Education Funding

Federal Monitoring of K-12 Efforts to Take Team Approach

By Alyson Klein — October 07, 2014 6 min read
Jamila Smith, left, and Danielle Smith pack their office belongings at the Education Department in Washington. Both employees are staff members in the office of the deputy secretary who will be transferring to the new the office of state support.
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When Deborah S. Delisle was a state chief in Ohio, helping to oversee myriad federal programs there, she had to coordinate with a hodgepodge of offices at the U.S. Department of Education, answering to one set of staffers, for instance, when it came to teacher quality and another when it came to English-language learners.

That meant coping with multiple monitoring visits from federal officials—and occasionally even getting conflicting information from different arms of the department’s bureaucracy, she said.

But, beginning this month, the Education Department is planning to create an office of state support, which top officials hope will lead to a “new relationship” with state education agencies when it comes to administering and monitoring federal grant programs.

The change will mean merging a range of programs—governing everything from formula grants for teacher quality and English-language learners to competitive grants distributed through Race to the Top—into the new state support office. The office features teams of staffers that work closely with particular states.

“One of the primary [focuses] of this office is to provide states with one point of contact across multiple programs,” Ms. Delisle, now head of the federal office of elementary and secondary education, said in an interview. “We want to reduce redundancy.”

And the department is hoping there will be other benefits, she added: “We want to be sure we are better partners with states, not just in problem-solving but in thinking about how we can better leverage funds to support increased achievement for all students.”

Support Teams

The new office of state support will be housed within Ms. Delisle’s division. It will merge the office of student achievement and school accountability, which houses Title I and other programs; the office of school turnaround, which oversees the school improvement grant program; and the office of the deputy secretary’s implementation and support unit, which oversees Race to the Top, as well as individual programs from several other offices.

Programs under the state support office’s umbrella include: Title I grants to districts for disadvantaged students, grants for English-language learners, NCLB waivers, state assessment grants and enhanced assessment grants, School Improvement grants, the Race to the Top grants to states for K-12 improvement, Race to the Top assessments, teacher-quality formula grants to states and the comprehensive center program, which provides technical assistance to states.

In the past, states had to deal with different program officers for specific grants. Under the new system, states will be assigned to a particular “team” of staffers. There will be six teams in all, each in charge of roughly nine to 10 states.

And each state-support team will feature experts in a range of programs. For instance, each team will include someone who is familiar with Title III, the language-acquisition program for English-learners, as well as a staffer who has experience working with Title II, which governs teacher quality. And each state will be able to work directly with a “state lead” and a deputy, who can serve as the primary point of contact.

In addition, the new office of state support will be home to new “functional support teams.” These teams will serve as in-house experts of sorts, tracking policy developments in a range of areas that nearly all federal programs must consider, at least to some extent.

There will be support teams focused on areas including policy, technical assistance, data analysis, and performance management and assessment.

Each of those teams will have four or five permanent staff members, plus they will get help from members of the larger state-support team.

The transition is going to mean a lot of changes to bureaucratic processes. The new office will have to revamp its monitoring protocols, which help guide on-site visits to states, for example.

Past Attempts

The re-organization will be phased in through 2015—meaning the Obama administration will be in power for only about a year after the change is fully implemented. But Ms. Delisle said the structure can continue under the next administration, in part because it will be staffed and lead by career civil servants who remain at the department regardless of which secretary is at the helm.

Monique M. Chism, who has served as the director of student achievement and school accountability programs, will be the first head of the state support office. Like Ms. Delisle, Ms. Chism worked at the state level before coming to the department, as the assistant superintendent for the Illinois state board of education.

This isn’t the first time that the Education Department has tried a more integrated approach to monitoring.

The department experimented with something similar during the Clinton administration. That model had its drawbacks, said Zollie Stevenson, Jr., who served in the department from 2000 to 2010, including as the director of student achievement and school accountability programs, which oversees Title I monitoring.

“The challenge is that you have to narrow what you are looking at,” said Mr. Stevenson, who is now an associate professor in educational leadership at Howard University in Washington. “You can’t cover all the pieces” of a big program like Title I, such as parent involvement, if you are also looking at teacher-quality programs and programs for English-learners, which are complex, he said.

Ms. Delisle acknowledged that the integrated process didn’t work well in the past, but said things have changed at both state education agencies and the department in the past decade. And states and the federal government have been interacting in a more holistic way, in her view, through new initiatives like the No Child Left Behind waivers.

“There’s been a lot of progress made since that attempt during the Clinton years,” she said.

Building Bridges

For their part, states are optimistic about the change, said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

CCSSO has advocated more streamlined processes at the department over the years, he said. “This appears to be a positive step in that direction.”

But not everyone thinks the new office will make much a difference for states. The idea was met skepticism from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top Republican on the Senate education committee.

“What states need is not centralized support for the new policies and procedures dictated by the ‘National School Board,’ but freedom from Washington and a return of all the most important decisions about how to best educate 50 million students in 100,000 public schools,” said Mr. Alexander in a statement.

Venessa Keesler, the deputy superintendent for the Michigan department of education, said the change could make life easier for states. But she would like to have seen still more federal grant programs brought into the fold, particularly special education.

“I would encourage them to keep thinking about how they are going to build these bridges,” she said.

Ms. Delisle said the new office will coordinate closely with the office of special education and rehabilitative services, which administers programs for students in special education. And there could be more even more collaboration down the road.

“It may be that in the future we combine those monitoring visits,” Ms. Delisle said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Federal Monitoring Set to Take Team Approach

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