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Leadership and State Reform: The Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality

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A corporation aggressively determines new direction and sets about to execute major change over a period of years. Then, corporate leaders systematically or inadvertently undercut, effectively thwart, and fail to buttress the leadership and support capacities of their headquarters operation. The increasingly recognized role of headquarters is to provide resources for "local'' innovation, create incentive structures in increasingly decentralized organizations, set general standards, gather critical information on performance, and provide needed services to those on the operating lines.

A likely scenario? Hardly! But this description accurately characterizes what has happened over the last decade in many states which ostensibly have been intent on reforming their educational systems. This is an unfortunate yet rarely acknowledged reality in an era marked by an unprecedented host of state directives for reform, many aimed at the heart of the enterprise of schooling, teaching and learning.

What situation are we in fact referring to? How did it arise, what are its origins? Given our personal backgrounds and present posts, what do we know about the situation? What should be done to improve the situation in order to maximize chances for sustaining the reform movement? What, in our view, are some productive next steps?

The most logical entity to provide the crucial leadership functions noted above--the provision of resources for innovation, the structuring of incentives and setting of standards, the assessment and reporting of progress, and the provision of support services--is the state education agency. As we will note later, this might not be the only organization appropriate to accomplish these tasks, but it is clearly the logical candidate, given the authority delegated by current laws and constitutions in most states.

Even though the provision of public education has always been a state responsibility, state education agencies were established as a sequel, or maybe even an afterthought, to local education agencies, that is, school districts. In their early years state education agencies were not considered leadership organizations. In the 1960's and 1970's the federal government gave them a boost in the form of resources, power, and prestige derived from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Education Professions Development Act of 1967, the multiple Vocational Education Acts of the two decades, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975.

One particular measure, Title V of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, actually pinpointed dollars for the strengthening of state-education-agency operations in any way that agency leadership deemed appropriate. Nonetheless, when the reforms of the 80's began to unfold, many state education agencies were still half- or ill-formed organizations. Almost all remained organized too much around federal-funding streams, rather than around carefully identified and legitimated functions necessary for the improvement of schooling within their jurisdictions. As a matter of fact, inordinately large amounts of the discretionary resources available to the agencies often lay in special grant programs such as vocational or special education, rather than in general or basic education programs tied to the mainstream of the teaching and learning process.

The result of this inadequate general funding and the long tradition of local control with regard to the core functions of education, teaching and learning, has been that many state education agencies never have developed properly and fully as leadership organizations. So the state's constitutional authority and responsibility for the core teaching and learning functions (the focus of the reforms of the 80's) have never been fully realized. This has been the result in part because of well-preserved traditions of local control, in part because in most states, localities until relatively recently raised most of the funds (through property-tax levies) to support education, and in part because state governments never saw fit to invest adequately in the agencies with primary responsibility for supporting educational improvement.

While these were the conditions in the 80's when the reform movement proliferated and the important leadership role of the states was particularly trumpeted, the great unspoken irony and paradox of inadequately supported state education agencies has continued into the 90's. Thus, the fundamental weakness of many of these agencies has persisted despite the outpouring of rhetoric about the need for dynamic state leadership that has emanated from political and business leaders and the flood of legislation and regulation which has spewed forth from statehouses across the country.

Here is some of what we know about this quagmire based on who we are. One of us is presently the head of a Washington-based organization focused on education leadership and policy issues at the national, state, and local levels, formerly head of the state higher-education agency in Connecticut, and a one-time local school board member and president in a city district in New York State. The other author is a former chief state school officer in Vermont and deputy in Massachusetts and is currently a professor at a university and simultaneously an executive of a statewide systemic-reform effort in Michigan that works very closely with the state education agency.

We know:

  • That it is politically fashionable ("correct'') and all too common for elected officials in states to "bash'' state education agencies, while at the same time not committing the resources necessary to improve them.
  • That legislators are traditionally very loath to put dollars into "bureaucracy'' when there is the option of putting them into local aid to directly benefit local constituents.
  • That almost universally state-government practices in the areas of personnel and budgeting severely disadvantage a state education agency bent on supporting innovation in schools and communities. To be blunt, these practices routinely deprive state education agencies of the ability to recruit and retain highly talented people with strong substantive backgrounds in areas like research, planning, and evaluation.
  • That the job of chief state school officer is traditionally not well compensated (almost all chiefs earn less than many local school officials in the states in which they work, certainly less than almost anybody holding a major leadership position with a public higher-education institution) and turnover in the post is more rapid than is desirable.
  • That the funding of many state education agencies comes in large part from the federal government, not state governments, with some ratios hovering at 90 percent federal, 10 percent state.
  • That the danger of "no win'' internecine conflict between local- and state-based educators in some jurisdictions is real, with the former, particularly those from affluent, politically influential suburban districts, especially resentful of the intrusiveness of what they perceive to be less competent state-agency officials.

Here is what we don't know enough about, although we are aware that some significant work is under way in a number of states to address these problems:

  • What is the ideal or desirable role and function of state education agencies in the new context of intensive state education reform; what is the proper mix of supervisory and inspection responsibilities in relation to information-gathering, service, and technical-assistance functions?
  • How consequential is it for state leadership and support operations that in one jurisdiction state government might fund 80 percent of local education costs and in another state resources might cover only 30 percent?
  • How should other organizations and sectors, such as universities, nonprofits, and the influential business community complement and support what state education agencies do and how might complementary relationships be established and maintained?
  • How might state education agencies connect with social, health, and youth-employment service agencies to collaborate to meet the complex needs of an increasingly at-risk and diverse student population?

We believe that it is now a particularly propitious time to address explicitly the issue of whether or not state education agencies have the capacity to discharge the leadership responsibilities they recently have been given. The federal legislation just introduced by the Clinton Administration understandably and correctly further strengthens the leadership role of the states. Isn't it time though to stop ignoring the critical state-capacity (or all too often incapacity) issue? Shouldn't subsequent federal funding to enhance state capacities be predicated on some state match or other arrangements which would compel a tangible state commitment to strengthening their own ability to provide the requisite leadership and support? Isn't it time we had an in-depth analysis of a number of diverse states to "laser in'' and get the facts on the issue of state capacity to support reform?

Most importantly, shouldn't we study in some detail states like California, Connecticut, Kentucky, Nevada, Ohio, and some others in which agencies have been somewhat successful in leading reform initiatives?

If the many constructive policy changes currently under discussion in almost all states are to be successfully implemented, we must address the aforementioned questions expeditiously and candidly. Strong leadership at the state level is of critical importance in our decentralized education system and must entail more than deliberating, pronouncing, and legislating. If we desire more than a vague sense that substantive progress is being made in the myriad reform initiatives now under way, we must become much more attentive to the issue of state capacity to lead and implement. The issue is simply too important to be regarded as politically taboo.

Steve Kaagan is the vice president of the Michigan Partnership for New Education. Michael D. Usdan is the president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington.

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