Thursday, September 14, 2017
When State Discretion Turns Against State Superintendents of Education; Another Flaw of the Every Student Succeeds Act
In Abandoning the Federal Role in Education: The Every Student Succeeds Act, I detail the numerous ways in which the Act eliminates federal leadership in education and leaves states to implement almost any sort of accountability system they can dream up. The shift in power is so significant that Act does not, as a practical matter, demand accountable. Instead, it demands the appearance of accountability. This, I argue, allows states to manipulate the system.
The article did not consider the possibility of in-fighting within state bureaucracies. The paper, for the most part, speaks of the "state" as a monolithic unit. It focuses on the worst case scenario in which the legislature, state department of education, and powerful school districts are all in favor of an accountability system that covers up their failures. Not all states, however, will fit this framework. Recent events in Alabama suggest that, once one moves beyond that framework, curious disagreements can happen at the state level.
Edweek reports that
[Michael] Sentance was hired by the [Alabama state] board in August of last year to replace longtime Superintendent Tommy Bice who retired after a years-long battle over the expansion of charter schools and a dispute between the state and local officials over how to rank the state's districts and schools.
. . . .
Sentance quickly ran into political turmoil as he traversed the mostly rural, economically deprived, ethnically diverse and politically conservative state to gather thoughts on what the components of the state's ESSA plan should be. Meanwhile, the state's department began to take over Montgomery Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, a process Sentance said would bring stability, autonomy and school choice, but which parents and school officials called unfair.
He sided with district superintendents in a debate over whether the state should keep or get rid of its A-F letter grades of schools' performance.
But in an evaluation sprung on him by the state board last month, district superintendents and board members took issue with his leadership style and policymaking.
"I do not take this situation lightly, and as President of the State Board of Education, I will ask the Board to accept his resignation," Ivey said in a statement. "Over the past two years, Alabama has experienced far too many changes in state government. As with previous changes in leadership positions, we will use the pending resignation of the state superintendent as an opportunity to move forward and begin a new chapter in public education.
The article also indicates that the national average tenure for state superintendents of education is barely two years. As a result, there is no continuity between the development, submission, and implementation of ESSA plans.
The lesson I take from this story is the possibility that the ESSA may have made some state superintendents' jobs a lot harder. Under NCLB, there was far less flexibility. Beneath the surface, a state superintendent was able to game the state's results, but the metrics and methods of the accountability system were set by federal law. Putting aside the question of whether NCLB was a normatively good law, it set clear parameters for state superintendents. They knew what their job was and had legal cover if legislators or other state political actors criticized them.
The ESSA, in contrast, offers states and their superintendents a universe of options. It is almost entirely up to them how they approach school improvement, ranking, accountability, and quality. As a result, there is very little cover for superintendents who might want to do what they think is best for schools and students, but in the process might make the state look "bad." If a state board or state legislature wants to manipulate its accountability system and a state superintendent does not, the superintendent can easily find herself as the odd person out.
If these respects, the ESSA accomplishes two distinct and problematic devolutions of power. First, it cedes power to states, which I demonstrate is highly problematic here. Second, even if state power is not inherently problematic, the ESSA incentivizes power struggles and instability at the state level.
The first was the specific intent of the Act. The second is likely an unintended negative consequence.