School & District Management

Chiefs for Change Confronts Political, Policy Tests

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 10, 2013 6 min read

A group of state schools chiefs that has cast itself as an anti-establishment force in education may be at a crossroads, as its policies become more widely adopted and, at the same time, subject to the challenges of implementation.

The membership of Chiefs for Change has dropped from nine in early 2012, when the last chief joined, to six at the end of 2013. Its most prominent recent departure was Tony Bennett, who resigned as Florida education commissioner in August amid a controversy related to A-F school accountability—one of the group’s favored policies—during his previous job as Indiana’s state chief. (“New Grading-System Scrutiny May Follow Fall of Fla. Chief,” Aug. 7, 2013.)

The group’s push for policies such as school choice and using student test scores in teacher evaluations has enjoyed increasing favor, raising the question of whether the message of Chiefs for Change still carries the same disruptive force, and whether its members can carry out the policies in a way that lives up to the group’s rhetoric and advocacy work.

“There’s a responsibility that comes with that [success], to be constructively self-critical. And it’s a tough balancing act between that and wanting to maintain your trajectory because you believe in it,” said Charles Barone, the policy director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee. He added that he respects a lot of the group’s work.

But Chiefs for Change is far from losing its way or its vigor, said Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s secretary-designate of education and a member of the group. She said she expects one or two more state chiefs to join soon, although she declined to name them.

Hanna Skandera New Mexico secretary-designate of education and Chiefs for Change chairwoman

In general, she said, she is unconcerned that the group’s message is becoming either status quo or too difficult to stick with, even as the chiefs adapt policies to best fit their states.

“It doesn’t mean the principles change,” Ms. Skandera said. “But it does mean that each chief makes the best decision based on where their states are on the spectrum.”

‘Arne Duncan Listens’

Chiefs for Change is an affiliate of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based group run by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Its current members are: Janet Barresi of Oklahoma; Christopher D. Cerf of New Jersey; Deborah A. Gist of Rhode Island; Kevin Huffman of Tennessee; Ms. Skandera; and John White of Louisiana.

All except Ms. Barresi, who was elected in 2010 as a Republican, are appointed by governors or state school boards, and all except Ms. Gist work with GOP governors.

The group mirrors the priorities of the foundation in supporting teacher and school accountability based on student achievement; a variety of school options, including charter schools and online education; and the Common Core State Standards.

Its five founding members in 2010, in addition to Mr. Bennett and Ms. Gist, were Paul Pastorek of Louisiana, Gerard Robinson of Virginia, and Eric J. Smith of Florida. Only Ms. Gist is still a state chief.

When the group welcomed its newest member, Mr. White, in early 2012, it counted nine active chiefs as members.

The group got started just as state education departments were assuming new responsibilities through their role in federal Race to the Top grants and waivers of key provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, giving Chiefs for Change added clout, said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a K-12 consulting firm in Washington. He sometimes took part in the group’s conference calls during his tenure as a deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey.

“When they say something collectively, Arne Duncan listens,” Mr. Smarick said of the U.S. secretary of education. (A spokesman for the U.S. department, Stephen Spector, said in an email that Sec. Duncan and his staff “check in regularly with state chiefs and the groups they’ve formed, including Chiefs for Change.”)

One example of a Chiefs for Change policy that has caught on is A-F school accountability. First instituted in Florida in 1999 under Gov. Bush, it has now been adopted by 15 states, according to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, including Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, all states run or formerly run by Chiefs for Change members.

The group also consistently applies public pressure to Secretary Duncan on such issues as “raising the bar” for teacher-preparation programs and maintaining strict accountability requirements under the common core.

Accountability Jitters?

But that last Chiefs for Change priority could soon could be put to the test—literally—in many states.

Last month, Mr. White, the Louisiana superintendent, announced a plan to alter his state’s A-F accountability system so that the full impact of new common-core-aligned tests wouldn’t be felt on school grades until 2025.

Meanwhile, Chiefs for Change has called for states to stand firm on their accountability practices and not water them down to compensate for the common core, which is widely viewed as a more rigorous set of standards for most states.

In a May letter, the group rejected a call for any “moratorium” on accountability during the common-core transition. It pushed for officials not to “relax or delay” such accountability systems during that time, even as it said states should assess their accountability models individually.

“I can’t read [into] what they wrote earlier this year that they were endorsing anything like a 10-year phase-in,” Mr. Barone said of the Chiefs for Change letter as it might apply to Mr. White’s plan.

Mr. White, however, said that not only would his revised accountability model demand more progress than his students have recently made on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, but that the change would actually protect the system against the whims of short-term partisan politics by shifting to the system over a longer period of time.

"[State] boards typically don’t roll things like this back,” he said.

In a statement, Chiefs for Change backed Mr. White’s plan, saying that he had “thoughtfully” addressed the transition to new standards, assessments, and accountability.

The Louisiana state board approved the plan last week.

Kevin G. Welner, the director of the National Education Policy Center, a Boulder, Colo.-based research group that is generally skeptical of Chiefs for Change’s policy prescriptions, said Louisiana signals the potential reluctance of many states to be “the first to slam into the wall” of significant consequences based on common-core test results.

Mr. Welner argued that Chiefs for Change remains concerned primarily with its political muscle, not the ultimate impact of its policies.

“By focusing on making sure it’s a politically welcoming environment for these changes, they don’t have to worry about the evidence,” he said.

The Next Version

Not so, said Mr. Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners. He argued that Chiefs for Change is in fact entering “version 2.0" of its existence, in which the group will move from largely focusing on advocacy to ensuring its policies work in states.

Subsequently, he said, “I think version 3.0 is going to be much more along the lines of success stories that are coming out of what they’ve done.”

In the end, it may not matter how many members of Chiefs for Change there are, both Mr. Welner and Mr. Smarick said. What’s more important, they said, is if many state chiefs ultimately agree with the group’s message in key areas.

They highlighted chiefs John B. King of New York, Tom Luna of Idaho, and Stefan Pryor of Connecticut as examples of such chiefs.

While some chiefs may follow significantly different paths as policies move from adoption to implementation, Ms. Skandera said, different states are in different “generations” of education policy evolution.

“The change to me is, yes, choosing high standards,” she said. “But the real change is implementing them, not just checking the box on another good idea that didn’t really deliver for our kids.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as Chiefs for Change Confronts Political, Policy Tests

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