Steering and Rowing in the Age of ESSA

helmnotoarIf you care about state education policy and/or the new federal education law, you ought to spend some time doing three things. First, consider how the performance of schools (and networks of schools) needs to be assessed. Second, read the short Fordham report At the Helm, Not the Oar. Third, encourage your favorite state’s department of education to undertake an organizational strategic planning process.

All three are part of a single, important exercise: figuring out what role the state department of education must play in public schooling.

By now, everyone knows that ESSA returns to states the authority to create K–12 accountability systems. So it’s worth giving some thought to what, exactly, schools and districts should be held accountable for. What do we want them to actually accomplish?

But even if we get clear on the “what,” the “who” and “how” remain. Which entity or entities should be tasked with this work, and how should they go about it?

In At the Helm, which I co-wrote in 2014 with Juliet Squire, we argue that there are lots and lots of things handed to state departments of education (also known as state education agencies, or “SEAs”) that could be better achieved elsewhere. We make the case that SEAs have become the default recipient of virtually all state-level K–12 obligations, even though they aren’t set up to succeed in many cases.

So as states create new accountability systems over the next eighteen months or so, the basic issue will be this: What should be delegated to SEAs, and what should live elsewhere?

We conceived of and penned this report long before ESSA was passed, so we were fortunate to have the space to think in terms of principles instead of specifics. That is, we weren’t caught up in the details of the law’s rules on academic metrics, non-academic indicators, school designations, interventions, and so on. Having worked at an SEA, Julie and I were thinking more along the lines of all state-level duties (distributing state funds, credentialing teachers, implementing harassment/bullying regulations, authorizing charter schools, managing longitudinal data systems, etc.).

Accordingly, we created some rules of the road for deciding which activities should be given to the SEA and which would be better handled by other bodies. We even came up with an easy-to-remember heuristic we called the “Four Cs:” Control, Contract, Cleave, and Create.

The gist is this: There are absolutely things that a single government body should do (control). But there are also things the SEA can empower others to do with some state oversight (contract) and some things the SEA can simply hand off to others (cleave). And if we’re to rely on non-SEAs to do more work, those entities need to be developed (create).

If you can appreciate the inherent limitations of the SEA and entertain the idea of some state-level work being conducted by other state bodies, quasi-governmental entities, nonprofit organizations, or other organizations, then you can probably recognize the major opportunity afforded by ESSA. It catalyzes states to think anew, offers them the time to be smart about it, and gives them the authority try novel approaches.

Yes, SEAs should probably continue to administer state tests. But must the SEA be the one to analyze and distribute the data or create growth scores? Maybe not.

If a state wants to use parent or student surveys in its accountability system, should the SEA create and administer them? Not necessarily.

If the state wants to use inspectorates to assess individual schools, or have nonprofit operators start new schools to replace struggling ones, must the SEA run these processes? Perhaps not.

The obvious question, then, becomes: If not the SEA, who? In the report, we consider this and highlight a range of organizations that are emerging to take on what were once considered SEA duties. This ecosystem of external entities isn’t yet flourishing. But in many places, it’s starting to bud and bloom.

And that’s where step three comes in—getting your SEA to undertake an organizational strategic planning process. Now’s the time to consider the capacities of the SEA and make use of its strengths. It’s also the time to get clear-eyed about the SEA’s innate deficiencies and make sure important work is conducted by the organizations best equipped to succeed.

— Andy Smarick

This first appeared on Flypaper.

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