Ending the SEA as we know it

While working for the New Jersey Department of Education, I consistently struggled with a basic problem. My organization wasn’t designed to do the things that our leadership team prioritized.

The converse was also true: The things that the organization was designed to do weren’t at the top of our list.

This second point was particularly troublesome, because those things—like sending teams out to do monitoring visits or pestering districts to send in reports—were required by federal laws.

We did our very best to deal with the hand we were dealt. We reorganized the department, made clear what our goals were, and repurposed funding and positions (to the extent permitted).

I think this is what responsible leaders of public-sector organizations do: They don’t bellyache about the problems and constrains of government agencies—they deal with them.

Throughout my career, I’ve bounced between the nonprofit and public sectors. I read, think, and write about issues for a while, and then I go into the system and spend whatever intellectual capital I’ve accumulated. Because of the “writing” part of this formula, I generally enter government service with a bit of, shall we say, baggage.

For example, there was (to be diplomatic) some concern that I had written extensively about the bad-ideaness of massive school-turnaround efforts and then, in my official capacity as state deputy education commissioner, had a hand in our state’s SIG grant.

I never saw a problem with this. My view was simple: When I work for the government, I deal with the world as it is; when I’m outside of the government, thinking and writing, I deal with it as I think it ought to be. So I’m comfortable criticizing SIG from the outside and then trying my best to make it work when I go inside.

This is the split mindset that I brought to the CRPE report “Modernizing the State Education Agency: Different Paths Toward Performance Management,” by Patrick J. Murphy and Lydia Rainey.

Released just as I was leaving state service, the paper studied eight SEAs (including New Jersey’s) that were trying, in various ways, to change their work.

The report uses the issue of addressing a state’s lowest-performing schools to investigate each SEA’s evolution.

The government-service Andy would’ve found the report pretty valuable. It argues that SEAs generally think about these activities through a lens provided by federal law; it discusses how today’s reform-minded state chiefs prioritize this line of work; it highlights how SEAs need to alter how they interact with LEAs if these schools are to improve; it details how some departments have reorganized themselves to do this work; it discusses the challenges associated with launching new school-improvement efforts in an era of austerity; and it offers a three-category framework for comparing SEAs.

Had I still been in the system when this report came out, it probably would have changed the way I saw my organization and how I went about my work.

But today’s Andy—the world-as-it-ought-to-be Andy—sees this report as more evidence that we need to bring to an end the SEA as we currently know it.

Every page has an example of a very good leader wrestling with old rules, habits, programs, and funding streams, struggling to make a new type of organization out of one created for a different time and different purposes.

To their credit, the authors recognize this tension. But, perhaps because they position themselves largely as journalists reporting on the activities of state leaders, they assume themselves—and us—into a corner.

Consider the following two examples:

  • They write that succeeding with school improvement and performance management “will require state agencies to build new capacities and assume new roles.”
  • Later they write, “effective school improvement cannot happen if the SEA itself does not evolve from an organization preoccupied with compliance to one that manages performance.”

The government-service Andy would have had on the same blinders. Maybe you have them on, too.

Both bullets—actually, the entire report and our collective response to the state-level challenges we face—simply assume that if we want new and different state-level things done, we have to change the SEA so it does them.

There is, however, another answer. Let the SEA do what it was designed to do and what is required of it. And nothing more.

All other responsibilities should be invested in different—preferably new—organizations, some government-run, some in the nonprofit sector.

I don’t have all of the specifics down yet (this is one of the advantages of think-tankery over in-the-belly positions: the ability to surface problems without answers!). But it certainly means major initiatives—for example, leading teacher-evaluation reform, authorizing charters, and leading innovations like blended learning—would take place outside of the SEA.

If you think this is entirely far-fetched, consider two recent developments. First, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Michigan have created new state entities (the RSD, ASD, and EEA) to deal with their states’ lowest-performing schools.

Second, Colorado and New York have created independent but affiliated nonprofit arms responsible for activities traditionally done by SEAs.

My point is similar to the one I made in my book. Just as we can re-imagine how K–12 public education is delivered in America’s cities, we can re-imagine how a state goes about its K–12 work.

The SEA need not have the dominant, default role.

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