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What the Bayou State Learned From the United Kingdom

By Paul Pastorek & Michael Barber — March 01, 2011 6 min read
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Today’s education headlines in the United States spotlight dwindling resources and difficult budget cuts. Yet state education agencies are grappling with the additional (and daunting) challenge of having to set ambitious goals for students that raise the bar and narrow the gaps. States also must craft the right reform agenda so our students match the best in the world. And finally, they have to ensure that reforms are systematically implemented and goals are actually met.

Strangely, though much attention has been paid to the first two challenges, planning and driving implementation have been neglected. In Louisiana, we are tackling this challenge head-on by adapting the delivery approach devised by Michael Barber, who led British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit—the entity charged with domestic-policy targets, including education literacy and high school redesign.

True alignment from the statehouse to the schoolhouse now seems within reach for the first time in Paul Pastorek’s four years of leading the Louisiana Department of Education. Coupling accountability with support, education delivery has transformed the way the department works and it is already showing results. All because the Bayou State replicated a Barber-style Delivery Unit.

The promise of delivery was clear to us at the outset—an organized approach to strengthening the Louisiana education department that would turn the superintendent into a true CEO—one who would be able to make informed decisions about clear, measurable objectives.

How does this kind of delivery work? And how can it be replicated? There is a straightforward answer. The key for state and district leaders lies in asking five deceptively simple questions:

What are you trying to do?

This might seem obvious, but governments around the world often don’t clarify their priorities, don’t define success, and don’t set goals that relate to student outcomes. Instead, they are absorbed either by overseeing bureaucratic and regulatory processes, or by responding to inevitable crises.

In Louisiana, we at the state level identified nine goals with attendant outcomes. We believe these are the right levers to achieve our overarching aspiration of getting all students to be college- and career-ready. We start with a kindergarten-readiness goal and move through to college-going and completion. Each goal has a gap-closing component and a focus on increasing not just proficiency, but mastery.

How are you trying to do it?

This seemingly obvious question often goes unanswered. Numerous governments around the world have set aspirations, but they don’t have a serious plan for ensuring that they are achieved.

In Louisiana, accountability for achieving the state’s goals now rests directly with a leadership team that is part of the state superintendent’s office. The department has been completely reorganized so the “goal leaders” responsible for student outcomes are supported by the rest of the agency. In other words, all of our actions now work to achieve the state’s nine goals for improving student outcomes. These goal leaders receive targeted support from a small team, the internal Delivery Unit, that is empowered to report directly to the superintendent. This team provides implementation guidance, including data support, coaching, feedback, and assessment of the likelihood of implemention at the state and district levels.

At first we faced trepidation, because people at the state education department do not directly teach or interact with students. But leaders at the department soon realized that achieving our goals meant we had to transform our relationship with local school districts fundamentally. Today, the conversation with districts is radically different from when we began about 18 months ago. Many at the district level are glad to have the real help of the state to fix what we, as a result of state accountability rules, deem broken. We have our best experts in literacy; science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM; and college- and career-readiness sift through local, national, and international strategies to determine what is or is not working based on evidence. We look for evidence-based models as well as innovative ideas that haven’t yet been evaluated to incorporate into our state strategies.

The key, then, is to move from managing projects to managing for results—which means mobilizing the entire agency around the priority goals, as we have done in Louisiana.

How will you know at any given moment whether you are on track?

Many state and local governments don’t receive the feedback they need to determine whether their education strategies are working. They depend on data with a long time lag, rely on “gut instinct,” or get data that fail to reach the decisionmakers. Often, state and district leaders find out too late when things are going wrong. This is how crises are born.

Fixing this problem takes good data, and, just as importantly, routines that present data in a manageable form to key decisionmakers.

In Louisiana, we have borrowed Tony Blair’s idea of a “stock take.” Every month, the Delivery Unit reports on the progress on goal development and provides strategies to reach and implement goals and achieve success. While the Delivery Unit briefs the state superintendent, the goal leader and their senior team provide context and ultimately explain progress, failure, and the planned next steps to reach the desired student outcomes.

If you are not on track to achieve your goal, what are you going to do about it?

State education agencies, like other government agencies around the world, are taking on huge challenges. What’s more, they work in a world of constrained resources, political debate, and intense media scrutiny. Even the best-laid plans don’t work the way they were originally envisaged, and things do go wrong. What happens then? Armed with data and routines, you are much more likely to be able to solve problems effectively.

If there’s an underlying lesson from these complex problems, it’s this: Don’t automatically give the benefit of the doubt. Instead, ask, “Why am I so doubtful?” Nagging questions signal leaders that something needs attention, reflection, and ultimately, action. As Tony Blair used to say, if you don’t solve the problem now, it will keep coming back to you.

In Louisiana, the Delivery Unit has enabled the state superintendent to have better control over what matters, to identify problems promptly, and to propose alterntive solutions. This happens now in an orderly and routine process. In some cases, it can be an execution problem; in others, it can be a political problem. In either case, the analysis helps select the right tool to solve the problem. Properly armed, the leadership team has a robust means to know quickly what is working and what is not, and to alter course as necessary.

The Delivery Unit should always ask the goal leaders and the superintendent, “How can we help?”

Having a delivery team devoted solely to quality implementation helps keep the education department focused. It is a staff resource which can help untangle problems as they occur. This means the Delivery Unit needs smart people with a positive attitude, who can build good relationships with their colleagues. The approach is collaborative and proactive—not a “gotcha.”

The early successes of Louisiana’s delivery effort inspired the creation of the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, or EDI. Michael Barber is the founding director, and former Georgia state chief Kathy Cox leads this new effort. With support from two organizations, the Education Trust and Achieve, EDI aims to bring this delivery approach to other state education systems. It now works with state education agencies in Tennessee, Delaware, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and New York—while continuing the dialogue with Louisiana.

As states rise to the challenge of education reform, many of them seek to strengthen their capacity to deliver. Louisiana and, increasingly, the states now working with EDI are finding that a systematic approach to delivery makes a real difference. Not only does it help clarify priorities and solve problems, it also helps state school systems learn faster and change their culture. No longer just regulatory bureaucracies, these departments have come to prize, above all, making a difference for students now.

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2011 edition of Education Week as What the Bayou State Learned From the United Kingdom

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