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Book Review: The Role of State Departments of Education in Complex School Reform by Susan Follett

Katie Pak
Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Perhaps the most notable national event to ring out the year is the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the latest installation of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). It replaces the much maligned No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 and reasserts states and local governments as the primary school improvement decision-makers in the tangled arena of education reform.   

Drawing upon the American spirit of distrusting centralized control, ESSA limits the federal government’s authority to impose certain standards, accountability metrics, and punitive action on those failing to meet performance targets. While states still have to comply with NCLB’s mandate of testing students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, with ESSA, they would be permitted to set their own student achievement goals, identify their own academic and non-academic (i.e., school climate, teacher engagement) indicators for accountability, design their own intervention plans for their lowest performing schools, and implement their own teacher evaluation systems. Champions of state-led accountability naturally are rejoicing over this ESSA gift, right? When considering how adept state educational systems have to be in order to appropriately prepare their teachers and students for demanding 21st century expectations, Susan Follett Lusi’s book, The Role of State Departments of Education in Complex School Reform, necessarily calls into question states’ organizational capacity for orchestrating an integrated approach to reform.  

In her book, Lusi paints a thematic and holistic picture of the enormous task that state departments of education (SDE) must undertake in order to develop their educators’ instructional practice. This expectation to now be the experts in teaching and learning marks a dramatic evolution of the SDE’s original role, to serve as a regulatory, monitoring entity that oversees their districts’ performance. Lusi couples her explanation of the SDE’s awkward transition to its new role with her research on the contentious political context of the 1990s, thus casting state legislators, the state board of education, and the state constituency as co-stars in this educational production. Further, collaborators with SDE must come to a consensus on the following matters: should states create top-down or bottom-up capacity for school reform? Do SDEs even have the ability to change the behavior of teachers when state administrators have little proximity to classrooms? Are local characteristics and implementation strategies more influential than statewide policy strategies? Do standards and standardized assessments outweigh school autonomy? What even defines effective teaching practice? Lusi’s portrait of SDEs’ contentious tenure as facilitators of teaching and learning processes, the crowded political stage, and the complex decisions to be made before setting coherent vision leads readers to feel sympathetic towards the department charged with ensuring every child in its state receives high quality education.  

As the author makes clear, SDEs are frequently placed at the frontiers of knowledge in a world of evolving educational expectations where no one quite knows how best to proceed. There is no precedent for standards-based assessment that meets individual student needs or for successfully reshuffling a traditional bureaucratic system that authentically allows for idea generation, collaboration, aligned messaging, and staff stability.  Kentucky and Vermont, as two information-rich case studies for SDEs engaged in numerous statewide reform initiatives, shed light on the achievements and challenges that states across the country have likely experienced, are currently experiencing, and will continue to experience as ESSA puts the onus on SDEs to figure out “what works” for their constituents. Through Lusi’s analysis of Kentucky’s attempts at implementing the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), the most essential lesson that emerges is a critical need to focus on the bureaucratic structure, staffing, and morale within the SDE itself. The centralized, top-down department led its employees to devalue their own creativity, proactivity, and potential for growth. The stress in meeting KERA deadlines engendered high degrees of staff turnover and limited flexibility and responsiveness to unique circumstances. From Lusi’s portrayal of Vermont, a state that placed a high premium on consensus building and the power of persuasion instead of strictly emphasizing the letter of the law, the reader becomes aware of the tension between relationship-building and accountability, and of the state’s natural gravitation towards standardization, regulation, and lack of recognition of district expertise.  

When one considers the staggering number of interviews Lusi conducted and analyzed for this book (195 total, 102 in Kentucky and 93 in Vermont), the research comes across as comprehensive. However, she herself acknowledges the limitations of her scope. Kentucky and Vermont are both overwhelmingly rural states that do not face the same challenges that states with large urban districts must tackle. Additionally, the two case studies merely reflect 4% of the total SDE population (this percentage includes the Office of the State Superintendent of Education in D.C.). Her presentation of SDE organizational capacity to lead, support, manage, or oversee- whatever the appropriate verb may be-  represents a very small slice of the national pie, an important caveat that could have been more clearly communicated in her closing remarks. Some of her concluding thoughts come across as causal relationships between x SDE action and y effect on school reform in z state, which is dangerous territory to tread when two nationally unrepresentative states served as the objects of study.   

Society in the U.S., especially U.S. public education, progresses at an intractable rate. It is for this reason that although Lusi’s research took place in the early 1990s, her analysis is still extraordinarily applicable in today’s ESEA reauthorization climate. ESSA paves the way for SDEs to independently decide on accountability measures to propel student achievement, especially in historically under-achieving schools. They may do so in conjunction with the state governor, their state legislature, the board of education, and the local expertise of their own districts, or they may encounter conflicts when building these external relationships or establishing statewide vision. They may look outward for sources of knowledge, as many states did with the advent of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the amazing opportunity to share resources across state lines, or they may focus on the inner needs of the state. Some SDEs may surface as leaders in state implementation of initiatives to support students’ college- and career- readiness, a label that Kentucky is currently donning as a successful adopter of CCSS. At the center of these actions that SDEs may take in the wake of ESSA passage is the question, for coherent implementation of state reforms to occur, does every stakeholder need to change their fundamental beliefs, values, and approaches to education, and is the SDE responsible for the creation of these new state educational paradigms? And as they build their own customized policies for holding districts, schools, and teachers accountable to student outcomes, who is holding SDEs accountable to supporting and making the right decisions for the people they serve? Designing complex school reform requires a delicate balance of myriad variables, but a balance of accountability must also be in place.  

The dearth of knowledge on what SDEs actually do and how they adapt as behemoth organizations engaged in the politics of school reform places Lusi’s research as a critical backdrop to ESEA reauthorization. Now that ESSA authorizes states to be the agenda setters for their respective educational systems, the public will benefit both from sympathizing with the challenges of SDE’s work and from holding SDEs accountable to their results. For as Uncle Ben once said in the Spider-Man series, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”