Linking State and Local School Improvement

The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives heavy deference to “local control.” School districts, charter schools, and communities are meant to be in the driver’s seat. And they are. States don’t improve student outcomes—schools and families do. State agencies have limited authority to intervene in low-performing schools, for example, and have limited staff, funding, and expertise to support serious improvement efforts in every school that needs it. State school chiefs and state boards have more power to stop bad things from happening through regulations than to promote solutions. Yet states are the entities through which the vast majority of public education funds flow. They are responsible for fulfilling constitutional responsibilities for effective and equitable public education, and for stepping in when localities fail to deliver results. 

What can states realistically do, then, to inspire and promote urgent innovation and improvement at the local level—in school districts, among charter authorizers, and, ultimately, in schools? That is the subject of a new CRPE initiative: Linking State and Local School Improvement. Our series of papers is meant to inform state school chiefs, state education agency staff, governors and legislative staff, and state advocacy groups about how to support the most promising local improvement efforts. 

Linking State and Local Government

Our goal is to link reform at the local and state level so that states can put the powers they do have to their highest and best use, and local leaders with ideas and initiative will not constantly fight against state law and administrative actions. 

We believe states have a unique opportunity before them: to use new flexibilities under ESSA to do more than just change the metrics by which they hold schools accountable or ensure a plan is in place to support improvement in their state’s lowest-performing 5 percent of schools. States should be thinking about how they can make a philosophical shift to fully empower localities, schools, educators, and families to become true agents of change. This can’t happen by making new rules. It requires imaginative new governance models and eliminating rules that impede local action, bold new approaches to using federal and state funds, and savvy political strategies.

The first of our new papers takes on the question of how states can best improve their lowest-performing schools. In Measures of Last Resort: Assessing Strategies for State-Initiated Turnaround, Dr. Ashley Jochim looks at how states are approaching the work of intervention in low-performing schools and the successes, challenges, and comparative advantages of different types of interventions. Jochim finds that all approaches to state-initiated turnaround—from the least disruptive to the most—require four ingredients to be successful: the will to initiate changes to practice, sufficient authority to put in place effective strategies, adequate capacity to execute the turnaround plan, and community support to sustain changes over time. But none of the approaches to state-initiated turnaround provide a surefire way to marshal the needed ingredients, and each strategy includes liabilities that, left unaddressed, will compromise the success of the effort. Jochim argues that states can play a variety of constructive roles to support local school improvement and should not limit themselves to one option. With a broader toolset and better triaging, states can ensure their support is more targeted, better received, and ultimately more effective.  

Other papers in this series focus on: 

How state leaders, especially state chiefs, can exercise their powers to most effectively help districts and schools. While chief state school officers have strictly limited formal powers, most have unrealized potential for influence. Chiefs can set priorities for districts and schools, strengthen the hands of local leaders who want to make a dramatic difference in their schools, and limit distractions emanating from the legislature and state bureaucracy. The Power of Persuasion: A Model for Effective Political Leadership by State Chiefs analyzes examples of extraordinary chief influence, and draws lessons for chief pipeline development and training. Authors Paul Hill and Ashley Jochim argue that state superintendents can use both hard and soft power to negotiate local governance reforms, build coalitions, and act as high-level advocates for change on the local level. 

How state policy limits a local school system’s ability to adopt innovative governance strategies. How States Can Promote Local Innovation, Options, and Problem-Solving in Public Education offers state education leaders a way to assess their current policy environment and identify legal and regulatory changes needed to encourage local innovation and problem solving, such as the portfolio strategy. CRPE researched 14 states to identify areas where states are getting in the way of robust implementation of local autonomy. We find that, for the most part, state policy is not set up to promote local control and diverse, autonomous schools. However, states have more flexibility than they are using. We make specific recommendations for ways state policymakers can adopt statutes that support innovative local governance models as they rework their education policies under ESSA.

How states can promote innovation and experimentation. In this paper we will explore the evolution of the state and federal role in education policy and oversight and highlight the expanding opportunities for states to innovate. We propose the idea of “democratic experimentalism” as a way forward—intentional experimentation and evaluation led by states to determine best practices.

How states are meeting the challenge of ESSA. As states craft their plans for meeting ESSA requirements, they are hopefully taking a comprehensive view of how state-led talent and professional development strategies, funding, accountability, and approaches to intervention will come together to improve student outcomes. CRPE will report on how each of the 50 state plans addresses key opportunities such as innovative state/local governance models, coherent accountability and school improvement “theories of action,” strong use of evidence and experimentation, and so on. 

Local control is a hallmark (and in many ways a unique strength) of American public education. But finding ways for states to ensure that public education delivers on its promise to students and families—and makes needed and urgent improvements in what Richard Elmore famously described as a “loosely coupled” system—requires bold, creative, evidence-based solutions. That’s what CRPE intends to provide.

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