November 30, 2012

Boosting State Capacity

Prior to the Thanksgiving holiday I was in Savannah, GA at the Council of Chief State School Officers Annual Policy Forum. At this event a couple of things happened that were of consequence.  The organization said a formal goodbye to retiring executive director, Gene Wilhoit, and welcomed their new executive director, Chris Minnich. There is a consistent thread between these two men (beyond the obvious connection and commitment to the Common Core), both believe that state education agencies (SEAs) must change by dynamically linking standards, accountability, and innovation. Both men spoke about this issue with eloquence and urgency which echoes to the challenges proposed by President Obama and Secretary Duncan that SEAs must become “engines of innovation.” Race to the Top, among other ventures, was intended to propel states in that direction.

I have met with over 25 SEAs in the last year and a half. I can attest that all SEAs are struggling on this front. This is not an indictment of the good people in these agencies but of the chasm that exists between the old compliance system and the new, more nimble innovation driven system. Many states have pushed through some incredible innovation models (Colorado  and Kentucky come to mind). The facts are that over the last few years, states have become the driver of much of the reforms in our nation’s schools and school systems. Increasingly federal law and programs offered by many on both sides of the aisle recognize this fact. We propose to build upon this trend by ensuring that federal programs and resources support the development and improvement of state capacity to respond to the challenges facing their schools and school districts. States armed with the means and ability to drive reform among their schools will be effective at driving change.

Greater awareness and use of evidence based practices is critical to the success of the states. For too long federal formula and competitive grant programs have not required or even incentivized the use of evidence based practices. This translates into less effective use of federal, state, and local funds, resulting in poorer outcomes for children.

To remedy this, KnowledgeWorks recommends the federal government provide incentives for states to establish public-private entities focused on identifying and scaling innovative practices; more effective use of Title I funding to replicate the use of evidence based practices; and greater use of evidence-based approaches by those receiving federal grants:

(1) Encourage states to establish public-private agencies that can identify and scale innovative practices proven to drive better outcomes for children. States could use these agencies to scale effective practices that are difficult or challenging for existing state educational agencies.

(2) Incentivize states to use evidence based practices by allowing states to keep a larger portion of federal funding when outcomes are met. This could be accomplished through competitive grants and certain formula programs such as the Title I state set-aside. We believe this can be accomplished through a series of administrative and legislative actions.

(3) States should give priority to competitive grant applicants proposing to use evidence based practices. We believe this largely must be accomplished through legislative changes, but in some programs, such as the SIG program, this may be done administratively.

SEAs are charged with tasks of significance when it comes to education whether it is college ready standards, School Improvement Grants, Race to the Top, new accountability systems through ESEA waivers, or driving innovation into a resistant system (to just name a few). These recommendations acknowledge the new reality and equip SEAs with the tools they need to truly become “engines of innovations.”

Matt Williams

Written by: Matt Williams

Matt Williams is Vice President of National Advocacy and Partnerships for KnowledgeWorks Foundation. In this role, he is responsible for directing both federal and state relations on behalf of the Foundation. Matt assists the various divisions, subsidiaries, and major investments of KnowledgeWorks in building and maintaining relationships to advance their initiatives and also assists in advancing policy priorities for the Foundation.

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