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State Ed. Departments Should Scale Back, Involve Outside Groups, Report Says

The era of state education departments that focus on distributing and monitoring money and overseeing K-12 programs should end, and they should shift to a leaner model with a narrower set of duties while allowing independent, nongovernmental groups to step into the breach.

That's the thesis of a new report on state education agencies (SEAs) from two Washington-based think tanks, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Bellwether Education Partners. Authored by Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire at Bellwether, "The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar" argues that in the current education policy environment, the departments need to be recreated. Does that mean they should get a new boatload of resources and much more regulatory power? No, say the authors. Instead, Smarick and Squire use two metaphors to describe what should happen: Put state education departments on a diet, not steroids, and direct them to steer more but row less. That means turning to other organizations for help.

"By delegating to the SEA only those functions for which it is well suited, policymakers can create room for the emergence of a vibrant, independent nonprofit sector better positioned to lead bold reforms," the authors write.

I wrote earlier this year about a report on reforming state education agencies from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based group that said the departments need more flexibility and willpower to do their jobs better. In the Bellwether-Fordham report, the authors cite that report as part of a grim picture they paint of how state education agencies have handled everything from direct district takeovers (such as California's takeover of Oakland schools) to federal programs like Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants. Even with the Common Core State Standards getting so much attention, the report cites independent analyses that show the departments remain without key resources and lack the ability to train teachers appropriately. 

Rhode Island and Louisiana are two examples of departments that successfully pushed ahead big policy changes, the authors write, "But we believe such successes are occurring in spite of, not because of, the SEA. Energy and force of will are limited resources; bureaucracy, politics, and path dependency never tire."

The best way forward, according to the report, is the model laid out in a 1993 book, "Reinventing Government" by David Osborne and Ted Gaebler. In this model, state education agencies should take one of four approaches to each task. They should continue to "control" certain tasks they do well; "contract" some responsibilities to other organizations (possibly even districts under the right circumstances); "cleave" away some jobs entirely, such as authorizing charter schools; and "create" new groups to handle other tasks, like the New Schools for New Orleans. Here's the model in chart form:

FordhamChart.PNGAlthough Smarick and Squire say that policymakers need to take care when they use this approach that the flow of taxpayer dollars is transparent, for example, "In many cases, there will be a natural balance between the state and non-state agencies."

Read the full report below:

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