Presidential Transitions and a Time of Opportunity for States

Topics: Education Policy, ESSA

The transition to a new presidential administration brings with it a wealth of opportunities for state education chiefs to implement change. Political transition is an interesting thing to watch. It is the personification of “out with the old, in with the new.” With the transition of presidential administrations comes the usual fits and starts of naming cabinet secretaries, policy pronouncements, and the launching of a significant number of test balloons. Transition also presents opportunity. As I look at the education landscape, I see incredible opportunity. Dare I say, it could very well be the golden age to be a state education chief. Why do I say that? For a number of reasons.

First, the enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last December marked an important turning point in federal education policy. After fifteen years of a strong federal presence under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, Congress decided to give states significant flexibility in how they design their education systems. This is a transfer of power, relieving states from the “yoke” of NCLB. State-focused organizations such as CCSSO, NGA, and others had lobbied hard to allow states to lead. The passage of ESSA allowed states to chart their own courses on issues such as assessment, accountability, and school improvement. While this flexibility presents states with an unprecedented opportunity to transform their approach to teaching and learning, it also has the potential to jeopardize success if implementation is not high quality. States must be thoughtful in how they design education systems that align accountability, school improvement, assessment, and educator workforce, to name just a few key areas, to create a cohesive system that prepares all students for success from cradle to career.

Second, the ESSA regulations, completed by the Obama Administration, arguably tried to rein in some of the flexibility. This was, in part, a battle of political will between the Congressional vision cast through ESSA and the protection of priorities by an outgoing Administration. This is not an uncommon or unpredictable game of tug-of-war. It’s normal. That said, the regulations (provided they remain in place under a new Congress and new Administration) offer more than enough flexibility for states to capitalize on transforming innovations like personalized and competency-based learning, computer-adaptive assessment, and rethinking the link between teacher evaluation, support, and professional development.

Third, states and their leaders will need to move beyond the comfort of inertia. States have, over the last eight plus years, tackled significant reforms ranging from implementing new standards and assessments (with some states doing this multiple times), teacher evaluations, Race to the Top grants, state waivers, and this doesn’t account for the near continual buzz of state legislation. States have had to deal with unprecedented change. This has also effected, in a pronounced way, the field of educators charged with implementing these changes and the students in our nation’s classrooms. Once again, that said, states may never have this opportunity again. It’s time to move beyond temporary moment of perceived calm and strike out to change the system of education in this country. We cannot sacrifice a daring future for all of our children for the comforts of the setting sun of today. States simply cannot dust off the policies in their waivers, do some copy editing and updating, and submit them. That would be a critical missed opportunity.

Lastly, the incoming Administration will not be hands on. Period. End of story. The contrast with the often overly prescriptive Obama Administration could not be more stark. This further opens the door for states to be bold. Throughout the past eight years, states’ rights advocates have often squawked about the hoops they had to jump through with the Obama Administration on the waiver. Go for it states. Shoot the moon. Just do it. Create the system that the students in your state deserve. Create the system that will transform your state educationally and economically. Create the system that your educators want to teach in, be creative in, and develop in. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

We are on the cusp of the golden age for state chiefs. The time is nigh. Go forth and be bold, be creative, and grasp this opportunity.