Here's How States Can Actually Help Every Student Succeed

Jan 6, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Danielle M. Gonzales

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) has been heralded as the beginning of a “ new era of education policy” that “ returns power to states and local districts.” With this new freedom, state policymakers have a tremendous opportunity to take the lead in efforts to support schools and millions of students. Yet relatively little has been said about how states may go about managing this change, particularly in light of already limited capacity and funding. Even before ESSA's passage, many state education agencies (SEAs) were already assuming more responsibilities—not only administering federal and state education programs but also acting as architects and implementers of key policies. In some cases, however, these new roles were not accompanied by additional funds or staff to support them, which left many states stretched thin. To effectively manage the important work that awaits them in the ESSA era, states will need to set clear priorities and boundaries about what they will and won’t take on, while also clearly communicating what authority is reserved for local leaders—which has been a challenge for state education leaders in the past.

Roles and Responsibilities of States

Over the last several months, the Aspen Institute engaged leaders from more than 25 states to discuss state roles and responsibilities. Over the course of these conversations, we realized that very few state leaders had explicitly considered their responsibilities relative to district leaders or the state board of education. So, we developed a new  discussion guide to help SEA leaders plan and allocate resources with their specific context and capacity in mind. The shifts under ESSA offer the perfect opportunity for states to further clarify their role and priorities. Similarly, the role of the state legislature in education has exploded in recent years. According to the  National Council of State Legislators (NCSL), in 2015, state legislatures introduced more than 750 bills related to college- and career-readiness standards alone, whereas that number was only 43 in 2011. Amidst this flurry of activity, state legislators have complex and varied views of education policy and their role in it. In our  surveys and interviews with state legislators around the country earlier this year, they widely acknowledged that education is an extremely important issue, but they also expressed uncertainty about how best to address it and concern over the recent politicization of education. As state legislators continue to work in a highly politicized environment, with short sessions and amidst competing interests and influences, ESSA adds more weight to the balancing act they constantly play when it comes to education policy. To be clear, although state leaders work in challenging contexts, they are not starting from scratch. State and system leaders must look back at the last five to 10 years of implementing reforms and draw lessons about promising practices, areas to tweak and how to deepen the work based on local context and new evidence.

Leveraging Experience to Craft a New Vision

These state and local leaders should leverage the experience and insights of educators, parents and students in their communities as they work together to craft a new vision for education in their state. As states shoulder the enormous task of improving our education system, it is imperative that they effectively build, share and apply this knowledge and expertise. To do this, state leaders will need to learn from and collaborate with their counterparts from around the country, through networks like the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the Education Commission of the States (ECS), the National Association of State Boards of Education, and NCSL. In our interviews with legislators, they emphasized the value of hearing about what has and hasn't worked in other states. This type of collaboration will be more crucial than ever under ESSA. Additionally, state leaders and legislators can take advantage of a variety of resources to help them make sound policies that support students. For example, the Aspen Institute, CCSSO, ECS and the State Legislative Leaders Foundation co-developed an easy-to-use checklist to support policymakers as they craft new education policies. Tools like this can provide greater clarity and direction as states grapple with their newfound powers in education. ESSA presents state education leaders with an unprecedented opportunity to rise to the challenge of determining how to support our nation’s students. This challenge will require leaders at the state level to both harness and expand their expertise. If state leaders take full advantage of opportunities to learn from the field and from each other, they can be better equipped to craft successful education policies—and help every student succeed.  

Danielle M. Gonzales

Danielle M. Gonzales is managing director with the Education & Society Program at the Aspen Institute, which recently released Pursuing Social and Emotional Development Through a Racial Equity Lens: A Call to Action. In this role, she leads efforts to convene senior education leaders at all levels of education to tackle the most vexing issues in education, to develop and foster partnerships with a diverse range of education leaders, and to write and develop publications and resources associated with professional learning; social, emotional, and academic development; and educational equity. Prior to this, Danielle was a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation working to advance the Foundation’s K-12 strategy in key states and developing the Foundation’s strategy for engaging faith communities in education reform. Danielle has over 15 years of experience in education philanthropy, policy and advocacy in both pre-k and K-12 education and at both the state and national level. She began her career teaching fourth grade in Brownsville, TX.

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