State Agencies Juggle NCLB Work, Staffing Woes

By Joetta L. Sack — May 10, 2005 7 min read
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It’s a situation often compared to a massive electrical power surge: Three years ago, the federal No Child Left Behind Act hit education agencies here and in other state capitals with a host of new duties just as severe fiscal shortfalls were forcing cuts in budgets and staffing.

Today, some say that the law’s ambitious goals for improving public schools are colliding with the reality that state bureaucracies simply are not designed to handle the myriad NCLB requirements.

Those agencies have realigned duties to comply with the law, sometimes at the expense of other state priorities. And while employees have taken on larger workloads, those increased burdens have driven away some much-needed, well-qualified people who can find better pay and benefits in the private sector.

“This lack of capacity—not a lack of will—on the part of most states is the single most important impediment to achieving the gains of No Child Left Behind,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a research group in Washington. “It’s the hidden issue.”

While state officials overwhelmingly say they support the law’s intent to hold schools more accountable for student achievement, they add that carrying out the law has been tougher than expected.

“Anybody who thinks this isn’t hard work, hasn’t gotten into it,” said Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Suellen K. Reed, in an interview here in her office at the Capitol. “If we had not had a financial downturn, it would have been less stressful on us.”

“We have 200 fewer employees today than two-and-a-half years ago, and we’re asked to do more and more,” said Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, who oversees a 1,200-employee education department. “We’re trying to make No Child Left Behind work, and it’s been a challenge.”

State leaders add that the federal law’s set-aside for administration—which is usually a small percentage, such as 1 percent for Title I funds—is woefully inadequate.

Experts at the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research organization, are among those who doubt that state education departments can fully implement the numerous NCLB provisions for testing, data collection, and intervention in low-performing schools, given that most have seen cuts in state administrative budgets and staffing.

“You can’t do this without people,” said Patricia F. Sullivan, the center’s director.

‘A 15-Watt Bulb’

You don’t need to tell that to Michigan state education officials.

Michigan’s education department has seen a reduction of nearly three-quarters in the number of its employees over the past decade—down to about 300 today.

That dramatic downsizing followed a realignment of duties and personnel across Michigan state government, and it was accelerated by a prevailing philosophy that local districts should have more control over education, said Yvonne Camaal Canul, the director of the state’s office of school improvement.

“The department had once been sort of this lighthouse of education resources and research; now it’s been decimated to a 15-watt bulb,” she said. “And now it’s being asked—immediately—to light the neighborhood.”

By Mr. Tucker’s estimates, Michigan is not alone. He contends that state education departments have lost an average of 50 percent of their employees in the past 10 years.

On top of those reductions, he said, most state agencies had few staff members looking at student achievement before 2002, the year President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law. Instead, most employees dealt with such day-to-day issues as school bus safety and student nutrition.

“Our state education agencies were never conceived of as ministries of education,” Mr. Tucker said.

And even as the pressure to improve academic performance mounts, lawmakers in most states continue to be under pressure to trim state administrative funds. It doesn’t help that the public often views state offices as bloated bureaucracies.

“State legislatures tend to go after personnel, and it’s hard for state agencies to get slots,” Ms. Sullivan said.

Qualified Candidates Wanted

By the time the NCLB law came into play in 2002, officials in Indiana had already cut the state department of education’s staff from some 400 people to about 260, the level today.

At the time, though, state officials believed they were in a good position because they were already beginning to implement a standards-based accountability system.

They worried, however, about the law’s mandate to break down student test results by characteristics such as race and ethnicity and to hold schools accountable in each subgroup in a much shorter time frame than under the state’s own plan.

Indiana Department of Education employees Sharon Watts, left, an administrative assistant, and Kerry Hoffman, a consultant in the school assessment division, sort through a colleague's papers.

Under the federal law, states must test students annually in mathematics and reading in grades 3-8, and once in high school. They also must carry out a variety of actions against schools that fail to meet annual goals for progress. Those actions range from approving supplemental-service providers for tutoring to possibly taking over and reconstituting schools.

Ms. Reed, the Republican who is serving in her fourth term in the elected post, is proud that her department uses less than 2 percent of the $3.9 billion state education budget for the agency’s own expenses.

But with no new state funds to hire personnel, and pressure from the state to cut the job rolls, Indiana’s state-level administrators have scrutinized each job opening and looked for ways to divide up additional job duties instead of hiring new people.

In turn, employees also have had to embrace the “do more with less” philosophy as they learned the NCLB’s requirements for data reporting and monitoring. Most of the agency’s assistant superintendents and directors now oversee many more programs than they did before the law.

Finding and keeping good employees has been a huge challenge, said Risa A. Regnier, the agency’s director of human resources. In particular, the NCLB law has created a demand for highly capable individuals with number-crunching skills who can compete for any number of jobs. The education department must try to persuade candidates to take jobs that pay relatively low salaries and demand long hours working in small blue-gray cubicles.

“It used to be that we had trouble competing with the private sector; now we can’t even compete with public school districts,” Ms. Regnier said.

The market for certain employees is so tough that the job post of Indiana state director of assessments has been vacant for more than two years because of a lack of qualified applicants.

‘No Bench’

Linda Miller, an Indiana assistant superintendent, added that other states are competing for the limited number of people who can develop and oversee state assessment programs, but many candidates with the necessary skills aren’t interested. “It’s not on anyone’s radar to become a state assessment director,” she said.

Many top officials here say they typically work 10-hour or longer days, and some weekends, to get all the needed work done. When another staff member takes a vacation or leaves, that adds more to their existing jobs.

“We have no bench, no redundancy of staff,” said Ms. Regnier. “If someone has a medical or family emergency, we don’t have two or three people who can handle the same work, and no succession for people who leave.”

Mr. Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy points to numerous examples of states’ misinterpretation of data because they did not have the capacity to handle the voluminous amounts of information that the federal law required them to report.

In his research, Mr. Tucker identified California as one of the states that have misreported schools’ test scores or the numbers of districts or schools not making adequate yearly progress, a problem he attributes to having too few employees. A disagreement over the school district counts in California required negotiations between state and federal officials, who finally resolved the issue in March. (“California, U.S. Department of Education Strike Deal on NCLB Rules,” March 16, 2005.)

Tougher Job Ahead

Mr. O’Connell, the state’s elected schools chief, says that because his department must stretch its limited resources to reach a much larger number of schools, the schools that need help the most will see even fewer resources.

“We don’t have the capacity to go in and work with each district,” he said. “To me, it would be better to go in and focus on the two, three, or four dozen of those that really need help.”

Kentucky has significantly scaled back its professional-development programs, including a program that sends retired superintendents to low-performing districts to help shore up their administrative capacity, said Kevin M. Noland, the deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education.

With the NCLB law poised to identify more schools as falling short or needing assistance, Mr. Noland doesn’t foresee the agency’s work getting any easier.

In 2004, 288 Kentucky schools did not make AYP, and 888 did.

“While the additional challenges with providing additional resources and help to schools not making adequate yearly progress is being felt now,” he said, “it will be felt more and more in the future, as more schools are identified and need even more intensive help.”


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