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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Lessons From Three States That Turned K-12 Around

By Rick Hess — December 10, 2015 7 min read

Nearly a decade ago, I worked with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to develop the first report in an ongoing series comparing how states stack up when it comes to education. In the decade since, we’ve continued to partner on these reports, titled Leaders & Laggards. The work has highlighted just how far states have to go—and also that many have been making real strides.

In a new report for the Chamber, which is just out today, my colleague Sarah DuPre and I take a look at three states that made outsized gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress between 2005 and 2013. Now, while far from ideal, this kind of approach has the great virtue of offering a rough, ready, and neutral way to identify states that have shown sustained progress. The three states that posted the largest aggregate gains in 4th and 8th grade reading and math between 2005 and 2013 were Washington, DC, Hawaii, and Maryland. (It’s worth noting that DC and Hawaii kept gains high on the 2015 NAEP, though Maryland fell off the table—partly due to a change in its assessed population. All such considerations are absolutely worth keeping in mind when digesting the results.)

Sarah and I interviewed dozens of key stakeholders across the three states about what had transpired in the past decade (and before) and what explains their success. You can read the full “Laggards to Leaders” report if you want all the glorious details, but what I’ll do today is share some of our conclusions and key takeaways. First off, the three states in question make clear that there is no one path to educational improvement. While advocates, federal officials, and various experts can sometimes make it sound like there is a clearly understood recipe for improvement, these three states illustrate that there may be very different routes to success.

Across the states, there were important similarities. None were doing especially well in 2005; indeed, Washington, DC, and Hawaii were in terrible shape. All three are small in terms of both area and population, facilitating collaboration and communication. Washington, DC, and Hawaii are each constituted as a single school district, while Maryland has just 24 districts. In each state, municipal and business leaders worked hard to support improvement efforts—partly because they felt confident that new dollars were being spent responsibly. Each of the three spent more per pupil than the average state in 2005 and increased spending between 2005 and 2013 at a rate that exceeded the national average. Stakeholders in each state frequently cite the important role of standards and accountability. Finally, all three demonstrated an extraordinary degree of continuity in leadership and strategy.

At the same time, there were profound differences in how the three tackled the work of educational improvement. School choice is a crucial part of the story in DC but a nonstory in Maryland and Hawaii. DC embraced radical governance change and launched pioneering initiatives to reshape the teacher workforce—while such changes were largely absent in Hawaii and Maryland. Hawaii consciously moved control over facilities and budgeting into the Department of Education to give the system more control of its resources, while reformers in Washington, DC, shifted major responsibilities from the school district to the city in order to reduce the demands on the system.

Surveying all of this, it strikes me that at least six takeaways merit note.

Persistence Counts. Perhaps the most obvious common denominator across the three states is that they pursued the same approach to school reform for more than a decade. In the churning, fad-filled world of K-12, this makes these three states unique. It’s easy to forget, with advocates, foundations, and prestigious faculty touting their wares, that the key to getting good at anything is generally a matter of practice and discipline. If there’s a secret sauce, it may be these states’ remarkable willingness and ability to do just that. Indeed, the 2015 NAEP results showed that Washington, DC, and Hawaii, which continued their long-running strategies, led the nation in gains during the 2005 to 2015 period—just as they had between 2005 and 2013. Meanwhile, Maryland exhibited a precipitous decline in NAEP performance in the two years after 2013, as well as a modest slump from 2011 to 2013. While some of the decline is due to testing more children with special needs, the downturn also coincided with the state’s first turbulence in the state superintendence in two decades.

Structural Change Is a Means to Culture Change: Former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee may have been one of the nation’s most controversial and hard-edged reformers of the past decade, but even she makes clear that it’s easy for observers to learn the wrong lesson from her tenure. She is unapologetic about her moves to raise the bar, fire low performers, shutter half-empty schools, overhaul special education, and reward excellence, but she says that too many observers failed to understand that these measures are not an end—they’re simply a means to the real goal, which is changing culture. Kaya Henderson, Rhee’s deputy and then her successor as chancellor, says that DCPS was only able to focus on nurturing classroom excellence after it addressed the system’s structural problems. A dysfunctional organization makes it impossible to establish a productive culture.

Execution IS Reform: Stakeholders in all three locales described an intense focus on execution. These states did not set off after every new idea du jour. Maryland got serious about standards, testing, and accountability in the 1990s and stuck with it. Hawaii’s P-20 Initiative helps the state keep its eye on the ball and focuses on execution rather than policy change—even in the face of changing currents in mainland thinking. DC has kept building upon what its ongoing efforts, in both the district and in the charter sector. Big ideas often run aground on the rocky shoals of execution. In these states, execution tended to come first.

There Are Lots of Ways That Policy Can Help: Advocates tend to fall in love with and sell particular sets of policy prescriptions, but these states illustrate that policy can play a vital role in spurring and supporting improvement in many different ways. Washington, DC, benefited from state-level governance reform, charter school legislation, and changes in the job protections for central office staff, as well as district policy changes to teacher evaluation and pay. In Hawaii, decentralization, along with Race to the Top’s prescriptions regarding the Common Core and teacher evaluation, fueled a school-based, standards-driven approach. These policies helped make possible the softer changes that carried improvement forward.

It’s About People, Stupid: Much discussion of education reform tends to play out in impersonal terms. But when one talks to key stakeholders in these successful states, what’s evident is how much time and effort they’ve spent working to humanize their initiatives. While these states are all committed to data-driven decisions and are big believers that results are what matter, conversations with key stakeholders reflect a premium on discussing these measures in human terms. Leaders acknowledge the difficulties for educators, express empathy, and talk about the importance of recognizing and encouraging professionals. This is vital, because schools are the most human of institutions.

All School Reform Is Local. There’s a natural tendency for reformers to look across national boundaries or state lines, see where the results are promising, and conclude, “We should do that!” But a lesson is that successful reform in a given locale is a product of politics, structure, culture, and history—that what works in one place may not work in another. The Rhee-Henderson reforms were possible in DC only due to mayoral control. Hawaii’s culture-first approach may work well for an insular, consensus-oriented island state organized as a single district, but not in another context. The lesson is a counsel not of despair but of hope—it’s that lots of reform strategies can work, but that they need to be adopted and executed with an eye to local realities.

States succeed at educational improvement when key stakeholders adopt a strategy, stick to it, and then pursue it thoughtfully and courageously. The wrong question to ask any of these states may be, “What’s the secret sauce?” They don’t have one. What they do offer, though, is the ability to teach valuable lessons about the importance of talking honestly about shortcomings, putting forward sensible solutions, mustering support, staying the course, and focusing on implementation. As the Every Student Succeeds Act puts states back in the driver’s seat, that lesson may be timelier than ever.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.