Every Student Succeeds Act

ESSA Poses Capacity Challenges for State Education Agencies

By Daarel Burnette II — January 19, 2016 7 min read
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State education agencies—often dismissed as poorly organized and thinly staffed clearinghouses—are about to get a big infusion of responsibility and authority with the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

But it remains to be seen if those departments, most of which were hollowed out by staff and budget cuts during the recession, are up to the job.

Under ESSA, the long-delayed revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, state departments will be charged with more of the hands-on work in a variety of policy areas where the federal government increasingly called the shots in recent years. Some of the most important areas are holding schools accountable for overall quality, coming up with a way to evaluate teachers, and improving student outcomes.

“It’s like the dog that chases the car,” said Patrick Murphy, a senior fellow and director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, who has studied state education departments. “This is what the state agencies wanted, to figure it out for themselves. ... If they drop the ball,” he said, “somebody has to come and make them do it right again.”

During the height of the recession, between 2007 and 2009, more than half the country’s state education agencies, according to the Center on Education Policy, underwent downsizing of some degree, while still being asked to follow NCLB mandates and collect data and test scores for millions of students, intervene in low-performing schools, and roll out teacher-evaluation systems. The results, in some cases, included data breaches, sparse professional development, and inadequate communication about changes that confused parents.

The agencies’ work was complicated over the past decade or so by policies initiated under the No Child Left Behind Act, the previous version of the ESEA. By 2006, at least 42 state commissioners said they were ill-prepared to administer the law.

Many attribute the backlash to the NCLB law and the Common Core State Standards to the clumsy rollout of the initiatives by state departments.

“What we’ve learned is that federal policy only goes as far as states are able to implement it,” said Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell D. Chester.

Heavy Lift

With the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act, state departments of education are set to take on a bigger role in key areas—and many will do so after having laid off employees in recent years. Here are some places where those agencies’ capacity may be put to the test:

Academic Standards

ESSA requires that standards remain “challenging.” At least 16 states are reviewing their standards, and that number could grow this year as more legislatures debate repeal of the Common Core State Standards.


In creating their own accountability systems under ESSA, states will have to factor in achievement gaps between various groups of students, English-language proficiency, test scores and an indicator of their choice. They will still need to identify and monitor intervention for schools that academically fall into the bottom 5 percent of the state’s schools.

Teacher Quality

ESSA no longer requires states to incorporate test scores into teacher evaluations, as did waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act, and many are now expected to consider revising their evaluation systems. States also must continue to assure the equitable distribution of effective teachers.


States must still conduct an annual test for students in grades 3 through 8 and test high school students at least once, though they can create their own opt-out laws and decide what happens to schools that don’t meet their goals.

Title I Funding

With School Improvement Grants gone as a separate program under the new law, states will have more flexibility in how they spend Title I money, or set money aside to assist low-income students. States can now spend up to 7 percent of their Title I funds on school turnaround, up from 4 percent.

Source: Education Week

Now, state education departments are looking to shift their roles from being primarily compliance officers to taking greater initiative on innovation, while at the same time providing technical and strategic support. Minnesota is restructuring its department, the schools chief of Kentucky is convening statewide task forces to build consensus, and advocacy organizations are ramping up training.

Under ESSA, which goes into full effect in the 2017-18 school year, states will need to come up with accountability plans and submit them to the federal Education Department. And they’ll still have to test students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

But state departments will be given wide latitude in how they test students, and how they use the results of those tests, and other indicators, to hold schools and teachers accountable and how they work to close achievement gaps between student groups.

Many school district leaders and their advocates also are pushing for state agency leaders to be more closely vetted and want them to listen more to local voices.

“Sometimes, they forget about what it’s like to be in the classroom,” said Gregory Hutchings, the superintendent of Ohio’s Shaker Heights City School District, who has organized a task force to help that state’s department of education shape policy. “They make decisions that make administrators’ jobs harder, rather than serving in a more supportive role.”

State education agencies vary both in size and in approach to policy in key areas. Tennessee’s department of education, for example, has taken over chronically underperforming schools, while California’s leaves school turnarounds up to districts. Some state chiefs have come up with catchy themes and taken bold stances on initiatives such as allowing for more school choice or closing achievement gaps.

As their jobs have become more political, the average tenure of state chiefs, many of whom make just half what urban superintendents make, is just 3.2 years.

“That’s been a hindrance to implementation,” said Kathy Cox, who served as the state schools superintendent in Georgia between 2003 and 2010 and now helps state departments implement policy as the CEO of the Delivery Institute.

“It’s really hard work, and it hurts when there’s that constant churn of leaders,” Cox said. “You get into inertia. It gives people a sense of, ‘Let’s just not do anything. We don’t know what direction we’re going to be pointed in next.’ ”

Staffing Squeeze

Several state superintendents said their staffing levels have not changed since the recession, despite budget surpluses. On average, more than half their agency budgets still comes from federal coffers, experts observe.

That will create problems as state legislatures begin enacting their own programs prompted by ESSA to improve schools and attract teachers.

“It’s the shift back to, yes, you’re in the driver’s seat,” Cox said. “But you’re the one paying for the gas. You’ve got to fill the tank.”

Brenda Cassellius, the Minnesota education commissioner, said while that state expects a budget surplus of $1.9 billion this year, the education department’s staffing level will likely remain at 500 employees, about half of whom are tasked with monitoring federal programs.

“That leaves less than 200 employees to do the work for 1 million kids, 200 school districts, and 165 charter schools,” she said. “I have one math specialist and one reading specialist and one person working on standards. There’s not been a huge push or political appetite for a larger state government.”

Cassellius has invested in regional centers to help educators exchange ideas and resources.

“I’ve tried to support schools and work alongside them, rather than take a more top-down approach,” she said.

ESSA provides for state education departments to use up to 7 percent of their federal Title I money for administrative fees, but most of that money will be geared to oversight of programs for students with special needs and poor students.

Murphy, the researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the cuts in recent years have led to agency staff members working on initiatives in which they have little experience.

Andy Baxter, the vice president for education effectiveness for the Southern Regional Education Board who has studied the rollout of teacher-evaluation systems, said agency leaders have faced challenges in building consensus. “Departments struggled to create systems that teachers and principals feel like they own and believe in,” Baxter said. “The people at the states want to be collaborative, but they are on incredibly tight timelines. ... You’ve got thousands of teachers scattered across 500 different districts across a state. How do you create something collaboratively? It’s really hard to do.”

Vision vs. Implementation

In interviews, state schools chiefs and those who work closely with them described weeks-long road trips across their states attempting to both get input from parents, teachers, and principals on education policy, and to better understand problems and hurdles that came up during waivers from the NCLB law.

“No education reform has ever failed in vision,” said Stephen L. Pruitt, Kentucky’s commissioner of education. “It fails in implementation. If you have vision in where you want to go, but don’t have people to share that vision, the implementation fails.”

As states’ roles change, the federal Education Department will be pressured to shift to be more supportive.

When Deborah S. Delisle worked there as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, from 2012 to 2015, she quickly realized that states needed a different type of help than they were getting. She developed an office of state support that helped state department officials navigate the federal bureaucracy.

Delisle, who now heads the education organization ASCD, said state agencies vary widely in size, resources, and the amount of state funding they receive. “We wanted to work strategically to make sure they understand the rules and regulations,” she said.

The federal Education Department in recent weeks has put out guidance to help state departments better understand the new law, specifically in the areas of school improvement and assessments, said Dorie Nolt, a department spokeswoman.

Carissa Moffat Miller, a deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said state agencies’ biggest challenge this year will be to pace themselves.

“There’s a real sense of urgency for immediate change,” Miller said. “They can’t let that override the need for long-term meaningful change.”

Coverage of policy, government and politics, and systems leadership is supported in part a grant from by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2016 edition of Education Week as ESSA Challenges Ahead for States


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