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Why the Path Ahead Is Uncertain for State Education Agencies

For the next few weeks, Rick will be out and about discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he's away, several of the contributors have agreed to stop by and offer their reflections on what we've learned from the Bush-Obama era. This week, you'll hear from Sara Dahill-Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wake Forest. Her blog posts will consider how states handled the challenges posed by the Bush-Obama era and what it all teaches about the dynamics of federalism.

As a professor, my life is governed by the familiar rhythms of an academic year. Semesters tend to start with a lot of ambition and optimism, and devolve into a flurry of final papers, exams, and emails about late night computer glitches. Summers end before I've consumed half of the things on my to-read list. One of the truly delightful aspects about this particular career is that plenty of events each year celebrate students' accomplishments and the communities they build—graduations, homecomings, and all of the idiosyncratic traditions that develop around a university.

In the midst of those big occasions, it is often the smaller moments for which I am most thankful. When a student walks into my office, or raises a hand in class, and expresses some combination of amazement and dismay that even though we are nearing the end of our time together, they have more questions now than they did at the beginning of the course, I dance a quiet, happy jig in my mind.

Uncertainty and change are the constants in politics and policy, and so I try to approach my research with that perspective, aiming to expand what I know, but also to sharpen my sense of what I don't. Therefore, in my final post this week, I'd like to briefly examine what we do and don't know about how state education agencies (SEAs) can build capacity to tackle the future.

It seems rather clear that SEAs were asked to take on a significant number of new responsibilities during the Bush and Obama administrations. In general, lawmakers and administrators didn't pay adequate attention to whether or not SEAs had the money, people, expertise, and connections necessary to fulfill these new expectations. Though it is a bit early to be sure, it appears a similar lack of attention to capacity dogged the planning process under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

State legislatures did not typically restore SEAs to their prior staffing or funding levels after the Great Recession, and more than half of SEAs have reported a substantial workload increase during the first year of ESSA planning. Only a single agency reported having adequate capacity to meet all requirements, and in spite of the expanded freedom to design new accountability systems, an independent review indicated that most plans didn't appear to be especially innovative or ambitious.

This suggests that the question of how to make smart investments in SEA capacity remains an open one, a challenge unanswered by state and federal policymakers. On the one hand, researchers more or less agree that SEAs need to have sufficient capacity to perform core responsibilities. This includes things like articulating a vision, establishing priorities, and setting goals; implementing standards and assessments; designing and operating accountability systems; administering federal and state funding programs; and developing communication systems that function both to disseminate and take in information.

Finding ways to increase the stability of funding streams for this work may be particularly critical, as predictable funding streams tend to encourage long-term development of capacity, expertise in particular. So too it may be important to reduce churn among SEA leaders who frequently leave their positions after only one or two years on the job.

On the other hand, researchers and advocates disagree regarding how SEAs should cope with newer responsibilities like guiding school turnaround, managing professional development, and conducting research.

Some have cautioned against investing in bigger SEAs, suggesting that in an environment where policy demands have grown so significantly, agencies should focus on core responsibilities, contract out operational work, and consider creating or partnering with nonprofit entities, particularly to take on functions that call for creative proposals. For instance, the Colorado Department of Education, which has historically operated on a lean budget, has worked closely with the Colorado Education Initiative since 2007 to supplement its long-term planning capabilities.

Such an approach is not without its own set of complications. For instance, SEAs that utilized contracting heavily during Race to the Top (RTTT) struggled when consultants who completed key elements of planning and implementation later disappeared. Relying more heavily on a supportive group of nonprofits, community partners, and consultants would require SEAs to hone their abilities to manage contracts, maintain large networks, negotiate exposure to political conflicts, and develop systems that somehow preserve institutional memory, coherence, and consistency.

Other researchers and advocates are more open to the idea that SEAs might be able to perform both their core functions and take on newer programmatic responsibilities. For instance, a number of states not only developed longitudinal data systems, but leveraged them to build early-warning systems that could flag students at risk of dropping out and then pass that information on to schools and districts that could intervene.

At the same time, SEAs tended to struggle with transcending internal silos and most continued to display more comfort with administrative and compliance-oriented work rather than projects in direct support of classroom teaching and school improvement. This was most apparent with regard to school turnaround where the work was complicated by the fact that there were few proven strategies for turning around struggling schools.

There are, it seems to me, pitfalls and promises associated with both strategies that focus on more permanent, internal structures and those that focus on more flexible, external relationships. Given this and the fact that SEAs operate in vastly different contexts, what strikes me as most critical is that capacity is built with some deliberate intention, that teachers and parents are included in strategic decisions, and that policymakers continue to learn from one another and the past.

Thanks to readers for sticking with me this week, to Rick for lending me the venue, and once more to Mike McShane and Rick for drawing us together to craft this volume!

Sara Dahill-Brown

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