While Americans feel no particular love for the U.S. Department of Education (see this graphic from Sunday's New York Times Magazine), I have found that, in education circles at least, particular scorn is heaped??upon state departments of education and their civil service employees. Colonized (in Paul Hill's term) from federal programs above, and distant from the real action of schools and districts below, they are the consummate middle-men (and women) of America's education system. Conventional wisdom says they are capable of little more than pushing paper: performing audits, writing regulations, and filing reports.
What sweet relief it is, then, to read Shepard Barbash's Education Next piece about the implementation of the Reading First program, and the heroic role played by state departments of education.
The most enduring achievement of Reading First may be that it has nurtured a group of state leaders who have developed deep expertise in the science of reading instruction and have been able to get steadily better at helping the districts teach more children how to read. In states where Reading First is working, districts look not to their long-standing networks of consultants and colleges for expertise, but to their state administrators. This is a bureaucratic revolution.
Imagine that: state bureaucrats turned instructional leaders. Regardless of what you read about the program's effectiveness (and if you must read something about that, read this or this), its implementation marks a milestone in the annals of federal-state relations. It's a prescriptive, top-down, micro-managy program that states and districts love. Wonders never cease.