Stuck in the middle with state-level reform

In back-to-back days last week, I had the chance to spend time with different groups of leaders interested in improving state-level reform work.

These conversations were very different than the philosophical fights about the advisability of big reforms like educator effectiveness and Common Core. They were also different than discussions of school- and district-level activities, like Success Academy’s test scores or district staffing patterns.

Both sets of conversations are very important, and I regularly take part in both. But I think too little attention is given to a third set of activities, the state-level work sitting between the two.

State governments are the entities ultimately responsible, under state constitutions, for ensuring kids have access to great schools. This means state governments need to handle funding formulas, longitudinal data system, the adoption of standards and assessments, the monitoring of big federal programs, and more.

The two meetings I participated in addressed different aspects of state-level activity. One was about the smart, careful implementation of new standards and assessments. The other was about figuring out the best way to execute all of the state’s responsibilities, whether through the traditional SEA or through other approaches (per the argument in our At the Helm, Not the Oar report).

Much could be said about these meetings and the takeaways. But I was reminded, once again, that many federal policymakers often just assume that a new federal program, reporting requirement, or funding stream will automatically and seamlessly be implemented with fidelity once passed off to states. I was also reminded that there is a yawning gap between the stirring language in state constitutions promising great primary and secondary schools and the nitty-gritty work of actually living up to that responsibility.

Several years ago, I went to work for a state department of education because I honestly believed, in 2010, that we were in the era of the powerful SEA, thanks largely to Race to the Top. It felt like a briefly opened window when these state agencies would be empowered to drive groundbreaking reforms.

My buoyant assessment of RTTT has moderated in the intervening years, and, as my conservatism-and-education-reform series points out, I’m flirting with becoming more cynical about big reforms of all types.

But state-level work remains absolutely essential. States must lead because of their constitutional obligations, because the feds push things down to them, and this level of government holds our fragmented K–12 system together. I’m not sure I’d emphatically encourage people to take positions in SEAs like I did four or five years ago. But I do want people to engage in state-level activities—whether through policy, non-SEA government bodies (e.g. RSD, ASD), state-affiliated bodies (e.g. CEI, SCORE), nonprofits that engage with states (e.g. TNTP), or new entities they create.

In fact, it might be the case that the most fertile and most unspoiled field for education entrepreneurs is the slowly emerging state-level reform ecosystem.

Andy Smarick
Andy Smarick is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Senior Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute