEA: At the Helm, Not the Oar

When it comes to state education agencies (SEAs), ed-reformers have fallen into a sorry rut.

As states have emerged as primary drivers of much-needed changes in K–12 practice and policy, the SEA has become the default agent-of-change for a vast number of initiatives concocted by policymakers in state capitals and Washington alike.

Want a new teacher-evaluation system and more rigorous certification standards? Want to crack down on school violence and bullying? Want better assessments of school performance and improved interventions for low-performers? Want to widen broadband access and encourage blended learning?

Hand it to the SEA.

Given that this agency is the state’s primary (or only) K–12 administrative unit, one can easily see why decision makers have had this impulse.

Yet the SEA was originally designed—and then acculturated over decades—to distribute dollars to local districts and monitor their compliance with a lengthening list of federal and state regulations and categorical funding streams. It was never intended to lead complex, contentious, large-scale reforms that require original thinking, nimble action and constant adaptability. In other words, it wasn’t intended to carry out a huge fraction of the responsibilities that have recently been thrust upon it.

In our new report, The New SEA: At the Helm, Not the Oar, we propose that this plain fact be recognized and alternative arrangements made.

This does not mean we think the SEA has no role in education reform, much less that we naively yearn to trust everything to “local control.” K–12 schooling is a public enterprise as well as a public good. It is enshrined in state constitutions, and state leaders are ultimately responsible for ensuring that all children within their borders acquire a satisfactory education. So the SEA, as the lead state agency for K–12 education, should play an important role, indeed should take the lead in some areas.

There are numerous examples of SEAs managing, through adroit leadership and cage-busting mindsets, to bring about big and valuable improvements. The Tennessee Department of Education has executed a promising strategy for implementing the Common Core State Standards. Under the leadership of Chris Cerf, the New Jersey Department of Education successfully pushed for the first tenure-reform legislation in one hundred years. Louisiana chief John White has introduced a potentially game-changing innovation through Course Choice.

Bravo for them and let’s have more of them. But driving major reforms through the SEA is generally ineffective—or, at the very least, inefficient. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has worked in one of these agencies or tracked their struggles to improve failing schools under NCLB, turn around the troubled districts that they’ve taken over, ensure that new educator evaluation systems end the “widget effect,” complete Race to the Top deliverables on time, or successfully administer federal School Improvement Grants.

There is a better way, one that keeps state governments in the reform driver’s seat but disperses the heavy lifting to a broader array of governmental and private entities. Following the “steer-not-row” maxim of Reinventing Government, the SEA will be responsible for less doing but more responsible for ensuring that important things get done by others.

We have developed a framework for evaluating which functions the SEA must continue to control, what it might contract out to partners, and what might be entirely cleaved from its portfolio. We also consider the kinds of organizations that are needed to fill the vacuum. This “4C Model” provides a tool for reformers to combat the “give-it-to-the-SEA” reflex, enabling policymakers and outside agents-of-change to develop better habits when it comes to assigning responsibility for their most important education initiatives:


SEAs should retain a core set of functions, most of which have three characteristics: First, they are long-term and unlikely to require or be affected by mid-course policy shifts. Second, they focus on outcomes, not process. And third, they include functions that demand transparency for public accountability, both for families and for taxpayers.

Obvious examples: SEAs should control the distribution of federal and state dollars, the adoption of statewide standards and assessments, creating and maintaining statewide data systems, and monitoring compliance with federal and state laws.


In some cases, the SEA must ensure that services are provided, but is ill suited to provide those services itself. So it should contract with other organizations that are better equipped to accomplish the work.

Under such an arrangement, the SEA authorizes outside organizations to take on these responsibilities, distributes funds to them, grants them significant authority and flexibility, and develops performance contracts by which to hold them accountable for meeting the state’s goals.

This process could be used for many services now carried out directly by SEAs, including professional development around standards implementation, educator certification, training associated with new evaluation systems, and much more.


SEAs currently perform tasks that lie far outside of their core competencies, such as intervening in failing schools, authorizing charter schools, and generating innovation. Such functions should be relocated to specialized new governmental or private entities that can develop the capacity to do this challenging work effectively.


If SEA functions are circumscribed by the first three C’s, the obvious next question is, what then fills the void that remains? We believe that state-level actors, both inside and outside government, should create new entities designed to take on reform work.

In the most reform-oriented cities, a vibrant ecosystem of nonprofit organizations, often led by an “intermediary” or “harbormaster,” is changing the face of K–12 delivery. These groups are taking on challenges related to school creation, human capital, facilities, advocacy, and much more, as the district transitions from public-education leviathan to one of many school operators. We need an analogous ecosystem at the state level.

Such organizations are emerging in some places. The Colorado Education Initiative (formerly the Colorado Legacy Foundation), the New York Regents Research Fund, Tennessee SCORE, and Louisiana’s Recovery School District are prototypes of the entities we envision.

Multiple benefits would result from separating most education-reform efforts from the SEA, whether via contracts or wholly independent organizations. External entities can pilot new approaches and differentiate the solutions to a host of challenges within their states. Exempt from cumbersome state procurement procedures, civil-service rules and pay scales, they can more readily attract talent and customize (and economize on) their purchases and outlays.

At the end of the day, the SEA is more likely to help improve student outcomes if, instead of serving as all-purpose regulator and provider, it functions as the sun at the center of a solar system of agile organizations with the capacity to meet the many challenges of education reform in the twenty-first century.

-Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire

Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners and a Bernard Lee Schwartz policy fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He most recently served as deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey.

Juliet Squire is an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners. She most recently worked at the New Jersey Department of Education, where she directed strategies for advancing technology-driven innovation and oversaw the state’s Race to the Top program.

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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