Going Where the Education Action Is

If you spend enough time reading about education reform — particularly over the past few years — you get the sense that Washington, DC is the unwavering center and base for all that is new, all that is relevant, and all that is necessary to school improvement.  NCLB.  The U.S. Department of Education.  The Institute of Education Sciences.  The blob of representative education organizations.  All, it seems, serve as the epicenter for real change in our educational system.

But when you really get down to it, the real action of education reform is not at the national level.  In reality, the U.S. Department of Education and the federal government account for less than eight cents of every dollar spent on public K-12 education in the United States.  Despite the tales coming from the status quoer bogeymen, there are few educators who are taking their marching orders directly from NCLB or from the data captured by IES or NAGB.  And although some would like to believe it, superintendents and principals are not waiting for detailed instructions from the EdSec before they take action on instructional improvement.
Don’t get me wrong.  The federal hand is a great influencer in what is happening in education reform.  It provides an enormous carrot, usually in the form of federal dollars, to get new and valuable programs — such as Reading First or the American Competitiveness Initiative — from research to policy to practice.  It also provides a more ominous stick, providing punishment for those who fail to meet AYP, misuse federal funds, or generally choose not to follow the mission and guidelines put forward by the federal government (particularly as it relates to important laws such as Title I).
In a perfect world, the federal education lever is one of a velvet hammer.  It provides us the opportunity to feel good about what we are doing, while knowing that swift and meaningful judgment can come down on those who ignore, flaunt, or seek to reverse the laws of the land.  Be it gender equity, special education, teacher training, or even reading or math instruction, there is little doubt that the educational velvet hammer rests in the hands of ED and the EdSec.
Many know I spend most of my working days helping organizations, companies, and agencies determine the best ways to advocate for education issues, particularly improvements to the current K-12 system.  Much of these discussions tend to focus on the federal, for the reasons detailed above.  We all want to meet with folks on the seventh floor of ED, hoping to convince them we’ve built a better mousetrap or offer a solution unmatched by those that have come previously.  As a good counselor and advisor, I try to respect the wishes of my clients, and identify ways they can be a part of the federal discussion of education reform.
Eduflack finds himself spending more and more time these days, though, redirecting these good intentions to where the education action really is.  For those looking to make a difference, for those looking to enact meaningful change, for those looking to truly boost student achievement and improve instruction, for those looking to identify and develop an education solution that can be implemented at scale, the real action is happening at the state level.
Real reform has the greatest opportunity to succeed when introduced at the state level.  First, it can serve as a lever of influence on federal decisionmakers, demonstrating the results we need to see that a particular program or intervention works.  Second, it has the power to implement those changes in a large number of school districts simultaneously, using the state’s own carrot/stick powers to implement reforms directly in school districts that need the help the most.  The feds have levels of bureaucracy to go through before they can reach the school district. The state gets there with a phone call and a well-constructed relationship.
In the education policy world, we’re all looking to the future to see what the next version of No Child Left Behind will hold.  But we don’t need to wait for the NCLB lever to enact real, meaningful reforms.  The Gates Foundation recognized this long ago, and has invested significant money in statewide education reforms designed to model innovations.  The National Governors Association has focused tremendous effort and incredible intellectual capital on issues such as high school reform, AP, science/math education, national standards, and data collection — each path offering statewide solutions and demonstrating statewide results.  The National Conference of State Legislatures has all but ignored NCLB, focusing on its own issues.  And membership groups such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, Education Commission of the States, and even the Southern Regional Education Board have taken courageous policy stands to enact real reforms that improve the quality and results of education across the states.
What’s the lesson to be learned here?  Those seeking to enact real, meaningful education reforms must include statewide engagement strategies as part of their efforts.  They must recognize that each state is different, and each state must be handled and approached differently.  They must know that most state departments of education are vastly understaffed and overworked, and thus have little time to hear about the great ideas.  They must know that results are king, whether you be a principal, a state education chief, or the EdSec herself.  And they must know that states watch what other states do, they model after the successful ones, and they try to ensure their “competitors” don’t get too far ahead of them when it comes to policy or education results.
The success of integrated communications advocacy comes when you reach multiple stakeholders at multiple levels.  We all know that.  And preaching state education officials as a key stakeholder is hardly a new idea to slap anyone upside the head.  But we all must remember where the real action is.  We all must remember where real change and improvement can occur.  And we all must remember who can make a real difference.
High school reform.  Graduation rates.  National standards.  General accountability provisions.  STEM education.  Early childhood ed.  ELL and ESL.  RTI.  Closing the achievement gap.  Reading, math, and science instruction.  Professional development.  Teacher recruitment.  Online education.  Charter schools.  True success for these and other issues lies in our states,working in partnership with bellweather school districts.  To paraphrase from politics, as Ohio (and Pennsylvania and Georgia and Florida and Arizona and Minnesota) goes, so goes the nation.  True in politics.  Definitely true in education reform.
UPDATE: Great minds think alike.  Over at Fordham Foundation’s Flypaper, check out a similar post on the power of the states in education policy this year — www.edexcellence.net/flypaper/index.php/2008/10/education-really-is-a-state-issue-at-least-this-year/  

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