Quality Counts 2017: Building on ESSA's K-12 Foundation Measured Progress

States' Capacity a Nagging Issue as ESSA Gears Up

—Chris Whetzel for Education Week

The big job of retooling state education systems will take staff resources and funding, both of which are squeezed in states across the country.

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As state lawmakers prepare for new flexibility—and responsibilities—under the Every Student Succeeds Act, they face questions about whether staffing levels and other state resources are fully up to the task.

Under both the No Child Left Behind Act and subsequent waivers of that law's provisions, education agencies in many states struggled in a very public way when it came to rolling out a federally prescribed accountability agenda. There were standardized-testing glitches, botched school accountability report cards, and communication failures between state officials and district superintendents.

Many education leaders attribute the NCLB-era problems to the plummet in funding state agencies experienced during the Great Recession of the late 2000s and subsequent layoffs within departments. They argue that there were not enough qualified officials within state education departments to provide professional development, to monitor testing-vendor contracts, and to ensure accountability systems were sound.

Under ESSA, the year-old successor to No Child Left Behind, state departments are expected to manage more duties in both crafting and executing the mandatory state accountability plans. The departments will be responsible for intervening in low-performing schools, designing and rolling out new state report cards, and prescribing teacher-evaluation systems.

And state schools chiefs are well aware they'll be on the hook for any resulting political backlash.

"Alaska is going through a horrible fiscal crisis because of the dip in oil prices," said Michael Johnson, the new state education commissioner. "Our capacity has always been down, anyway. If there was a stable part of the department, those positions are funded through federal programs."

Because of staffing and funding below what officials say are necessary to meet the demands under ESSA, states as different as California, Connecticut, and South Carolina are proposing either to outsource some tasks, such as designing state report cards, or to toss out as unfeasible some proposals made during the stakeholder-engagement process they undertook to draft their plans.

Precarious Time

The shift in K-12 policymaking power from the federal level to the states comes at a precarious time for state agencies.

Although most states have recovered from the economic downturn and dedicated more money to their education budgets, that funding doesn't necessarily make its way into the coffers of state education agencies—the often-denigrated bureaucracies that juggle everything from federal-compliance duties and data collection to support for local districts.

Even after states climbed out of the recession and began replenishing their education budgets, for example, 23 state education agencies in 2012 told the Center on Education Policy that their budgets had either remained flat or decreased.

Guidance for ESSA Implementation

In an open-ended survey question, Education Week asked district leaders to identify the types of guidance or support their districts need to smoothly implement ESSA-related changes. Survey respondents most commonly highlighted the need for additional help from state policymakers, including clarification of the state’s own implementation plan.

Complicating the picture as ESSA rolls out, many states have also seen big turnover in leadership in recent years, amid political turbulence over issues such as teacher evaluation and the Common Core State Standards. According to the Council of Chief State School Officers, the average tenure of state chiefs now is just under three years.

That means many chiefs are still learning the intricacies of their departments and determining whether they need to reorganize even as they prepare for ESSA's big changes.

"There's been a lot of attention to building stronger accountability systems, but not as much attention to building capacity at the state level to change the outcomes for kids," said Tara Kini, a senior policy adviser for the Learning Policy Institute, a research and advocacy organization.

For some chiefs, that may be a daunting task.

Colorado Commissioner of Education Richard Crandall quit last May just 4½ months after being hired, his tenure marked by policy disagreements with the state school board and legislators. The resignation, which Crandall attributed to the demands the job put on his out-of-state family, came in the middle of a statewide tour he was conducting to engage with teachers and parents about the state's ESSA plan.

But some chiefs new to the job may welcome the chance to get on board at the launch of ESSA.

Johnson, for example, took over Alaska's department this past summer after state chief Mike Hanley resigned following widespread problems with the rollout of the state's online standardized test. The state legislature had cut almost an entire third of the department's funding in the past year.

"Yes, there's a lot on the plate, but it's a huge opportunity because if you're coming in in the middle of it, you're able to start from scratch," Johnson said.

No Bonanza

When it comes to state operations, the Every Student Succeeds Act offers no windfall in federal aid. One example: Title I money for disadvantaged students. ESSA does provide for state education departments to use as much as 7 percent of their federal Title I funding for administrative costs. But most of that repurposed money still will be geared to oversight of programs for students with special needs and poor students.

And state agencies already were wrestling with new responsibilities, even before ESSA.

Take data collection, for instance. As the accountability movement accelerated in recent years, the federal government, the business community, and parents bombarded state education departments with requests for information about student performance.

But departments in many ways are limited in both the type of data and the amount of data they can collect. These limitations will become a challenge under ESSA, as departments are tasked with expanding their school accountability systems to measure more than just student performance on standardized tests.

State officials in recent months have scrutinized their data-collecting software to make sure it's reliable enough for school accountability systems that could determine whether a school is to be taken over by a state or have its staff replaced. Such data systems also must abide by a slew of privacy laws passed in recent years that limit what types of data can be collected and how that information is stored.

But many data-collection systems are scattershot and outdated, and scores of data-entry technicians were laid off during the recession, according to interviews with state department officials across the country. Those officials said they have yet to fully make up for layoffs of data-entry staff in recent years.

Officials at the Data Quality Campaign, a non-profit advocacy group focused on improving educators' data collection, also said that because so many state chiefs are new, they're often unaware of how much and what types of data they collect.

Responding to the Challenge

Education departments have responded to capacity challenges in various ways.

Connecticut, for example, rejected proposals from advocates and parents to include civic engagement as an indicator of school quality after officials concluded there was no valid way to measure such a factor.

The South Carolina legislature decided to spend more than $1 million to update districts' data systems so that the state can measure increasingly complex questions, such as whether students are ready for college.

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In California, the state board of education decided that while school climate is a valid indicator of school quality, the state didn't have the capacity to collect enough reliable data to measure it. The board instead left it up to local officials to decide whether to measure that factor and hold school administrators accountable on it.

The tension between ambition and capacity is likely to continue playing out as states produce final drafts of their ESSA plans for submission to the federal government in the coming months.

And statehouses may prove a critical battleground: With the 2017 state legislative season about to be in full swing, such leading groups as the CCSSO and the National Association of State Boards of Education are urging governors and legislators to increase state agency budgets for professional development and oversight of state-specific initiatives.

Vol. 36, Issue 16, Pages 7-9

Published in Print: January 4, 2017, as States' Capacity a Nagging Issue as ESSA Gears Up
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