For the next few weeks, Rick will be out and about discussing his new edited volume, Bush-Obama School Reform: Lessons Learned. While he’s away, several of the contributors have agreed to stop by and offer their reflections on what we’ve learned from the Bush-Obama era. This week, you’ll hear from Sara Dahill-Brown, an associate professor of political science at Wake Forest. Her blog posts will consider how states handled the challenges posed by the Bush-Obama era and what it all teaches about the dynamics of federalism.
In a past life, I was more excited and read more deeply on the subject of international politics than on the subject of U.S. education policy. That shifted when I spent time as a middle school teacher, but a lot of the ideas I encountered before that transition have stuck with me, and every now and again, one of them surfaces to offer up insights for this different context in which I now do most of my work.
Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s Activists Beyond Borders is such a book. In it, they document how human rights activists who find themselves confronting an unsympathetic, oppressive, or inaccessible national government sometimes manage to effect policy change by connecting with international allies who are then able to exert pressure from the outside. Keck and Sikkink dub this a “boomerang” effect.
I think an analogous dynamic emerged with respect to stakeholders and state education agencies (SEAs) during the Bush and Obama administrations. A backlash against federal policies, and the process of Common Core State Standards’ (CCSS) adoption, sparked a chorus of demands that education policy be conducted in a more democratic fashion. And so, SEAs went from functioning primarily as referees before NCLB, to looking a lot more like team captains under ESSA, which mandated stakeholder inclusion.
The political friction that triggered this boomerang effect began to accumulate when SEAs started to monitor struggling schools and to administer penalties under NCLB. The law compelled SEAs to establish hierarchical relationships with local districts and schools, a shift that challenged traditions of local control and sometimes provoked a sense of distrust from local leadership.
The longer NCLB was in place, the more schools became subject to penalties, and the more frustration built among educators, administrators, and parents who were struggling to cope with the law’s perverse adequate yearly progress (AYP) measure. These key stakeholders grew increasingly resentful of the fact that they were working within and around such a poorly conceived system of accountability.
Their frustrations were compounded throughout the Race to the Top (RTTT) competition in which stakeholder signatures and letters of support were necessary to win funding, even while stakeholders themselves were left little room to influence the competition’s narrowly circumscribed reform plan.
SEAs became more deeply implicated in the growing backlash against NCLB, and education reform more broadly, when SEA leaders in many states adopted CCSS quickly and under their own authority. In a number of cases, these decisions were subsequently taken up, scrutinized, and in a few instances, reversed by state legislatures that openly suggested that SEAs and the federal government overstepped their authority and subverted democratic processes.
Ultimately, these concatenating frustrations pressured lawmakers into carving out seats for stakeholders at the decisionmakers’ table—a boomerang effect that swept through every U.S. state, wherein local and state advocates were able to magnify their influence by allying with the federal government. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) included 13 references to stakeholders and required new state accountability plans to demonstrate how parents, students, teachers, principals, and community members would partner, collaborate, and consult on everything from drafting school improvement plans, to developing innovative assessment systems, to reviewing state policies.
ESSA’s provisions cannot guarantee meaningful inclusion in decisionmaking processes, and the Trump administration has scaled back regulatory expectations with regards to stakeholder engagement. However, the law’s provisions do guarantee at least some representation at critical junctures, and there are plenty of reasons to suspect that SEAs will continue to operate in a more inclusive manner than prior to the Bush and Obama years of school reform.
During the planning phase of ESSA, state leaders around the country went beyond the minimum requirements to plan listening tours, create online portals for gathering public feedback, generate hashtags, and convene advisory councils. They also hired consultants to facilitate stakeholder engagement and analyze public comments.
Further, in the face of complex programs and technical work, SEAs have increasingly recognized the fact that reaching out to stakeholders allowed them to supplement their overburdened capacity while also cultivating support for new programs. For example, in both 2012 and 2013, roughly 90 percent of SEAs reported consulting with an external agency in search of support for their turnaround efforts. The most commonly consulted partners were federally supported centers and labs but also institutions of higher learning and regional or county offices.
Ultimately, capacity in governmental agencies is not just about money and expertise. To be effective institutions throughout the many stages of the policy process, SEAs must cultivate relationships, trust, and outside support—a critical, external sort of capacity. Federal law now requires SEAs to maintain these networks, but the Bush-Obama years also demonstrated their utility.
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.