Top Story 5/14/14

Row, Row, Row Your Boat: Or Contract It Out

BY PETER MEYER | There is something about the new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (for whom I have worked) about reforming State Education Agencies that reminds me of the comment by my brother-in-law, a former executive at the National School Boards Association, when I asked him if he would help me save school boards: “I didn’t know they needed saving.”

The State Education Agency: At the Helm, Not the Oar, by Andy Smarick and Juliet Squire makes a strong case for the need to reform State Education Agencies (SEAs) and proposes some radical changes, but there is a risk that many educators won’t see the problem, and that those who do will have too much on their plates right now to wade into another important reform. It would be a mistake, however, for those entrusted with making education policy work at the State level not to read this report. Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, former deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey (under Christopher Cerf), and author of The Urban School System of the Future.  Squire is an associate partner at Bellwether and formerly a research associate and program manager at the American Enterprise Institute. Their views are worth attending to.

States First

The report is based on a well known premise, as Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli, president and vice president, respectively, of Fordham describe it, that “states are the most important decision makers, sources of the lion’s share of school dollars, and the only entities with constitutional responsibility for educating children.”

But the truth about clout is followed quickly by another truth: that, for all their power and responsibility, the states have become seriously hampered, as Finn and Petrilli suggest, by a myriad of federal mandates and “tasked with spearheading and managing innumerable `reform’ efforts—some of them initiated by state leaders, some by Uncle Sam, some by private philanthropists” and include “the implementation of academic standards, assessments, and accountability schemes on the one hand, and innumerable school-choice programs on the other. In between are a hundred innovations and reforms in realms such as teacher effectiveness, school leadership, technology, special-needs children, and on and on.”

It is certainly true, as Finn and Petrilli suggest, the SEAs are the go-to agencies that manage America’s public education system; and there is no doubt, as Smarick and Squire write in their introduction, that “never before has more been asked” of them. But while Smarick and Squire make a good case for the burden these SEAs have, one could have asked the authors for some more data: funding numbers to show exactly how much our overstressed SEAs spend, what they spend it on, and what those numbers have been doing during the last fifty-some years, during which time the authors claim the average SEA has grown from “a small, anemic organization” to the one tasked with a myriad of “on and on” educational responsibilities which it is not equipped for.

We Have to Remake State Education Agencies

The hidden assumption here – and only briefly alluded to in this report – is that this kind of governance strain, between the powers given and the responsibility demanded, has contributed mightily to the crisis of competence in our schools, as shown by several decades of academic outcome stasis. (See here and here.)

Given their crucial role in education reform, all of us want to read more when the authors say, “There’s a better way,” but the overall recipe for success may strike some readers as counterintuitive: rather than recommending that SEA’s re-tool, bring in the expertise they need, and/or shift management structures, the authors argue that “instead of putting the SEA on steroids, we should put it on a diet.”

The 4 Cs

The authors don’t dwell on the strategy for accomplishing the makeover (a major omission given the civil service and union rules that bind so many SEAs), but rather spell out what the new arrangement would look like.  The remodeled SEA “would become a leaner organization,” write Smarick and Squire, “able to efficiently execute its original duties of delivering funding, monitoring compliance, and measuring outcomes.”  Their duties are summed up by what the authors call “the 4Cs.”  It is not the clearest of brands, but the 4Cs are Control, Contract, Cleave, and Create. Each is well described to illustrate how Smarick and Squire imagine SEAs transforming education governance as we know it.

Control. “The core SEA functions would include channeling federal and state dollars to districts; adopting statewide standards and assessments; creating and maintaining statewide data systems; and monitoring compliance with federal and state laws.”

Contract. Rather than continue to try to undertake “reforms… they are poorly positioned to implement,” SEAs “should establish contracts with other organizations that are better equipped to accomplish the work.”  This would include professional development, standards implementation, and educator evaluation systems.

Cleave. The new SEA needs to let go of tasks “well outside of its core competencies,” such as charter school authorization and “educational innovation.”

Create. With the SEAs in the wheelhouse instead of the engine room, they can then encourage “vibrant ecosystems of nonprofit organizations” that will “take… on more responsibilities as districts transition from a public education leviathan to just one of many school providers.” This ecosystem is what will “change… the face of K-12 delivery.”

Proving that they have not created their 4Cs from whole cloth, the authors provide a rich list of reference footnotes to bolster their case. And they also offer examples of state-level ecosystems already engaged in the innovative process, including the Colorado Education Initiative (CEI), the New York State Regents Research Fund (the Fund), Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE), and the Louisiana Recovery School District (the RSD).

“The state can continue to uphold its responsibility to provide a high-quality education,” the authors conclude, “without having its major bureaucracy be the driver of activities.”

These are profoundly deep and dramatic proposals. And, not surprisingly, the report has elicited strong reactions.

It’s the Bureaucracy, Stupid

The Heartland Institute saw the report as evidence that it’s “time to cut education bureaucracy.” And its reporter, Ashley Bateman, expanded on the themes of “At the Helm Not the Oar.” “States report that 40 percent of the paperwork burden they deal with is to comply with federal regulations,” Lindsey Burke, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation told Bateman. Bateman points out that John White, Louisiana state superintendent, has reported that while 10 percent of education financing in his state comes from federal taxes, more than 50 percent of his staff “spend their time complying with federal mandates.”

Michael McShane, a research fellow in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, gives “At the Helm” a modified thumbs up, suggesting that the authors’ arguments are “compelling and their solutions immensely appealing.”  But he suggests three issues that “deserve some further thought.”

One is that SEAs “are not moribund out of their own volition.  Much of the administrivia [sic.] and regulatory burden that SEAs currently undertake happens because the federal government requires it of them.” Thus, much of what Smarick and Squire propose will require “folks here in DC… to pump the brakes” for it to happen. And even at the state level, where there has been “a raft of teacher and school evaluation and accountability programs” passed, “provisions of that legislation would have to be sandpapered off or amended.

Second, says McShane, there’s the problem of attracting “competent administrators” to the “now-reduced” job of state superintendent.

And McShane’s third concern is that this “deeply conservative vision for state education governance… runs headfirst into an increasingly progressive and technocratic education reform movement that thinks that data…, rigorous research, and `smart’ leaders can turn around even the most intransigent systems.”

Grasping at Straws

These are not small hurdles, especially if Smarick and Squire consider their recommendations anything more than utopian. And according to Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy and author of the “Top Performers” blog for Education Week, it is not even that. In a recent post Tucker characterizes the report as “a giant workaround, proposed by people who are apparently happy to give up on government.” If the SEAs “lack capacity because they find it hard to attract capable people,” Tucker writes, “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?”

In the end, while Smarick and Squire identify a serious roadblock to education reform, they may not have been completely transparent about what is at stake here – exactly the shift away from direct public control that has the critics of the “education reformers” so excised. SEA’s may not be the most efficient, nimble agents of change in education policy – but perhaps that’s the point: they are not supposed to be. As Columbia University Teachers College economist Henry Levin has written, in Educational Entrepreneurship: Realities, Challenges, and Possibilities (2006, ed.Frederick Hess), “In stable democratic societies, schools are not revolutionary institutions designed to transform social outcomes. Schools are conservative institutions charged with the primary goal of preparing the young to acclimate to and participate in the cultural, social, economic, and political life of an existing social entity.” This fact constantly frustrates critics of our school system, of course: they want more change, more quickly – and that is really at the heart of this report’s recommendations.

In Conclusion: The Wheelhouse Rules

Given this frustration, the major flaw in Smarick and Squire’s proposal is not identifying the agent of change for their recommendations or the constituency that will lobby for a still-powerful but stripped down SEA. But this flaw in turn is connected to another:  what Smarick and Squire propose is a curious hybrid that has neither diminished powers nor fewer responsibilities for the SEAs. The risk of implementing the reforms the authors call for is that the result would be a still more complex structure of management and implementation that far from promoting efficiency, would result in endless friction between public and private organizations. In the end, these proposals may be, as Tucker suggests, a “giant workaround,” that will please no one. But as Michael McShane hopes, this paper should “spark a serious discussion” all over the country about how to reform our governance structures.

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