Sailing A Ship With Half A Crew

January 21, 2011 | Blog


Andy Rotherham pens a smart column in this week’s TIME Magazine (‘States’ Rights and States’ Wrongs On School Reform’). In it, he deals with the oft-ignored issue of the capacity of state departments of education to implement education reforms or engage in strategic policymaking.

Today’s state departments of education are good at compliance, but with few exceptions, they are not good at strategy or leading systemic change. That’s why competition is so fierce for talented individuals who are willing to work in state education agencies….

Rotherham loses me a bit with his proposed solution, glossing over the fiscal difficulties that would prevent a strengthening of state departments of education.

So what to do?

States need better bureaucrats. In some places, this means hiring new people. In others, it means making sure the right people aren’t focusing on the wrong activities.

Hey, I’m all for trying to work smarter. But the problem is that the likelihood of state departments of education hiring any new people, strengthening their talent pool and increasing their capacity to do this work over the next several years is practically nil. Between state hiring freezes, furlough days, incentivized retirements, and frozen or reduced salaries, there is little incentive for talented individuals to take such jobs except perhaps at the highest levels. But then those folks are trying to sail a ship with half a crew.

If the federal government is clear-headed about devolving more authority to the states and committed to actually seeing reforms work and outcomes improve, then it needs to pay attention to states’ implementation capacity. Perhaps there is a need to fund more positions within state departments with federal dollars given states’ unwillingness to staff their agencies and politicians’ willingness to target state workforces for additional cuts. So many state departments of education have been eviscerated that, despite the many talented folks at the helm and in the ranks of senior management, there simply aren’t enough capable hands on decks to do the work and to do it well.

A similar concern has to do with policy reform itself. As I’ve written in the past, too many advocates and reformers seem to consider passing a law or reforming a policy as an end in itself. Increasingly, however, there is much more talk and attention to the importance of implementation and, in some quarters, collaboration and stakeholder buy-in as well. (Others, of course, would be happy to run certain stakeholders over with a truck. I recall someone influential saying “Collaboration is overrated.” Hmmm.) The work does not end with a law’s passage, but state departments of education play a critical role in communicating it, implementing it, evaluating it, and making sure it can succeed in a variety of school and district settings. That is not easy work. Sure, there is a role for outside consultants, but I would argue that there needs to be someone on the ground shepherding the work day in and day out. In too many state departments of education, the people with the talent, capacity and know-how have walked out the exit door, and there may be no one immediately available to replace them. That’s a concern that cannot be swept under the rug. And it doesn’t seem to be a concern that is being raised amidst the numerous proposals in states across the country to shrink the state workforce and make state service a much less attractive career.

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