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Weakening the State Education Agency: A Manual

Once upon a time, I thought I knew who a conservative was.  I was pretty sure that conservatives were people who wanted to conserve, who thought there was something to be said for continuity and for letting traditional institutions work things out, people like Edmund Burke, who argued that, once a polity started down the track of radical change, there was no telling what might get swept aside, the good along with the bad. He thought the French Revolution was a pretty good example.

Everything changes, I guess. Now, as far as I can see, it's the conservatives who are ready to grasp at any new idea--the more radical the better--as long as it takes a swing at the government and embodies in some way the mysterious workings of the market.

I have in mind a new report from the Fordham Institute by Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire called, "The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar."  In it, the authors contend that state education agencies are hopeless, cannot really be strengthened and must therefore hand off most of their really important, recently acquired functions to others, many of them in the not-for-profit sector.

The authors rightly point out that our state education agencies for decades on end had very limited roles: mainly funneling funds voted by state legislatures to school districts, certain public safety functions, monitoring the use of federal categorical funds, running special state schools, performing certain licensing and regulatory functions and so on.  And they observe that these same state agencies have lacked the capacity to lead the charge in the current era of education reform.  This, they say, is no accident.  Government rules make it hard to recruit competent staff.  Government contracting procedures are hopelessly byzantine.  And all this is next to impossible to change because the dynamic of the institution has a momentum of its own that will resist even the most determined. 

The challenges are certainly great, but the authors conveniently ignore the substantial achievements of Massachusetts and others. Instead, they paint the worst case as the universal condition, and tell us we must accept the limitations of the beast and look elsewhere for the leadership that a new era of reform will require.

What the state should do, they say, is forget about the state actually developing the capacity to charter schools, monitor the implementation of the Common Core, support innovation in education, oversee turnarounds in underperforming schools, reform teacher preparation and so on.  Instead, the authors say, the state education agencies should slim down even further, leaving these functions mostly to not-for-profit institutions charged by the state agency with responsibility for them, and held accountable by the state agency for their performance.

All of this makes very little sense to me.  If our state agencies lack capacity because they find it hard to attract capable people, why should we expect the new regime proposed by the authors to work well when the work the new non-profits are supposed to do is conceived by these still-incompetent state staff, contracted with by that incompetent staff and monitored by that incompetent staff?  If one of the big reasons that we can't trust state government to get it right is that the state government's contracting procedures are so baroque, then how are these non-state actors going to be charged with their new duties and provided state funds to carry them out if not through these very same reprehensible and unworkable contracting procedures?

But my real objection to the proposal runs deeper than that.  What is being proposed is, in reality, a giant workaround, proposed by people who are apparently happy to give up on government.  To avoid depending on what the authors regard as a hopeless state agency, the authors propose to replace most of its most important functions with a myriad of other organizations, removed from government and much less accountable than government, working more or less independently of one another.

In a paper I wrote last year on school governance, I made the case that the American system of school governance has splintered responsibility for school governance more thoroughly than it has been in any other advanced industrial country.  And I advanced the thesis that this extreme splintering of responsibility for school policy-making is the root problem of American education.  No one can be held responsible, because the buck stops nowhere.  The result is that it is impossible to put together a coherent system, in which all the parts and pieces are designed to support the others.  Instead, the parts and pieces of our system are more likely to tug against each other, producing an incoherent and ineffective system.  This in stark contrast to the top-performing countries, where the buck stops at the provincial or national ministry of education, which is held accountable for creating and maintaining a system that produces world class performance at a competitive cost.  Now, to my astonishment, I see the authors of this paper advancing the idea that what this country needs is an even more splintered system of school governance!

This is truly stunning.  On the basis of what evidence that such a system would actually work?  They point to states that have given authority to agencies other than the state education agency for certain functions, but they advance no evidence that this assignment of authority to others has resulted in measured improvements in student achievement.  Is evidence no longer relevant?  What am I missing here?

The evidence from the top performing countries strongly suggests that what we need is stronger state agencies, not weaker ones.  What kind of Americans are we if we sigh and say that it is simply not possible to have strong, capable state education agencies?  Are we really no longer able to govern ourselves?  The authors of this paper are correct in saying that we are asking far more of our state education agencies than we used to ask of them (and have, at the same time, stripped them of the staff they need to perform these tasks).  The proper response to the challenge we have thereby created is not to work around these agencies, but to reconstruct them so they can do the job we are now asking of them.  If the countries that are outperforming ours in the education arena can do this, there is no reason we cannot do so.

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