SEA Reform and Violent Agreement

My colleague Julie Squire and I recently published a report on reforming state departments of education. We argue most state-level reforms ought to be driven by entities other than the SEA, which should focus on a narrower, but still important set of responsibilities.

Our report was intended to challenge the dominant view (i.e., state reform requires a more muscular SEA) and explain how a new approach might be implemented.

We recognized that our take was sufficiently different so as to require not just a strong theoretical base and plenty of evidence but also measured recommendations and explicit cautions. We aimed to produce a sober assessment of current conditions and guarded optimism about a new tack. This is why we dedicate an entire section to the problem and another to the risks of our argument.

We’re fortunate our paper has been taken seriously by a number of serious people, including those who largely agree, those open to a discussion, and those with reservations.

In the last category fall two sharp observers who’ve produced responses warranting attention. Not coincidentally, both are affiliated with CRPE, which has studied systemic reform for ages and dedicated significant recent bandwidth to SEA reform. To cut to the chase, I enthusiastically agree with most of what both have written.

The first is a smart piece by Paul Hill, CRPE’s founder and a researcher who’s thought deeply about the theory underpinning our piece and that theory’s application to K–12 organizations.

Hill astutely points out that the Reinventing Government creed of moving government entities out of “rowing” and into “steering” requires taking great care to fundamentally alter how such entities operate. More specifically, the government agency shifting to “steering” (setting goals and overseeing the work of others) must be recalibrated, reorganized, and restaffed.

In Hill’s words, it must “be explicit about what it needs, how it will know whether it is getting it, and what it will do if the contractor doesn’t deliver.” This demands building new capacities, writing smart RFPs, selecting able partners, negotiating clear contracts, and more. This means not just scaling back what we have but also thoughtfully replacing it.

The second excellent piece, from CRPE researcher Ashley Jochim, raises three questions. One is similar to Hill’s point about staffing the new agency and the second is about politics (a subject deserving separate consideration).

The third, which merits particular attention here, is, in Ashley’s words, “How will states find the independent providers they need to perform key functions[?]” She accurately points out, “It is not evident that robust private or nonprofit sectors exist for many of the functions Andy and Juliet propose to leave to other organizations.”

Hill’s admonition about assiduously reforming the SEA to reflect the approach we recommend is welcome. In fact, my lingering skepticism of CRPE’s “portfolio-district” approach is actually a branch of Hill’s tree. Urban districts were created and then honed over a century to own and operate schools; the portfolio-district approach seeks to turn these gigantic, old bureaucracies into nimble monitors of schools run by others. I don’t think this transition is possible (hence my argument for ending and replacing urban districts).

So why do I advocate for this kind of SEA transformation while advocating against it for urban districts? Three reasons. First, SEAs have only recently been thrust into the reform-rower role; they were created and developed to serve primarily as compliance and performance monitors, meaning reform steering is more compatible with the SEA’s DNA structure than the urban district’s. Second, Julie and I envision a relatively limited contracting role for the SEA; we advocate that some activities be removed entirely from its control. Third, because of current federal and state law, the SEA must be involved in many activities, whereas independent charter authorizers and entities like Louisiana’s RSD make the urban district expendable.

This aside, Hill’s recommendations are spot on; I’d like to think they complement our paper. We were sure to write, “The SEA must not merely delegate the services it is ill equipped to deliver; it should ensure performance contracts are in place and delineate expected outcomes and consequences for persistent poor performance.”

Moreover, in a subsection titled “What Could Go Wrong?” we foreshadow Hill’s clever adage that “contracting out is a tiger; you must ride it or it will eat you.” We highlight the importance of transparency, the threat of conflicts of interest, and the necessity of results-oriented contracts. But Hill deserves credit for describing how to make such principles come to life.

Though Hill’s argument is undeniably important, I find Jochim’s question—how to build an ecosystem to fill the void left by the SEA’s retrenchment—endlessly fascinating. Julie and I were so intrigued by this matter we dedicated a chunk of the paper to it. In our “4C” model, “create” gets more ink than the other three Cs. In fact, the aspect of the paper of which I’m most proud is our description of how this ecosystem is already being quietly developed, including our spotlighting four organizations providing its early outlines.

I’m thrilled Hill and Jochim are dedicating their talents to the reform of state departments of education; others interested in the topic should read their contributions. As states begin modifying what it means to be an SEA, I greatly look forward to working with both of them to learn how to smartly adjust these agencies and develop complementary organizations.

I can’t wait to see where our violent agreement leads us.

-Andy Smarick

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

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