Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

States as Change Agents under ESSA

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

States as Change Agents under ESSA

Article excerpt

Fewer federal mandates open the door to state creativity and innovation, but that raises questions about state capacity and removes the political cover that had been provided by federal rules.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), federal education mandates--particularly around accountability--are decreasing, which means states will have more flexibility and authority than they've had in decades. With this increased state power comes the responsibility to improve educational outcomes for every student in the state. State education agency leaders are confronting great change and great opportunity as many agencies move away from a focus on compliance with federal regulations, state statutes, and programmatically dictated uses of funds and toward a broader focus on supporting districts and schools in improving outcomes for all students. As the definition of and responsibility for success changes in this new environment, the roles of state education agencies deserve reconsideration.

There is no universally correct set of roles for the state education agency (SEA). The activities a particular state agency should or shouldn't engage in varies. Each SEA has different educational strengths and assets to build upon, different needs to address, and a unique set of laws to follow and traditions to respect. As a new paper from the Fordham Institute (Zeehandelaar & Griffith, 2015) articulates, SEAs operate under very different authorities granted by their state's constitution, legislation, and enabling regulations and how distributed that authority is varies from one state to the next. Some SEAs operate in concert with other entities, such as state boards of education, professional licensing bodies, early childhood agencies, and/or higher education agencies. In other states, one education agency regulates most or all of these functions. Some states require heavy involvement of stakeholders in policy making; others do not.

Some states vest more decision-making authority at the state level, while others give significant power to local districts. Some have fewer, countywide districts; others have hundreds of smaller districts. Some have regional intermediaries that support the SEA's work; others do not. Thus, while every state has the common responsibility of building educational systems that drive toward increasingly excellent and equitable outcomes for all students, the approach for getting there in Rhode Island may differ dramatically from that in Wyoming or Florida.

In July 2015, the authors of this article participated in an Aspen Institute convening of education leaders to discuss the future role of the SEA. The output of this meeting was a guide for state education leaders on which roles are "essential" for SEAs to lead, what roles SEAs might "possibly" take on, and what roles are "unsuitable." This paper draws heavily from that discussion, and offers our take on how states should think about the essential areas of SEA leadership in the ESSA era.

Essential roles

Despite the variations in approach that will inevitably arise, SEAs must take leading roles in five areas: articulating the state's educational vision and goals; selecting and implementing the state's standards and assessments; designing and implementing the state's accountability system; administering, implementing, and overseeing state and federal funding and other programs; and communicating about critical educational issues with stakeholders across the state.

#1. Articulate vision, priorities, and goals.

The SEA's work ideally should begin with state education leaders and stakeholders defining the vision for education in the state. Done well, this process results in a shared vision that is understood, committed to, and supported by key actors across the state and therefore is less polarized, more stable, and more sustainable over time and throughout leadership transition. Such a vision helps clarify responsibilities across the state's educational system, helps ensure coherence and alignment both within the SEA and across coordinating agencies, and provides stakeholders and districts with clear mandates to shape issues they own. …

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