State Agencies Take Hands-On Role in Reform

June 23, 1999 11 min read
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Last in an occasional series.

When Jefferson D. Diggs Academics and Arts Magnet Elementary School was designated “low-performing” in spring 1998, North Carolina state officials told the school’s principal to come see them. Their point was clear: We’re from the government, and we’re going to help you.

Within 24 hours, a four-member state-assistance team was assigned to spend the next year at the elementary school here.

“Professionally, it’s demeaning to be told your best isn’t good enough,” Principal Bobby Robinson acknowledged recently. “I wasn’t hostile, but I wasn’t friendly.”

The series so far:

Thus began a forced partnership that, in many ways, represents the new way state education agencies nationwide are doing business.

From Raleigh to Sacramento, education departments are trying to shake the image of stodgy bureaucrats who are sticklers for minutiae. Instead, advocates of the new approach say, the state agency of the 21st century will focus on academic achievement. And even as many departments are reduced in size, they promise to be more nurturing and eager to help schools meet higher goals for their students.

Today, 19 states mandate that low-performing schools receive state assistance. In 13 of those states, including North Carolina, such aid includes the assignment of a state staff person.

“States are being put in a very difficult position of having to deliver technical assistance with fewer people,” said Matthew Gandal, the director of standards and assessment for Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization set up by the nation’s governors and business leaders to help raise student achievement. “It will take creative solutions. This definitely is a work in progress.”

At the same time, some observers remain openly skeptical.

“The problem with state agencies is that it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” said Jim Watts, the vice president for state services for the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. “This is a very new business that they’re in.”

State education agencies have come a long way since the first half of this century, when their staffs were tiny and their duties obscure.

Then came the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik I, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth, and the start of the federal Great Society programs of the 1960s. The two developments led to millions of dollars in new federal aid for K-12 education to further science instruction and improve learning conditions for poor children.

Agency Evolution

With lots of new money now flowing to states for new programs, state education agencies hired record numbers of employees to administer projects and monitor schools’ compliance with multitudinous new rules.

The number of state education employees doubled between 1965 and 1970, to 22,000, according to a report published early this year by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Change was again in the air in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when governors led a crusade to raise learning standards and hold schools accountable for student failure. The status quo of state education departments driven by rule-making and compliance reviews was about to be rattled to its core.

“There was a perception that the old mandates were far away from student achievement and results,” Mr. Gandal said. “When you can’t see the connection between requirements and results, it’s legitimate to call the requirements into question.”

The result was a push to retool, and streamline, state departments of education. A survey by Education Week found that at least 27 state education agencies had fewer employees in 1998 than they did in 1980.

KennetH Mazzaferro, the chairman of a North Carolina state-assistance team, reviews teacher surveys on his group’s efforts with Bobby Robinson, the principal of the school where the team works.
--Robert C. Johnston

But it remains unclear just how much this avalanche of state agency reform will change the school landscape.

Thomas Timar, an education professor at the University of California, Riverside, who has written extensively on school governance, worries that what he sees as Sputnik-era mistakes will be repeated.

“The focus is always on policy,” he said. “But people are not standing back and saying what kind of networks do we need to create in a state to make sure policy aspirations are likely to happen.”

More With Less

Mr. Timar is also concerned that education departments are downsizing at the same time their jobs are, arguably, becoming more challenging.

Education Week‘s 50-state survey found, for example, that the Texas Education Agency had 914 employees in 1980 and 795 last year. Illinois cut its staff from 987 to 790 in that time, while in North Carolina the number of employees went from 1,018 to 465, a drop of 54 percent.

State officials shrug off the suggestion that they can’t do as much with fewer people, and they say they are now working smarter.

“We are a lot leaner than we have ever been,” said Suellen Reed, Indiana’s schools chief, whose agency’s staff shrank from 397 employees in 1980 to 271 in 1998. “We are also more effective and efficient.”

For example, the department looks to hire exemplary teachers as part-time consultants, rather than using state employees, to lead training workshops. The Indiana agency also uses more outside consultants for research that had previously been done in-house--an increasingly common strategy for state departments.

“I think there’s more credibility for research and analysis this way,” said Ms. Reed, a Republican who was elected to her position.

But the real challenge lies ahead, as the Hoosier State implements a rigorous new accountability system. A provision of the law mandates state assistance for low-performing schools. If such a school hasn’t turned things around by the fifth year of intervention, the state will be able to take it over.

“We see this as the first time in Indiana that the success or failure of a local school can rest on the type of assistance it gets from the state department of education,” said Roger W. Thornton, the executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” said Larry Grau, the education policy adviser to Democratic Gov. Frank L. O’Bannon. “There’s a large group of education policy folks who don’t want the old system to change from serving more of a regulatory function.”

Performance Goals

Neighboring Illinois took aim at performance when it created a new division in its education department to help schools on or approaching the state’s academic-warning list. But with just six full-time state employees and six hand-picked exemplary teachers to provide optional technical aid to such schools, the division is stretched thin.

“We are trying to build a larger system of support that any school can access,” said Sheryl Poggi, the administrator of the change-initiatives division. “This is a very human-intensive system.”

The group has an impressive record. Of the 29 Illinois schools on the warning list last year, 23 were removed by the beginning of this school year. And all but one of those schools opted to accept ongoing state assistance.

“It took the first semester to build up their confidence in us so they believed we were there to help them,” Ms. Poggi said.

In 1995, Lone Star State lawmakers farmed out most of the Texas Education Agency’s technical-assistance duties to 20 existing, privately contracted regional assistance centers, which operate on a combination of federal, state, and local money.

“With 20 different entities, the record will be spotty. Some are great, and some could be improved, but most get good marks,” said James B. Crow, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards.

While the state agency lost much of its regulatory power, it was left the important job of administering the state’s extensive accountability system.

At about the same time, Commissioner of Education Mike Moses decreed that the downsized agency would become more customer-friendly. Among other steps, pictures of students were posted in the agency’s Austin offices to remind employees just whom they were working for.

The impact of that change was immediate, Mr. Crow said. “Literally, the way people answered the phone and how quickly they got back to you changed,” he said.

But California Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said her department is just now recovering from four years of budget cuts and an onslaught of new legislative mandates.

“One legislator passed an eight-person home economics unit without giving us the money to hire new people,” she said.

Public-sector policymakers have a lot to learn, she added. “In the public sector, policymakers don’t know when to spend money up front to save money down the road,” Ms. Eastin said.

Local Laboratory

In North Carolina, the 282-student Jefferson D. Diggs school offers a case study on the new state role from the point of view of teachers, students, and a principal. The magnet school was one of 11 low-performing schools assigned state assistance teams after state test results were released in the spring of 1998. Those teams typically consist of local educators on loan to the state for three years.

Some say that the most notable outcome of the state team’s visit to Diggs was better test scores. In fact, the percentage of students who met goals for improvement on the state writing exam rose 42 percent from the previous year. In the 1997-98 school year, before the state team’s intervention, the school’s 4th grade performance fell 6 percentage points, which contributed to its low-performing designation.

In preliminary scores for this year, the school improved its scores in reading and mathematics--and the results don’t appear to be a fluke. Last year, 14 of the 15 schools statewide with intervention teams shed their low-performing status.

“It became the mission of the majority of our staff to get out of low-performing,” said Ms. Robinson, the principal at Diggs.

Students credit the state team for coming up with new strategies to make math and writing fun, which, in turn, raised their test scores.

“When I write now, it’s like a hamburger. There’s an introduction, details, and a conclusion,” said 10-year-old Rashad Lemon, drawing on a catchy metaphor cooked up by the state team.

State-assistance-team member Shirley Allen coaches 4th grader Rashad Lemon on a poem he recited later that day in a ceremony to thank teachers for helping students raise test scores.
--Robert C. Johnston

Rashad’s comments are music to the ears of his 4th grade teacher, Sondra Turner, who said the team helped her and other teachers “work smarter” by offering enjoyable methods of conveying fundamental skills.

“I saw most of my kids starting to like writing,” she added. "[Before the team arrived,] it was never broken down in a way they understand.”

But the intervention is not universally hailed at the school.

Several staff members suggested that the departure of three teachers this year was tied at least in part to the close scrutiny they received from the state team. And some teachers still resent the team’s presence.

“They are in a very powerful position,” 4th grade teacher Forrest McFeeters said of the state team. “I have this thing about somebody coming into your house as a visitor and telling you what’s wrong.”

Assistance-team member Shirley Allen said she tries to be sensitive and friendly to school staff members. Ultimately, though, the team has a job to do.

“We are not here to take over schools. We are here to assist in moving from one level to another in the same way administrators and teachers try to move students from one grade to another,” Ms. Allen said. “But the bottom line is that if improving schools means a change in staff, that’s what it means.”

Learning Tips

Most of the teachers interviewed said the state team helped them prepare students for the exams, but they wondered aloud if tests weren’t becoming too important.

“We are preparing our kids to be test-taking drones,” Mr. McFeeters argued. “I don’t think it’s about learning anymore.”

Augustus Reid, a 3rd grade teacher, said that students are under tremendous pressure when an instructor’s job security is boiled down to how well they do on a test. “Kids are no longer human,” he said. “They become numbers. Kids need love and someone who’s interested in them.”

But Shemasha Gentry, 12, welcomed the help: “Why wouldn’t you want to learn something that’s going to help you pass the test?”

Test results notwithstanding, Principal Robinson has some words of advice for future state assistance efforts.

First, make sure the assistance arrives at the beginning of the school year. "[Schools] will be a lot more receptive if you begin the year together,” she said. “You can’t just come in and tell teachers what to do.”

Next, attitude and experience will make or break the effort. “You can’t have a novice doing this. Five years of experience won’t cut it,” Ms. Robinson said. “More important is that they worked in a poverty area and understand the mind-set of the poor.”

The school’s teachers added that they could have used more assurance that the state team was really there to help them.

“For the first couple of weeks, I didn’t talk to them because I was intimidated by fear of what was to happen,” Mr. McFeeters said. “All that could have been avoided.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 23, 1999 edition of Education Week as State Agencies Take Hands-On Role in Reform


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