Budget & Finance

Do States Need a ‘Shift in Thinking’ to Provide Better Help to Struggling Schools?

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 19, 2013 4 min read
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State chiefs and state education departments need more willpower, a better talent pipeline, and a bigger focus on organizational flexibility, rather than formal overhauls, in order to better serve schools in need, according to a new report from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based think tank.

So the answer to that teaser question in the headline, according to Ashley Jochim and Patrick Murphy, authors of “The Capacity Challenge: What It Takes for State Education Agencies to Support School Improvement,” is yes. The authors aren’t calling for a single approach for states to use when it comes to how they think about and deal with schools in need of improvement. But just to highlight the kind of disparities among states that the authors found during their research, consider the relationship between two pressing topics in public education, assessments and state interventions in schools, and how it varied on a state-by-state basis.

While some might say assessment results rightfully play a big part in determining which schools need interventions, others could argue that putting a big emphasis on assessments in low-performing schools is largely detrimental. When I called up Jochim to talk about the report, she said that the high ratio of assessment dollars per intervention in a state like Florida largely reflects that state’s choice to leave the heavy lifting of interventions up to individual school districts. In general, most states spend more on assessment than interventions, according to the CRPE report. And those spending ratios could take on heightened importance as we enter the Common Core State Standards era (and the common-core assessment era) in public schools.

But back to the broader aspects of the report, which analyzed 10 states (the nine you see in the box above, plus Colorado). Jochim noted that the traditional narrative for state education departments has stressed their often-stagnant focus on compliance with federal law and a lack of flexibility. Some states are “tired” of that depiction and are trying to move beyond it, even with “flat or declining resources in the face of new responsibilities,” as Jochim and Murphy put it in the report.

“I think that that narrative is leaving out a lot of things that they can, in fact, do differently, with little in the way of new resources or authority to intervene,” Jochim told me. “There’s a lot [state schools] chiefs can do right now, and it comes down to whether they have the will to go ahead with it.”

So, what are some of the findings of the report?

SEA Resources Not Clearly Related to Capacity

Although there’s a big disparity between how much state education agencies spend per school, according to the two authors, “Better-resourced states have not necessarily developed more elaborate improvement infrastructures.” They contrast how much Colorado and Connecticut spend per school with the quality of their data infrastructure, for example.

SEA Budgets Lack Connection to Strategy

On average, the report found that the 10 states examined spend $36.5 million annually on school and district improvement, or about $23,900 per school. But the report says it can become very difficult to tease out how much the state spent in practical terms on various priorities like improvement.

Lack of Talent is a Key Barrier

Throughout much of the report, the authors say actual budgetary resources for SEAs aren’t the biggest factor for effective school improvement. But they do say that for attracting and maintaining top talent, salaries can be an important factor, especially when district-level positions often provide more pay than SEA employment. As an example, the authors cite K-12 administrator pay stratification in Maryland: “An educational coordinator in the Maryland State Department of Education can expect to make between $50,000 and $81,000, depending on experience, while the same position in the Baltimore City Public Schools pays between $75,000 and $120,000.28.”

A Missed Opportunity: School Improvement Grants

The CRPE also touches on the federal SIG program. In short, the report says that those expecting schools to take the most-aggressive, least-comfortable paths open to them were in many cases disappointed, at least in the 10 states surveyed. Only two states, Colorado and Washington, had any schools take the closure path, the most-aggressive option available, although you may think that schools were smart not to simply shut down under SIG, or be more “aggressive” in general.

The report also said that state chiefs who were appointed by governors or state boards typically were not only better insulated from political vagaries and pressures than elected chiefs (not a surprisingly conclusion), but were better able to work with the executive branch to develop cohesive policies. That can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you view those policies, and how important you think democratic accountability is for some of these education officials.

In case you’re wondering if there was any “superstar” in the study, Jochim singled out Colorado as a state with a strong education department that has demonstrated flexibility and effectiveness in school interventions, despite the state’s poor K-12 budget environment overall.

So what are the authors’ key recommendations? You can read about each in more detail in the report, but here are the five that Jochim and Murphy came up with:

Be transparent about the use of financial resources

Seek flexibility in how resources and staff can be used

Develop a talent pipeline

Recognize the limits of formal reorganizations

Differentiate relationships with districts based on capacity

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.