Center for American Progress

Reform State Education Agencies for Our Students’ Future
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Reform State Education Agencies for Our Students’ Future

CAP Event Studies States’ Roles in Strengthening Schools

The Center for American Progress hosts experts to discuss how to improve state education agencies to become partners in educational improvement.

For more on this event, see its event page.

“While it is clear that the demands on state education agencies have dramatically increased, it is unclear whether they are ready and able to meet these new demands,” Cynthia G. Brown, Vice President of Education Policy at the Center for American Progress and co-author of a new report on state education agencies, said at a CAP event last Wednesday. She explained that state education agencies are constrained in their efforts to improve schools due to bureaucratic obstacles at both the state and federal levels, and a focus on compliance instead of performance. “If SEAs are going to be agents of change, business as usual is not going to suffice.” 

The day of the event, CAP and AEI released a new report, “State Education Agencies as Agents of Change: What It Will Take for the States to Step Up on Education Reform,” which is perhaps the most extensive examination of state education agencies, or SEAs, since the mid-1990s. 

A presentation of the new report and panel discussion followed Brown’s remarks. Presenters included co-author Frederick M. Hess, resident scholar and director of education policy studies of the American Enterprise Institute; and Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. Panelists included David Driscoll, former commissioner of education of Massachusetts; Deborah Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education of Rhode Island; and Lillian Lowery, secretary of education of Delaware.

Presenters agreed with the findings from the report, citing a lack of transparency, policy limitations on federal funding, state bureaucracy, and a culture opposed to change as obstacles to reform efforts. The SEA leaders on the panel agreed: SEAs need to reform in order to improve our public schools. Gist noted that the Rhode Island SEA had already made progress through their reform efforts: “We reorganized the agency to be designed around the goals that we put into place and started to focus on performance management. … that was a change, and has been I think a very positive way for us to keep focused on making sure we are getting the results that we want to get.”

“What can be done to make state education agencies full partners in education improvement?” Brown asked. The panelists echoed the recommendations presented in the report: SEAs need more flexibility and authority from the state and federal governments to become performance oriented, attract better talent, and turn around low-performing schools. “You are beginning to see the states exert themselves, but without some sort of collaborative relationship with the federal government, we are not going to maximize our opportunities in the future,” Wilhoit said. Hess agreed, saying, “The federal government needs to be very conscious of how its efforts impact the culture and performance of SEAs.”

Co-author Hess also noted that SEAs need to build capacity, and philanthropic foundations can provide resources to boost their reform efforts. “What all of this suggests is a huge opportunity for philanthropy and reform advocates to partner with and support state chiefs and make sure they’re able to tap the talent and the resources they need.” Lowery explained how assistance from philanthropies and businesses in Delaware allowed her to more effectively tackle challenges in her agency.

SEAs are poised to be agents of change. Real change requires SEA leaders to be innovative and proactive. Wilhoit shared his message for SEA chiefs: “If you step back and play it safe, you’re not going to make any change. The only direction for a chief in this environment is to be aggressive, but be principled. Anchor what you are doing in the belief that this is for all children.”

Click here to read the CAP and AEI report on state education agency reform. Find out more about CAP’s plans to reform the American education system on our education page.

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