THE BLOG
01/27/2015 09:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Changing Role of the SEA

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By Jessica Conlon

To say we’re in a time of tremendous transformation in education has practically become a cliché. Unfortunately, most state education agencies (SEAs) didn’t get the memo. Many still function as bureaucracies dedicated to compliance and enforcement, instead of setting a vision for education and providing the necessary support to achieve it. That needs to change.

Over the last few years, many states have initiated a variety of ambitious policy reforms, from new educator evaluation systems to rigorous standards and assessments to sweeping school turnaround plans. But implementing these bold policies successfully in hundreds of schools statewide is a massive undertaking, and it’s clear that districts need more from their SEAs in order to improve student outcomes -- from clear direction and guidance to critical thought partnerships and additional resources. Unfortunately, in most cases, these districts are left to fend for themselves.

There are a few high-performing SEAs that have broken the bureaucratic mold and emerged as innovators and change management experts. (States like Colorado, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Tennessee come to mind.) Tennessee in particular has been on the cutting edge of ambitious reforms, and the appointment of Kevin Huffman as Commissioner of Education brought the visionary leadership needed to guide his agency and state through their implementation. Former Commissioner Huffman, who left the post in January, called for the Tennessee Department of Education to be restructured, leveraged the state’s regional offices to customize support for districts, and attracted high-quality talent to join his agency. Today, Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the nation in K-12 education.

But even SEAs in states like Tennessee are in jeopardy of reverting back to their former selves. SEAs and their leadership continue to come under pressure from those who have long opposed the bold initiatives these agencies are championing. In addition, the federal money that supports these initiatives is dwindling.

Here are three things states can do to make sure they take a step forward, not a step back:

Prioritize recruiting and retaining great people to state teams. For SEAs, this means appointing visionary leaders with the ability to staff their teams with talented and committed experts in policy, curriculum, instruction, data and even communications. The school chief role has become high profile and politicized. What was once a role for a bureaucrat now requires exceptional leadership, education expertise and the skills to communicate and engage effectively with various stakeholders. A school chief should know where she wants to take education in her state and have the determination to withstand the inevitable opposition she’ll face.

Provide high-quality and customized implementation support. Setting policy is easy. The real work begins with implementation. It might be appropriate for some components of implementation to be standardized, including policy interpretation guidance, training for district administrators and specialists, or model resources (such as Common Core-aligned curricular materials or model observation forms for a new evaluation system).

But high-quality implementation may look different for each district, especially if state policy allows some local control of policy setting (for example, designing an evaluation system that meets certain criteria). SEAs need to be capable of a sliding scale approach to implementation support. With some high-performing districts, the SEA may play the role of thought partner, while lower-performing districts may need more hands-on support.

Ensure legislatures set SEAs up for success. As state legislatures begin to consider additional policy changes this year, it’s important to keep in mind that SEAs can be used for more than enforcement -- if the right conditions exist. To do so, they need the funds, flexibility and mandate to set ambitious goals and policy and then execute on them. This means having the flexibility and autonomy to compete for the best talent at all levels in the agency, and having the resources necessary to provide superior support to districts.

SEAs have often been written off as compliance machines, but as their best selves, they can be much more. They are the government entities best-positioned to provide both the thought leadership and technical assistance districts need to improve outcomes for students, and working conditions for educators.

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Jessica Conlon is a Project Director of Strategy, Systems and Policy at TNTP.