Education Week - November 29, 2017 - 17
VOICES FROM THE FIELD
"We felt we needed to create more
systems in the department to
support more schools."
Tennessee Commissioner of Education
"We are thin, and our capacity
has been greatly reduced. We
have to think about how we can
support more teachers in the
Missouri Commissioner of Education
"Before, we checked the boxes.
We were a regulatory
department. Now we have to be
much more transformative. It's
extremely difficult when you're
dealing with employees who
have been regulatory agents
their whole careers."
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education
"Our challenge is geography and
data collection. We will likely be
looking for a vendor to help us
out in that effort."
Alaska Commissioner of Education
"You're put under the spotlight
and you have to withstand the
heat and weather the storm over
a long period of time. It's going to
be more and more difficult for us
to withstand the political winds."
South Dakota Secretary of Education
ESSA Pushes State Schools Chiefs
To Scrap Business-as-Usual Stance
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
potential to be more arduous and
politically contentious than the planning phase that took place over the
previous two years.
In states such as Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, state chiefs
have set up new offices within their
agencies to handle ESSA duties
while scrapping others, dispatched
some responsibilities to regional
offices and school districts, and
launched communication campaigns
to shore up political support for new
"We are thin, and our capacity has
been greatly reduced," said Margie
Vandeven, Missouri's education commissioner. "We have to rethink how we
can better support more teachers in the
The stakes are high. The average
state chief lasts just over two years in
the job. Many here spoke of the need
to get ESSA right in order to restore
trust in their offices; calm debates over
standardized testing, standards, and
accountability; and create a sense of
stability and direction for education
"You're put under the spotlight, and
you have to withstand the heat and
weather the storm over a long period of
time," said Melody Schopp, South Dakota's secretary of education. "It's going
to be more and more difficult for us to
withstand the political winds."
At the gathering, state chiefs and
their deputies, along with consultants,
discussed ways to better support students with disabilities and Englishlanguage learners, how to better
collect and report new data required
under ESSA, and how best to comply
with ESSA's financial-transparency
Carey Wright, Mississippi's superintendent, was appointed as the organization's next board president, and
CCSSO has started a search for an
executive director after Chris Minnich
resigned to take a job as the executive
director of NWEA, a nonprofit organization that crafts assessments for students.
And those at the conference heard
from Jason Botel, who is performing
the duties of assistant secretary for
elementary and secondary education
at the federal Education Department
until a nominee is formally named and
confirmed. Botel encouraged states to
be innovative in their approaches to
closing the nation's yawning achievement gaps between students of color
and white students, while also complying with ESSA. The federal department's role, he said, is no longer to dictate to states how to do their jobs.
"This is a collaborative, iterative
process," said Botel, whose office is in
the thick of evaluating 34 state ESSA
plans-a process he says has overloaded his staff. "This is not a gotcha
But that means, he said, there will be
more pressure on states in the coming
"We know the only way kids are
going to be educated is under your
leadership," Botel told the state leaders.
"You have a lot of work to do after your
plans are approved."
Chiefs at the conference and in recent phone interviews with Education
Week described several hurdles to implementing their ESSA plans.
The law shifts to districts the ability
to design their own school turnaround
strategies, requires states to collect
and report to the public more data on
school spending and average teacher
salaries, and mandates they incorporate some of those data into accountability systems.
"Before, we just checked the boxes,"
said Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania's education secretary. "We were a regulatory
department. Now, we have to be much
more transformative. That's extremely
difficult when you're dealing with employees who have been regulatory
agents their whole careers."
State chiefs said they have had
to dramatically reorganize their
already-thin staffs in order to be
much more collaborative and supportive of school districts. And they
have to figure out areas in which
they can no longer do the work on
their own because of staffing and
competing demands, and instead,
outsource that work to vendors in
areas such as data collection and
Although school spending, generally
speaking, is up by 4 percent this fiscal year, state departments, which are
heavily reliant on federal dollars, have
experienced dramatic budget cuts in
Those cuts did not abate after ESSA
was passed, state chiefs said at the
conference. In some instances, legislatures slashed state departments' budgets at the same time they were heaping more responsibilities on them.
In Kentucky, for example, the legislature, during its last session, cut by
17 percent the state department's budget, forcing schools chief Stephen L.
Pruitt to let go several staff members.
That was shortly after the legislature
implemented a new accountability
system that bolstered state and local
school boards' powers.
Last month, Wyoming halved its
school improvement budget, forcing the education department to not
renew its contract with AdvancED, an
accreditation agency, to run the state's
entire accountability system.
And in Montana, Elsie Arntzen,
the superintendent of public instruction, said that since being elected in
2016, she's been charged with cutting
10 percent of her department, a process that's forced her to re-evaluate
the department's and districts' roles.
"I've been trying to listen a lot more
to local school districts so that I can
better target precious dollars," Arntzen said.
Over the past five years, Alaska's
department of education has axed
close to a third of its department,
making it more difficult to support its
many districts, which are spread out
over 663,000 square miles.
"Our challenge is geography and
data collection," said Michael Johnson,
Alaska's education commissioner. "We
will likely be looking for a vendor to
help us out in that effort."
Candice McQueen, Tennessee's
commissioner of education, this year
set up a new three-person school improvement department that helps
coordinate fiscal and training needs
for principals. Every person in the
department is asked to spend at least
20 percent of their time assisting academically struggling schools.
"We felt we needed to create more
systems in the department to support
more schools," McQueen said.
Maryland's state superintendent,
Karen Salmon, who noted that the
department has shed 250 people in
the past decade, set up a research department this year in order to comply
with the law's requirement that districts' school turnaround strategies be
"Anytime we see a state agency, we
always know there's a lot of red tape,"
said Salmon. "What I've been trying
to do is streamline our operations so
that we can be more responsive to
local school systems' needs."
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EDUCATION WEEK | November 29, 2017 | www.edweek.org | 17