Vail Daily column: Advice for state agencies
As I mentioned last week, I had the great professional honor of being part of a four-day education policy discussion as part of the Aspen Institute. The focus of our conversation was on the increasing role and importance of state policy in the wake of possible significant changes in federal law that would put states more in the driver’s seat when it comes to decisions about their schools.
One central question was around the appropriate role of state departments of education. These are typically big state bureaucracies and the mere mention of their names (or acronyms, like our own CDE) usually draw sighs and creates a sense of weariness among most.
I’ve had the chance to work in two state agencies (in Colorado and in Iowa) for a combined total of more than eight years. Yes, maybe I am a masochist, but I actually enjoyed those years, learned a lot about education policy and got to work alongside some truly wonderful people who care a great deal about kids and our country.
State education agencies have to take on a bunch of different roles in our system. The trick, for those working in these agencies, is knowing which hat you have on and how to best play the role you are in. I will touch on a few of these roles and provide some unsolicited advice for those working in state agencies.
The Regulator: In spite of numerous well intentioned efforts to be something besides a box-checker and bean-counter, Congress and state legislatures put state education agencies in this role constantly. And as much as I’m a believer that the best decisions for kids happen locally, there is important work to be done to make sure well intentioned laws are followed and funds are appropriately spent. The tip for those playing this role in the state agency is to not pretend it’s something else. Be honest — tell people what you are doing (regulating) and why (because some lawmaking body is making you). The people working in schools are professionals and we get it — be straight with us.
The Keeper of the Data: There is an extraordinary amount of performance, demographic and financial information that states and the federal government require. No other entity could possibly serve in this role except for the state agency. When playing this role, make the transactions of information from the state to the local level (and vice versa) as easy as possible for the people in the field — it is likely they have a bunch of other plates spinning in the air and things to attend to. Put an extraordinary (even paranoid) amount of time and energy into keeping the data accurate and being very honest and unbiased about what it means. The second a state agency makes an error or takes a political stand with data, your credibility is gone.
The Sense Maker: State and federal education laws are complex, interwoven, contradictory and often unclear. The people working in schools will try very hard to do whatever is asked of them and this creates an incredible burden of responsibility on a state department of education. You have to work hard to take that messy soup of policies and help put some guidance around them that allow practitioners to execute what they are being asked to do. The trick to playing this role is to reach out to the expertise that already exists in the field to help with this important work. Often times, the talent level in districts exceeds that in the state agency — but, if leveraged right, this can be a knowledge resource.
The Convener: State education agencies can bring people together to talk about education policy in ways perhaps no one else can. Associations, nonprofits, think tanks and others hold conferences all the time, but when a commissioner sounds the bell, people take notice. So bring people together to learn and solve problems. The trick to this role is keeping it focused on teaching and learning and not politics. There are few faster ways to shut down practitioners than to interject politics and ideology into the work.
There is one final role — that of the leader. Like it or not, districts and schools often look to the state education chief and the department for direction and guidance. State departments would be well advised to play this role with reverence and respect for the sacred and moral work of education. Be careful — if you get it wrong you impact potentially millions of children.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.