Michael Usdan and Arthur Sheekey just wrote a great commentary on the complex and evolving relationship between federal policy, the State Education Agency, and the human capacity to get it all done. In their essay, “States Lack the Capacity for Reform” over in Education Week, Usdan and Sheeky argue that, “In essence, most state education departments remain almost wholly owned federal subsidiaries, with well over half their budgets emanating from federal funds.” Because of this, many states under-fund State Education Agencies (just as we have seen local governments under-fund their own school districts if the district is largely funded by the state—like here in Baltimore). Take this on top of declining budgets and the huge push to reinvent state standards through the common core, implement new teacher evaluation systems, and develop new data tools, and you have a mountain to move.
Usdan and Sheeky point out the structural and organizational changes that Delaware and Tennessee are making in response to these pressures. This is absolutely needed. But, I can’t help but think that the brand of the poor state education bureaucrat needs some scrubbing as well. After all, the success or failure of all education reform today rests on the weary shoulders of a few talented managers in the states and districts taking them on. These managers live and die by the axiom of what I call, “the burden of being useful” in districts and SEAs. The “burden” afflicts talented managers who are found to possess the unique ability to carry water on difficult projects and deliver time and time again. Drowning in complex new challenges, districts and SEAs not only give these people the hardest and most difficult projects, but every other project they can throw at them as well. These stars burn bright, but they usually burn out in two to three years. This has to change if we expect the current wave of reform to sustain.
If you have had the luck of working in an SEA or district taking on the reform challenge, you know it is mix of politics, bridge building, data crunching, sweat, organizational psychology, and managing a to-do list a mile long. On the worst days, it feels like hell. But, by and large, shouldering the work of education reform to me feels like what I imagine it must have been like in Silicon Valley in the 80s. We are writing history as we go. And the possibility that we will build a fundamentally better system of education for our nation’s kids is before us. If you are coming out of your MBA or MPA program, TFA or TNTP class, or are tired of your middle manager job in corporate America, this is the most exciting place to be in America. And, your talents will grow substantially by pressing your shoulder against this plow.
To complete and sustain education reform, we need talented managers in School Districts and SEAs. And to attract these talents to education and relieve the burden that they currently feel, we can start by recasting the story of what it means and what it is like to work for school districts and State Education Agencies.