Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

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 Learning From Leadership: Investigating the Links to Improved Student Learning

Key Findings

  • State Education Agencies (SEAs) report major shifts in the focus of their work brought about by state and federal standards and accountability legislation.
  • The greatest shift has been in the agencies‘ monitoring functions, from inputs to outputs.
  • SEAs are putting more energy into partnerships for delivering technical assistance to districts.
  • SEAs increasingly target technical assistance and support to districts with records of low student achievement.
  • SEAs are required to take on new roles during a period of cutbacks in funding.


In this section we address our second question about the state‘s leadership role in efforts to improve teaching and learning: How do clusters of policies—systemic efforts at shaping education reform—get embedded in state agencies and transmitted to create a local impact?

We approach this question by focusing on state education agencies (SEAs). SEAs play an important role in interpreting policy and providing support and guidance to schools. In current national dialogues about school improvement, SEAs have increasingly been asked to provide oversight and support for districts in their efforts to meet ambitious goals for increasing student achievement.268 SEAs also clarify education policy for districts.

We focus on two areas:

  • How do key SEA staff members see their role in respect to the goal of improving teaching and learning? What activities define the role of SEA staff members as policy actors and administrators across the states?
  • How are SEAs responding to increased responsibilities in a time of diminishing resources?

Prior Research

SEAs have maintained a leadership role in education for more than 150 years.269 As mediating institutions between state governments and local districts, their legitimacy and impact on public education has varied greatly.270 Recently, national reform efforts have enhanced the SEAs‘ role as agents for change. However, the capacity and influence of the SEAs has been contingent on federal initiatives that support their leadership.271 For example, Title V of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Chapter 2 of the Education Consolidation and Improvement Act provided funding and legitimization for the administrative role of SEAs.272

Until recently, little empirical research has been done on the leadership role of SEAs.273 In some circles there has been a misguided assumption that SEAs are passive agents in reform initiatives.274 Some researchers have omitted SEAs from the roster of participants in policy activity, focusing solely on the federal government, state governments, school districts, and schools.275 Other researchers have explained that leadership activity by SEAs varies greatly across states.276

Recent research has begun to cast SEAs in a new light, providing empirical evidence to show that SEAs increasingly act as agents for quality assurance in reform initiatives, particularly when state governments fail to do so. Still, we know little about the complex nature of SEAs‘ mixed roles in policy, administration, support services,277 and political activity.278 In this mixed batch of scholarship, what stands out, in respect to our research, is that SEAs play a pivotal role mediating between localism and federalism in education policy and practice.

The challenges for SEAs are great. They are not always well structured or well equipped for their responsibilities. Participants at a recent symposium at Brown University identified some of the problems:

  • Departments within SEAs operate as silos; there is little collaboration or communication across departments and districts.
  • It is difficult for SEAs to provide technical assistance to districts, given that their primary role has been to monitor compliance.
  • SEAs have difficulty hiring the right people to do the work of supporting district-level activity aimed at improving teaching and learning.279

SEAs evolve within the social and political traditions of their respective states. They are embedded in state policy cultures. They are nonetheless moving forward in the current context of reform activity. In this sense, like the states, they are responding to rising pressure to increase accountability and improve student learning. They are enhancing their oversight of school programs, providing more support directly to districts and school staff, and increasingly targeting districts in distress for assistance. For each of these three key themes, our analysis will highlight states that exemplify the emerging role of the SEAs.

New Evidence

In each SEA, we interviewed between two and four people who were directly responsible (their actual titles varied) for relevant units dealing with accountability, testing, school improvement, curriculum, and standards. We conducted a total of 29 interviews, by telephone, in the summer of 2008. Each interview lasted about an hour. We transcribed the interviews and coded the transcripts according to themes implied by two main questions:

  • How do key SEA staff members see their role in respect to the goal of improving teaching and learning? What activities define the role of SEA staff members as policy actors and administrators across the states?
  • How are SEAs responding to increased responsibilities in a time of diminishing resources?

The Changing Leadership Roles of SEAS: Oversight and Monitoring.

During the early (pre-NCLB) standards movement that swept across the U.S. education system, the statutory role of SEAs expanded to emphasize academic achievement and the evaluation of district and school personnel (including teacher licensure). This shift, supported by new uses of technology and database development, is most evident in SEA work related to new accreditation processes. As SEA workloads have increased, SEA staff members have focused increasingly on tasks related to legislated curricular standards and assessment systems.

Re-evaluating the process of evaluation: Interpreting state mandates. Across the states, quality education is defined by student performance on exams and preparedness for college, workforce, or the military. A state‘s ability to provide a quality education is often measured through evaluation and monitoring via state accreditation processes. These processes focus on the quality of school operations, instruction, governance, personnel, financing, student performance, and school safety. Accreditation processes have a long history. Across the states, however, new policies have strengthened systems for evaluation and monitoring. One result has been increased attention to schools in need.

The states have not responded uniformly to new accountability requirements. In Missouri, for example, respondents indicate that accreditation used to be compliancedriven, with similar evaluation standards and processes applied to each school. With the advent of new accountability requirements, however, things changed. Within the SEA, staff members engaged in new discussions about problems related to struggling schools, where SEA support seemed inadequate and performance levels remained low. A consensus emerged within the agency about the need to direct resources to the neediest schools. A pre-requisite was more reliable accreditation measures, which accurately reflected school performance. As a result, the SEA developed a new model for evaluation. The new model, one interviewee said, "makes it more clear which districts are in the most need. High-performing schools are waived on some performance standards to allow our office to focus energies on schools in need."

New Jersey, in contrast, has a long history of legal decisions related to school funding and performance. This history has had a powerful impact on the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The Abbott vs. Burke decision (1985) prompted the NJDOE to focus its efforts and resources on 31 low-income/low-performing school districts. For more than two decades, the NJDOE targeted most of its resources to these "Abbott Districts," assuming complete responsibility for oversight and governance in three large districts.

While Missouri has just begun to differentiate among more- and less-needy districts, New Jersey is moving in a different direction. In 2005, the state legislature passed the New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC) Act. This legislation changed the role of the NJDOE by expanding the types of districts that can receive support from the state. The intention was to shift the focus from the 31 Abbott Districts, which were generally larger districts in a state that is dominated by very small districts. The Act also provides for more monitoring by the SEA, which is required to evaluate schools in five critical areas (operations management, instruction and programs, governance, fiscal management, and personnel) every three years, as opposed to every seven years under the former system. Since 2007, the DOE has been able to support districts that were once overlooked. As one respondent pointed out, this also requires "unlearning":

    That‘s one of the things that we‘ve learned in the very short time—the 14 months—is that we have a lot of history in dealing with troubled districts, but we‘ve worked with them in a different way. And now we‘re, under QSAC, we have an obligation to work with all the districts …. This year...we have districts that [have a] single buildings. So we are learning how to deal with very small schools and districts that have the same, oftentimes very similar problems but don‘t have the personnel or the infrastructure.

Building trust: Eliminating the boogey man and humanizing state leadership. For different reasons, SEA staff members believe that they do not have a favorable image among district and school staff members. Not surprisingly, SEA respondents from across the states explained that they are often met with feelings of trepidation among local staff when it is their turn to go through the evaluation process. Respondents also explained that they are taking an active approach to dispelling such feelings by efforts to build trust. Because of the contentious environment that surrounds evaluation and monitoring, respondents said, the effort to build trust is a key component of their more general effort to help schools and districts identify areas in need of improvement. One Mississippi respondent spoke for many:

    Initially, we‘re not received real well... . Because they think that we‘re coming to "get ‘em." So we have to go in and do a lot of, kind of a, what I call almost a PR kind of campaign to let them know it‘s not a "gotcha" kind of a process. We‘re here to help you figure out what are some things that are likely causing the test scores to be low and then how are we going to fix them so that we can advance the achievement of these students and move the academic performance of the school and the district forward. So, once we leave, we‘re pretty well received. Actually, most of the time, they don‘t want us to leave; they want us to stay there with them. But initially, it‘s a little rocky.

Respondents in about half of the states we sampled explained that focusing on relationships and customer service was a priority established by their current state superintendents. A slightly smaller group claimed that relationship-building initiatives were initiated by their offices—i.e., were not driven by departmental policy. Irrespective of whose priority the shift to "customer focused" work had been, most respondents explained that building trust was a response to the strained relationship, which had developed in the early years of the accountability movement, between the state and the districts. Here is one respondent‘s reaction:

    I would say that there are improved relationships with the districts... . They understand that we‘re not just there to point a finger and say, "Ah, you did that wrong, that wrong and that wrong." ... [Y]es, we all have to be in compliance with the federal and state statutes...[but]... we are also the technical assistance entity, more so…when I first came to the department. We represented a different authority that could come down and, you know, shut down shop if we chose to. But that‘s not the way we work and it‘s not the way we want them to see us.

Monitoring and takeover under resource constraints: The dark side of mandates. The purpose of state accreditation is to ensure that schools meet specific quality standards. In some states, if a district fails to meet requirements for accreditation, the state can take over that district. Three states in our sample have engaged in takeovers. But a takeover by an SEA is a drastic move that no state wants to make, in part because takeovers put a strain on resources. SEAs operate with relatively small staffs. In one state we sampled, fewer than five staff members are responsible for the oversight of accountability and school-improvement plans of more than 30 schools, with dozens of schools being added each year. Across the states, staff members rely increasingly on other groups to aid in their oversight efforts. In Mississippi, retired professionals have been a key resource:

    We go into the schools that are considered the lowest-performing schools in the state and try to help them with an outsider‘s point of view. We have 100-plus contract workers that are retired educators. . . ; and they‘re trained on these instruments, and they go in and evaluate these school systems to try to help them. . . figure out that these are some of the things that are possibly contributing to the low student test scores, low student achievement scores.

Missouri also goes outside the state system to use quasi-independent Regional Professional Development Centers to support oversight efforts. The need to do so arises primarily because of state cutbacks, which have meant substantial loss of SEA staff. At the same time (and partly as a result), the SEA has had to reorganize—to move staff away from working on specific programs toward a more general school-improvement strategy that all staff members can share in. However, the process of changing internal culture in the agency is slow, and it requires collaboration with other divisions. And at the same time, as one respondent pointed out, "Nothing has been removed." Reliance on the Regional Professional Development Centers is a necessity, but it has had unanticipated benefits:

    The [Regional Centers] view themselves as collaborative partners. They do monitor whether the district is doing what it said it would…and effectively for student achievement…but they can do this more than DESE staff because they have a working relationship with districts. They serve as critical friends…know the right questions to ask and can hold districts accountable.

Those states (e.g., Oregon, Texas and Nebraska) that have substantial regional agencies also use those agencies in providing professional development and assistance in meeting standards.

The Changing Roles of SEAs: Direct Support and Capacity Building for Districts and Administrators

Traditionally, school-improvement activity has emphasized professional development in curriculum and instruction, and compliance with state initiatives. Four of the states in our sample had legislatively initiated and well-established programs for administrator professional development prior to the beginning of our study (see Table 3.2.1). All, however, targeted principals and all delivered professional assistance and development through semi-autonomous units or through regional educational service agencies (RESAs)

Table 3.2.1
State Policy Initiatives Related to Leadership Development


1985: Indiana Principal Leadership Academy (IPLA) established. Current program provides 18 days of professional development over two years to cohorts.


1985: Leadership Academy established; 1987 amended to establish satellite programs across the state. 1993 gave the Leadership Academy responsibility for administering state funds for professional development; 1994 established regional professional development centers. The Leadership Academy was given major responsibility for developing and revising leadership preparation standards.


1984: Principal Executive Program established based on legislative task force recommendations. 1995: UNC-Center for School Leadership established by legislature. The Center incorporates the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching, the Teacher Academy, the Principals‘ Executive Program and the NC Mathematics-Science Education Network.


No state level activity mentioned; training and support provided through regional service agencies (ESDs) on a request basis.


2004: Professional development initiative for school leaders. Applies to principals, superintendents, & "everybody that falls into a school administrator certification." Administrators must identify school leadership professional development goals, connect goals to improving teaching & learning, and develop a professional growth plan. At present: Inactive (there is a website, but no new information on it). SAELP grant not mentioned in policy interviews.


A number of initiatives proposed at various points; none was passed with funding. SAELP not mentioned in interviews, but is mentioned in legislative briefs. No evidence on state websites of any significant continuing activities.


1999: Blue Ribbon Panel on leadership lead to establishment of leadership academy. Wallace Foundation grants used to focus on New York City; this leadership academy still very active. Major state focus is on teacher centers; leadership development outside of the NYC area is provided by RESAs (BOCES)


No significant legislative action mentioned; 2004: Wallace Foundation grants resulted in six school districts across the state serving as "Demonstration Districts" for what was then known as "the State Action for Education Leadership." Participating districts expanded to 10, and formed the Oregon Leadership Network (OLN) .


1995: Texas Principals Leadership Initiative (TPLI) created by an education and business coalition and approved in 1995 by the state Education Commissioner, provides assessment-driven professional development for Texas principals. 2006: a principal academy (TXPEP) was funded by the state. Provides leadership professional development, coaching, mentoring to cohorts focused on quality management with a strong business focus.

The role of the SEAs in providing support to local educators has evolved. As noted above, SEAs now try to focus on growth, development, and school improvement— not merely on compliance—in working with districts. In examining this trend, we identified four themes emerging across the states: (1) Utilizing regional organizations and building central office capacity; (2) Building capacity with limited resources; (3) Blending mandates and capacity building; and (4) Changing technical assistance roles of SEAs: Targeting districts in distress.

Utilizing regional organizations and building central office capacity. Table 3.2.1 indicates that many states use Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESAs) to help provide important services as well as helping to provide oversight of districts and schools. In the case of states like Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Oregon and Texas, RESAs provide professional development services. In general, across all states that have them, RESAs are used for professional training, development, and instructional support.

The structure and position of RESAs in the educational system, and their relationship to SEAs, vary from state to state. Some exist as dispersed offices functioning as regional offices of the SEA (Texas). Some are quasi-independent entities that contract with the SEA (Nebraska, Oregon). Funding arrangements also vary; some quasiindependent RESAs may receive nearly all or only a fraction of their funds from the state (Missouri). Other RESAs are supported primarily by service-for-sale transactions with schools and districts. Respondents from three states below highlight the important role that RESAs play in supporting efforts to provide quality education:

    It‘s not usually our agency officials that are going on to the site. It‘s usually some either Regional Education Service Center. We have 20 Regional Educational Service Centers in the state that we provide funding to them to do that. Or we have other non-profits that we grant funding to go and do that work for us. They are quasi. Their Executive Director reports technically to the Commissioner, but they have a separate Board of Directors and they also receive some state funding and other funding they generate on a fee basis from services they provide to school districts. They are sort of a quasi-governmental agency. (Texas Education Agency)

    What we‘re doing in our unit is opening satellite offices in five different regions in the state, and we will work with existing educational partners, including those regional education cooperatives. Well, they‘ll support the schools, leaders, and teachers through the districts. They‘ll certainly work some with the schools, but to build local capacity we really work through the districts to support those schools. (New Mexico Public Education Department)

    We wanted to use our ESDs; we wanted to use that regional structure because that‘s the one that closest to the action. ESDs are closer to districts than we are. And this was driven by diminishing capacity on our part, to be honest. We just did not have the capacity, either financial or human, to work with schools directly…the positive thing is that we are building capacity at the district level, the districts are rebuilding their own capacity to better serve their schools. But at the same time, there is this perception that we are not providing as much support and leadership as we have in the past. And again, some of that is driven by capacity. (Oregon Department of Education)

Of course states do not rely exclusively on RESAs to support capacity development at the district level. Even states that have less well-established RESAs are finding that they need new collaborators within their own agencies in order to meet the needs of schools and districts. Indiana, for example, is blending funding from several offices and programs to provide a two-year institute academy for principals and teams from underperforming schools.

Building capacity with limited resources: Expectations for state leadership often outweigh the capacity of the SEAs to respond. As noted, SEAs rely on regional service units to provide support for capacity building, but there has been another shift in strategy as well. In most states, capacity building has focused on providing direct training and support to teachers in schools. While districts were usually informed of these efforts, they were not viewed as partners. One of our respondents, for example, indicated that the SEA felt obligated to respond to direct requests for assistance from schools because, in many cases, districts lacked the capacity or knowledge to provide such assistance, or they provided assistance that was not deemed helpful.

Increasingly, however, limited resources and an expanded leadership agenda have prompted SEAs to view districts as partners. This shift has been consistent with the increasing emphasis in NCLB legislation on district as well as school performance. The significance of this shift for tracing the effects of state leadership on improved student learning should not be underestimated. As one state respondent put it:

    We began basically to look at the state/local relationship and felt that the emphasis really needs to be placed on districts because districts are ultimately responsible for the performance of their schools and students. In our case, we felt the need to build capacity at the district level to support schools and students. And therefore, we made the shift that we‘re going to focus on, work with district level leadership.

Even in states where system change has not been prominent in legislative initiatives, it has begun to seep into the working assumptions of SEA leaders who are tasked with responsibility for translating legislation into action. In several SEAs, we found respondents who argued that they saw districts in new light—not as administrative units that disperse funds, but as actors in the larger leadership-for-change system in the state:

    The other thing that really influenced our thinking is to develop districtlevel can go into a school and bring about changes, but those changes will not be sustainable over time if the district did not buy into those changes and support them.

Even states that have long sought to build school-level leadership through professional development have now shifted that work, in some measure, to superintendents and districts. Indiana, for example, which has sponsored a state-level leadership academy for principals since 1985, has begun hosting study councils for superintendents. Shifting the focus of support to districts as opposed to individual schools is a proposed goal of many SEA offices. However, it is a work in progress, not an accomplished fact; each SEA in our sample has continued to do significant work in schools and relies primarily on RESAs or other entities to provide professional development.

While respondents from all but one state shared examples of SEA efforts to develop the leadership capacity of principals, this aspect of state leadership did not emerge in the data as a changing role of state leadership. Hence, our goal in this section of the report is not to suggest that states‘ efforts to increase school leader capacity is diminishing or absent. Rather, it is to demonstrate an increasing effort of divisions within SEAs to focus more on developing the capacity of LEA leadership so that LEAs can in turn take more of an initiative to develop school leaders.

Blending mandates and capacity building. SEAs also are coping with diminishing resources and increasing demands by trying to integrate their monitoring tasks with tasks of providing technical assistance. Coupling the two represents a significant change from the practices of the past, in which reporting and oversight were pro forma except in cases of egregious problems. In many states, respondents emphasized that, while this shift occurred prior to NCLB, it has been accelerated by post-NCLB changes in reporting requirements. In one state, several respondents emphasized that the SEA is combining the two roles by using the district‘s plan for improvement as a point of departure. As one person noted:

    Basically we engage [the low performing districts] throughout the year, we provide technical assistance, we do some monitoring, and we do some reviews of what they‘re doing and how they‘re doing … . And…our involvement intensifies, it increases over time… . I believe we‘re experiencing a great deal of success with it, simply because we take it seriously at the state level. We use their plan to define our engagement and interaction with that school in the district…they take it seriously and it‘s a living, breathing document that they‘re constantly modifying based on what they‘re doing.

Changing technical assistance roles of SEAs: Targeting districts in distress. The emergence of SEA support of districts is linked to the new concept of districts in distress, arising from the NCLB requirement for school improvement plans for "failing districts." In most states we sampled, extending support to districts represented a new responsibility for SEAs; state accountability systems had traditionally focused on individual schools. Furthermore, in states that have had a long history of providing technical assistance and support to schools, there has been an emphasis on responsiveness—"we‘ll help if you call"—with respect to districts. Since most calls for help came from schools, states needed to develop a new way of working with a very different group of actors.

The recent Education Alliance symposium on the role of SEAs in working with districts concluded that SEA services and capacities now are poorly aligned with district needs, and that SEAs lack a strategic understanding of how best to intervene with and support districts (Education Alliance, 2008, p. 54). Our data, which we collected not long after the symposium, generally confirm this conclusion. Although the shift to serving districts is on people‘s minds, actual ability to work with districts remains limited. The lack of a strategic focus for working with districts is complicated in states that provide support primarily through RESAs, over which they often have relatively little control (except in states like Texas and New Jersey, where they are regional offices of the SEA).

The Big Constraint: Delivering More Assistance With Less

SEA respondents explain that in their efforts to provide support for districts they are limited by fiscal constraints. They are working, they say, with fewer resources, smaller staffs, and, therefore, diminished reservoirs of professional knowledge and skill. Given the heavy demands they face, the resource problem is especially pressing. Sample responses from three states emphasize the point:

    Funding has not kept up with the complex demands of schools. The federal dollars help, but the huge gap has to be picked up by the state. We really have not kept up.

    [The recent budget cut and freeze] had an extraordinarily hard impact on the work of the office. I‘ve got gaps in places where I can‘t afford to have gaps. …Because I‘ve reached that point where I‘ve fallen below the ability to insure that I can get everything done correctly and on time. And…having people leave and having the problems that you have with trying to hire in a state organization, that‘s driving back to where I am. You‘re never staffed to the level where you need to be staffed.

    I think we could do more. I‘m hoping that in the future, as funding gets to a better situation we‘re able to replace our staff, build our capacities to provide more services to districts. We‘re lacking a lot of in-depth knowledge and expertise in certain areas that we‘ve just lost over the years. Maybe I‘ve got a hundred or so people in my area, and every week, you know, every couple weeks I‘ve got another retirement without a replacement. It‘s hard, you know, you‘re losing depth of knowledge that you no longer can provide.

Resource constraints are leading to innovation. In response, SEAs are reassessing their practices, sometimes introducing new processes for district evaluation and support. North Carolina provides one example. Priorities there have shifted from providing assistance to schools with weak performance (primarily using retired professionals and teachers on loan) to targeting districts in distress. This shift occurred because of concerns about the success of direct school assistance, and worries about the cost of sustaining that approach. The problem of resources has not been resolved through this change. At the time of our interviews (summer 2008), the North Carolina SEA was working with six districts. However, 60 districts have been identified as in need of improvement.

The need to target districts has raised issues of how to set priorities and how to combine professional development services with assistance in curricular alignment for district leaders. Should SEAs target those districts with schools that are struggling and barely succeeding, or should they target districts with the largest number of schools in need of corrective action? The two measures yield a different set of districts in need, and they imply a different set of support and intervention strategies. The challenge of realigning resources and priorities within SEAs has slowed the process of getting the right help to the right districts and schools.

Collaboration is central. SEA respondents report that intra-agency collaboration has had a strong, positive effect on their ability to address the needs of school districts. Across the states, the rise of intra-agency collaboration amounts to a change in institutional culture. It is a change that state superintendents have sought over the last five years. Other proponents include middle managers (e.g., curriculum directors), who increasingly make their presence known in important decision-making processes (e.g., standards development) where they have been left out in the past. This change in culture has been a challenge; respondents see it, however, as a valuable means of streamlining district support. In Nebraska, the SEA is piloting a process of collaborating across agency units for a continuous improvement model:

    We have actually been going in as teams from [the SEA] to work with school districts. So, for instance, the early childhood person would be a part of the team. Our federal programs person might be a part of the team. Our curriculum person might be a part of a team. We often partner with our intermediate service agencies, with leaders from other schools. … In the past …they were separate [monitoring] visits. …Now we‘re working on, "Let‘s all do that together." Helping the districts see how they use all of those programs towards a central goal to improve their school. So that is just finishing the pilot year. That is not a requirement at this point that every district does an integrated visit.

The new emphasis on collaboration within certain SEAs indicates a realization that the responsibility for school improvement is shared across offices within departments. Traditional SEA structures, which call for a division of labor across different federal programs, continue to make such collaboration difficult in many states.

Summary of Findings

Evidence from this analysis points to six key findings.

  1. The standards and accountability movement has brought about an increase in state monitoring of education. It also has caused SEAs to shift their focus, relatively speaking, away from finances and facilities to factors more directly related to the improvement of teaching and learning.

  2. All states have long-standing accreditation systems to monitor the quality of public education. Within the last two decades, increasing pressure from the national standards movement has been a primary catalyst for changes in oversight and monitoring. Most states have responded with innovations and have revised key components of oversight procedures in response to new standards. New state and federal policies have had a strong impact on SEA staff in all states.

  3. SEAs continue to be the agencies primarily responsible for translating state and federal policy into workable requirements for districts and schools.

  4. This requires that SEA staff understand not just the laws, but also the conditions for implementation that exist in schools and districts. The mismatch between school/district abilities, which are affected by size and student demographic characteristics as well as leadership competence, make SEA staff increasingly interested in the technical assistance component of their work.

  5. The shift from a focus on funding and facilities to curricular and instructional improvements creates more intense tension in states where there is less experience with state accountability.

  6. Some states we sampled have worked with state standards and assessment programs for a decade or more. Others have been affected by the movement more recently, and they are now grappling with a need for changes in resource allocation as well as changes in climate or identity. Capacity to deliver on new, higher standards is viewed as a problem in all states, but smaller states with smaller SEAs feel harder pressed. Some requirements impose demands that exceed SEA capacities.

  7. NCLB appeared to have a limited effect on educational legislative activity (as noted in Chapter 3.1). In contrast, it has had a significant direct effect on SEAs.

  8. SEAs are required to act on many provisions of NCLB legislation that have not been the subject of legislative action at the state level. This is evident in the NCLB requirement that SEAs establish state support systems designed to assist schools and districts that repeatedly fail to meet state-defined Adequate Yearly Progress achievement targets. This support function (as opposed to a focus on accountability and compliance) represents a new dimension of SEA activity in many states.

  9. SEA adaptation to the new accountability and standards environment are layered on to older monitoring obligations.

  10. The growth of SEAs was stimulated by the surge of categorical federal programs in the 1960s and 70s, which created the emphasis on fiscal and program compliance monitoring. Although SEAs are now expected to monitor outcomes (student achievement) as well as provide technical assistance, they are still obligated to carry out their responsibilities for pre-existing programs.

  11. NCLB requires technical assistance roles that are new for many SEAs.

  12. Many SEAs are not well equipped to provide the kind of responsive technical assistance and support that is needed by schools and districts. Although many rely on their regional educational service agencies and other partners, the shift in the NCLB legislation to providing direct services to districts is new and demanding.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Seven implications for policy and practice emerged from this section of our study.

  1. Introduce legislation to support internal collaboration and organizational change on the part of SEAs. For the most part, SEA staff members and others view the recent change in SEA roles positively. Across the states, respondents explain that the NCLB has helped SEAs better define their role as service agencies. The need to respond to mandates in national and state legislation has prompted SEA staff members from different offices to break out of their silos and share responsibility for educational success. This process of internal collaboration and organizational change is slow in many states, however, and it could be better supported with legislative action that would clarify or simplify existing requirements for program and fiscal monitoring.
  2. Increase the capacity of SEA staffs. Capacity-building helps educational leaders at all levels cope with heavy mandates. SEA staff could be more effective if the capacity of their offices were increased. Capacity-building will require both additional staffing in some states, but also additional professional development and training for new roles.
  3. Redefine the role of SEAs and their relationships with technical assistance agencies (RESAs) to focus on partnerships with districts. Most SEAs are dependent on RESAs to provide technical assistance and training at the local level. Currently, RESA agencies in most states are quasi-independent; they respond more directly to requests from school and district clients than to underfunded SEAs. In the past, most requests for service have lead to training for teachers or other school-focused projects. SEAs have limited incentives to offer RESAs to alter practices and services that have provided a steady flow of income over many years.
  4. Redefine the responsibilities of the SEAs for managing federal categorical programs in such a way as to allow SEAs to devote more time and energy to helping schools and districts improve teaching and learning.

  5. The dilemma of increasing demands on SEAs and declining resources for SEAs requires further investigation. Testimony from SEA respondents across the 10 states suggests that SEAs do not receive enough funding to meet their responsibilities adequately. Quality of services and outcomes are diminished, and districts are not receiving adequate support. We suggest further investigation aimed at finding ways to strengthen SEA offices and/or their partner organizations. Possibilities include increased funding or the hiring of staff members who will bring new levels of knowledge and skill to their work.

  6. School improvement requires shared leadership at the state and district level. When SEA staff members emphasize their role as service providers rather than compliance monitors, they are in a position to improve their relationships with district and school staff. As relationships improve, SEAs are able to have a greater impact on district and school improvements, and to take greater satisfaction in their efforts.
  7. Collaboration is an SEA‘s greatest ally. Working in state government can be a difficult and stressful job, particularly in a period of increasing pressure to expand the scope of employees‘ responsibilities. However, SEA staff who reported collaborating with other units in their departments expressed greater satisfaction and improvement of initiatives. Those with stronger links to outside agencies are also more optimistic about meeting new demands.
  8. University schools and departments of education should develop programs to provide leadership training suitable for SEA staff members. In response to the concern that SEAs are losing knowledge capacity as staff members retire faster than they are being replaced, we suggest that schools of education begin to take stock of this important change.

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268. Education Alliance (n.d.).

269. Timar (1997).

270. Timar (1997).

271. Fuhrman & Elmore (1990); Timar (1997).

272. Fuhrman & Elmore (1990; Timar (1997).

273. Hamann & Lane (2004); Louis & Corwin (1984); Manna (2004); and Walker (2004).

274. Hamann & Lane (2004); (Louis & Corwin, 1984).

275. Fowler (2000).

276. Dentler (1984); Louis & Corwin (1984).

277. James (1991).

278. Manna (2004); Timar (1997).

279. Education Alliance (2008).