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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

State Education Departments: A Missed Opportunity?

By Peter DeWitt — May 11, 2014 6 min read
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Recently, I had the chance to work with state education representatives from all over the country. I had preconceived notions walking in regarding the opinions of the group, and I was wrong on most of them. The group had teachers, principals, college professors, researchers, state education staff and state leaders.

As I sat at table after table to facilitate trainings, or ate lunch and dinner with the groups, I was struck at how similar our ideas were. They were present and former educators who wanted to focus on learning, and not on testing and accountability.

As we shared ideas, and had dialogue about the things we agreed on, we also spoke to each other about those issues we don’t agree on. Contrary to popular belief, these individuals did not all like standardized testing, the Common Core, or having testing tied to teacher and administrator evaluation.

They, like many of us, believe in the proper use of data. There were numerous times when we shared Jonathan Cohen’s line, “Data should be used as a flashlight and not like a hammer.” But, the one thing that gets in the way of these groups is politics. Unfortunately in the U.S. the changes that happen to our education system are based on a political cycle.

According to Russell Dennis,

The Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution states: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Since education is not mentioned in the Constitution, it is one of those powers reserved to the states. Of course, the United States Supreme Court can declare that something not mentioned in the Constitution is so closely related to something that is mentioned in the Constitution that the unmentioned power is a fundamental interest, which rises to constitutional protection. So far, the Supreme Court has not declared that education is a fundamental interest. Thus, states have plenary, or absolute, power in the area of education. The states have plenary power to enact statutes concerning education so long as these statutes do not violate the provisions of the United States Constitution."

It’s unfortunate that so many state agencies, like state education departments, are political. Typically the commissioner is appointed by a governor, who clearly belongs to one party. Although lately, educational reform movements have been bipartisan, and most of that bipartisanship has been influenced by...money, so political parties do not always matter.

Maybe the issue is that state education departments are charged with upholding laws and policies. It’s just sad that education policy has to be controlled by money, and not by pedagogically sound ideas.

There must be some common ground. Why can’t money come with better ideas, and not be focused on accountability? No one says that there isn’t room for improvement in public education. Why does it have to be so...divisive and polarizing?

There are many people who work for state education departments who want to support teachers, and they care about education. If staff within state education departments, including the leader, worked together on a common goal of strengthening and celebrating education, perhaps they would offer more valuable insight to the public school system.

Working Together - As I work with some state education departments, other than the state I live in, I am struck by the number of state education workers who want to do the right thing when it comes to public education, but too often their ability to help is based on the decisions of the state education leader or governor. I wish we lived in a time when schools and state education departments could work together.

So, in an effort to create my own Utopian world or connect with state education departments that are doing a great job working with schools, I thought about a few ways that state education departments and public school teachers and leaders can work together. It’s a way to soften their image, and get back to focusing on what matters in education. Keep in mind, that it requires public school educators to meet half way as well.

Professional Development - Don’t make it all about compliance. We live in a time when educators go to state directed professional development because they are mandated to do so. When attending the sessions, educators are certified or recertified in an area. They sit quietly, learn very little, and leave the day feeling less like professionals and more like they just stood on a conveyor belt getting a stamp of approval on their forehead.

The reality is that state education departments should be offering the best professional development in the profession. As the state education leader, they should be working with schools to organize statewide edcamps. They should be putting out professional reading material that is less about propaganda and more about sound pedagogical practices.

Could you imagine that? A journal with the voices of educators from around the state sharing best practices and discussing educational issues! Why can’t that happen? Instead of focusing on accountability and mandates, state education departments should be the leaders in offering authentic professional learning opportunities that help build relationships among school systems and their department.

Advocates for Learning - One of the areas that many connected principals and teachers are focusing on these days is the art of branding their schools. Branding means that school leaders work with teachers and students to send out positive messages about all the good that is happening in their schools. What is better than focusing on the positive while we work on the negative?

Commercials on television should celebrate what is good about schools in each state. State education departments should be branding their agency by highlighting some of the innovative practices that are happening in schools. Only by doing that can they also work on the areas that may need to change, which will look different for each school district. Not all schools are cut from the same cloth, so not all schools should have a one-size-fits-all accountability measure.

Surely, our schools are worth celebrating?

Softer Language - Mandates. Accountability. High Stakes Testing. Compliance. Those are some harsh words. State education departments should change their language from top-down vocabulary, to words that focus on good pedagogy. After all, if we are all in this together to create better learning experiences for children, we should probably all be using vocabulary that focuses on learning, and not on negative words that seem to be heavy handed.

Foster Relationships - It’s pretty clear that the relationship between public schools and state education departments are at an all-time low in many states. That just doesn’t feel good to be at odds all the time. Sarcastic remarks about being disconnected or unqualified to do the job go back and forth, and that does absolutely nothing to furthering the best learning practices that are happening in many schools.

State education departments need to reach out and try to create relationships with the schools that they serve, and make no mistake, state education departments should be serving schools. They are filled with public employees, and public employees serve the public.

In the End

It’s unfortunate that state education departments and public schools spend so much time working against each other instead of with each other. I have a strong belief that the people working in those agencies want to work with schools and not against them. We shoul be working on the same team, even if we have alternate views. Stakeholder groups that are organized in public schools need to have diverse thinkers, so stakeholders like public schools and state education departments should have diverse thinkers as well.

In order to be successful, state education departments need to prove themselves worthy of leading schools, by showing true authentic leadership. That should not involve more mandates, but should focus on sound pedagogy and professional learning.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.