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School & District Management Opinion

Who Is Your Chief State School Officer?

By Isabel Owen & Daniel Lautzenheiser — September 13, 2011 6 min read
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This isn’t some question from a Jay Leno segment, where the late-night comedian walks around Hollywood asking a passerby rudimentary questions like “Who is the vice president?” and “What year did the United States gain independence?” So there’s no cause for embarrassment if you don’t know. However, it turns out chief state school officers are increasingly responsible for our children’s education.

Over the past several decades, reformers and policymakers have paid a lot of attention to what good schools look like, but less attention has been given to how states and districts can help failing schools. In the wake of high-profile initiatives such as the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top competition, there’s been a massive increase in the responsibilities placed on states to drive K-12 education policy. As a result, once-tiny state education departments and their leaders have been thrust into the spotlight and charged with a wide array of key tasks, from developing accountability systems to turning around low-performing schools.

This issue was highlighted last month in The New York Times, which reported a survey from the New Jersey Department of Education that found, in general, New Jersey superintendents think the state department of education is too compliance-oriented and does not actually provide tools and resources to district superintendents to improve student achievement.

Stories like these prompt a simple question: Despite the increased burdens placed on these state education agencies, or SEAs, and their leaders, are they up to the task? There has been little research on the topic, and what we do know paints a picture of SEAs as largely compliance-driven organizations that struggle with myriad bureaucratic obstacles. They spend a great deal of time funneling money to local districts and rigorously complying with mandates from the federal and state levels, but much less time examining these routines to see if current practice actually improves student learning.

In spite of these difficulties, there are also examples of hard-charging and creative leaders turning SEAs into more mission-driven, reform-minded organizations. The Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute joined together to dig into the black box of SEAs. We found some chiefs from across the country are bucking the conventional wisdom of how the agency should function by reorganizing and refocusing their departments to better position the SEA to be an agent of change.

Key to challenging the traditional role of the SEA is reorganizing. This requires gearing all agency offices and employees toward a common vision of improving student outcomes, and demanding change in agency culture and structure. While this may seem like common sense, we discovered offices within SEAs are often siloed, with limited communication between offices. For example, Lisa Graham Keegan, a former state superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, spoke about the isolation felt by the federal-unit employees who were designated to handle U.S. funds and compliance with federal regulations. Keegan said those employees were often seen as “senior staffers” with a degree of independence from the rest of the office. She decided to reorganize the agency around function, not funding source, saying, “I think it’s all the public’s money … and I don’t care who it’s coming from; it’s serving the same purpose.”

Also fundamental is shifting the agency from compliance to performance. To do this, chiefs must question why the agency functions the way it does.

In Arizona, Keegan dramatically increased the number of discretionary positions that she had control over hiring. When she started in 1995, there were only 12 such positions in an office of more than 300 employees. She worked to “uncover” each position—when an employee was promoted, the employee would opt out of civil service protection to take a higher position. By the end of her tenure, in 2001, a third of all positions were uncovered, greatly increasing flexibility for future hiring and allowing the chief to bring talent to the agency. In her words: “You can do a lot of things. You can also excuse yourself from not doing them by believing a bunch of people’s shtick about what you can and can’t do. I was told you couldn’t uncover these positions. That’s not true, it’s just nobody did it.”

Central to pushing the state agency forward is attracting talent. Pay scales and civil service laws drastically limit a chief’s ability to hire top candidates. State capitals can be undesirable places to live. Add these together, and it becomes clear why chiefs have trouble attracting talent to the agency. Colorado’s former commissioner of education, Dwight Jones, and Delaware’s current secretary of education, Lillian Lowery, worked out agreements with foundations to target private dollars to increase salaries, thereby working around restrictive state pay scales and raising the pay to attract the talent needed to do reform work.

Chiefs often find themselves in a tough spot. They are responsible for improving their states’ education systems, yet they are not actually in schools each and every day working with students. This separation is difficult to reconcile, and chiefs must find a way for the agency to support schools and districts from afar. Susan Zelman, Ohio’s former superintendent, created an instructional-management system for teachers, parents, and students. In an effort to make those resources accessible, the materials were made available online. While this might be commonplace in 2011, Zelman, who left office in 2008, told us Ohio was “one of the first” states to see the ability of the Internet to easily reach school districts, especially small and rural ones.

Similarly, it is essential that state chiefs spend time connecting with constituents, from local superintendents, to parents, to students. Peter McWalters followed sound advice from business partners when moving from the Rochester, N.Y., district to take the helm in Rhode Island: They advised him not to make too many changes immediately. Someone who makes changes quickly can be isolated as an outsider, and so McWalters personally visited every school district in Rhode Island, developing relationships with superintendents before making any agency adjustments during his tenure.

The chief, after all, is the chief, and as such has the power to rethink and re-energize the agency. This can be done in various ways, and each must find the lever for change that helps drive his or her agency forward. In Louisiana, former chief Paul Pastorek consistently demonstrated some of the most innovative thinking on how an SEA could be run. Pastorek bargained for higher salaries for his senior staff, reorganized and narrowed the agency’s focus around three “goal” offices, and, most controversially, utilized Louisiana’s Recovery School District to have the state take over failing schools.

None of these solutions is foolproof or without risks. All involve hard work and determination, and most importantly, leadership. In the face of increasing demands, and a very public role, state chiefs can no longer be content idly sitting atop an agency. Rather, they must be drivers of agency reform that will ultimately improve their states’ schools. Maybe state education chiefs will never reach the celebrity status of being recognized by a passerby on the street, but some are helping chart a new course. Others would be wise to follow.

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2011 edition of Education Week as Do You Know Who Your Chief State School Officer Is?

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