In what seems like a little-publicized announcement of a major appointment, EdSec Arne Duncan has selected Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, superintendent of Pomona (CA) Unified School District to be the U.S. Department of Education’s new assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. The choice seems to be a solid one for ED, the good doctor is a former bilingual classroom teacher, middle school assistant principal, elementary school principal, and former school district director of instruction of elementary and middle schools. She is also a Broad Superintendents Academy alum.
Her focus on middle schools, in particular, gives Eduflack a great deal of hope. Often, OESE focuses exclusively on elementary instruction. To date, we’ve seen a great number of appointments at ED focused on secondary issues such as STEM and college readiness. So an assistant secretary with a strong background in the middle grades offers some real hope to those of us who realize that improving high school graduation rates and college-going rates is a task best completed in middle school. (In fact, once a student gets to high school, the die is usually already cast.)
But the announcement, in the context of other ED appointments, does cause Eduflack (and I’m sure many others) a great deal of pause. As we’ve hashed and rehashed many times over, the economic stimulus package placed a great deal of responsibility and influence with our states and our state education agencies. The State Fiscal Stabilization Fund is dispersed entirely through the SEAs. The same will be true of the soon-to-be-rolled-out Race to the Top Fund. In fact, much of the EdSec’s plans to improve chronically underperforming schools rests in SEAs doing new things through the Race to the Top.
And then we get into issues like state data systems, increased accountability measures, continued AYP focus, and a stronger reliance on Title I and IDEA distribution streams to drive school improvement. All run through the states. All require a keen understanding of how to effectively use the power of the SEA (and how to avoid the pitfalls and roadblocks that often stymie states from exactly real, lasting improvements in our schools).
No question about it. The future of public education in the United States rests, in large part, with state decisionmakers. Collectively, governors, state legislators, and chief state school officers will be the drivers of improvement or the obstacles to it, serving as the defenders of the status quo. Regardless, states will be driving, navigating, and even filling the tank.
Despite this realization, there seems to be few, if any, experienced voices for the states in the U.S. Department of Education. We have a number of superintendents and those who have worked for the LEAs. We have higher education pros, particularly those representing the community colleges. We have strong players who have come from Capitol Hill, think tanks and advocacy organizations, and leading philanthropies. But who is speaking for the states, at least as a voice of experience?
Currently, that responsibility seems to be a one-woman-band of sorts. Judy Wurtzel, formerly of the Aspen Institute and the Learning First Alliance, has been running point, providing technical assistance to the states on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (and has recently announced she is remaining at ED). But where is the breadth and depth when it comes to those who understand the complexities of state education policy or those who are familiar with how states effectively disperse federal dollars (particularly Title I dollars) to local districts?
In recent months, we have heard a great deal about those external organizations who hold significant influence with the EdSec and leaders at ED. Tops among them seem to the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Both orgs understand the challenges of the SEAs and how federal policy gets translated by the states and implemented by the localities. They know how to hold those in the education chain accountable, both for how money is spent and how students perform. Yet we have no former chief state school officers working out of ED. We have no governors or top education aides to the governors. The closest we have seem to be state legislators who are working as deputy assistant secretaries or special assistants.
Hopefully, CCSSO and NGA will remain close behind the throne, ensuring that the states have strong advocates, both in terms of the stimulus and upcoming ESEA reauthorization. Without a strong advocate for the states, and a strong understanding for how those SEAs operate, the transition from federal policy to local implementation can be a difficult one. We need strong hands at the state level, setting policy, building budgets, and driving change. But we also need strong voices at ED ensuring those hands are getting the resources necessary to do what we are demanding.
We can’t make lasting student achievement gains and school transformations on a school-by-school, district-by-district basis only. Real improvement happens at the state level, with best practice rippling across the state quickly and efficiently. Someone needs to make sure that voice is heard as federal education policy debates move forward. As we address accountability, data systems, Title I, and other such issues, state buy-in and state support is key. We need to ensure that voice is heard, and heard clearly, at the federal table. If that isn’t going to happen from the inside, it falls to those outside groups to speak loudly for their members. Not to put added pressure on Gene Wilhoit and Dane Linn, but it really is game on now.