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Department Should Focus on Strengths, Avoid Return to Pre-1993 Reform Bureaucracy

BOSTON – The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education must limit its focus to things it has demonstrated the ability to do well if it is to be as successful implementing the second wave of education reform as it was with the first, according to a study released today by Pioneer Institute.

A Changing Bureaucracy: The History of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

“A Changing Bureaucracy: The History of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education” is co-authored by Cara Stillings Candal, a former research assistant professor at the Boston University School of Education and current director of research and curriculum at the National Academy for Advanced Teacher Education (NAATE), and Salem State University Associate Professor of Economics Ken Ardon.

Drawing from an extensive analysis of policy documents, press reports, and over 35 hours of interviews with policymakers and current and former leaders within DESE and other state education agencies, the following work provides a brief history of the agency over the past 20 years.

“With state and local budgets continuously under pressure, and many of our urban and rural school districts facing declining enrollments, this is the time to ask if our Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is delivering the kind of value that matters most to districts, schools, and classrooms,” says Jamie Gass, director of Pioneer’s Center for School Reform.

“A Changing Bureaucracy” makes four other recommendations:

1. Set Clear and Measurable Goals: State education goals have recently been muddled by multiple federal mandates and hundreds of recommendations put forth by the “Readiness Project” Governor Patrick assembled soon after he was first elected. Candal and Ardon recommend a sharper focus on the reform goals outlined in the commonwealth’s application for federal Race to the Top grant funding.

2. Clearly Delineate the Department’s Role in School Accountability and Turnarounds: The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education should either focus on accountability or technical support, and should be given the resources it needs to perform that function. History shows that the Department runs a serious risk of doing neither well if it tries to do both. The DESE is already adept at identifying school districts that are not serving students well. Once identified, the Department could refer districts to a network of autonomous providers for technical support.

3. Use Data to Inform Policies and Programs: The commonwealth’s School-to-College Database has been stalled for years. Race to the Top technology infrastructure funding should be used to jump-start the project and unlock the wealth of data MCAS results provide.

4. Ensure the Commissioner’s Autonomy to Drive Policy Implementation: State education governance changes enacted in 2008 have resulted in tighter gubernatorial control over education policy and weakened the commissioner, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the DESE itself. This loss of autonomy appears to have led to the politicization of recent charter school authorization decisions in Brockton and Gloucester and made it more difficult for the Department to gain buy-in from the teachers, parents, and students most affected by education reform.

In “A Changing Bureaucracy,” Candal and Ardon chart the transformation of DESE and other state education agencies from an almost exclusive focus on compliance as recently as the 1980s, to having significant responsibilities for establishing academic standards and assessments for students and teachers, data collection, charter school authorization, and holding schools and districts accountable for student outcomes.

The authors count as some of the Department’s post-1993 successes the development of academic standards, assessments, teacher tests, a model charter school authorization process, and the development of alternative routes to teacher certification.

Among its failures have been not implementing school-based management provisions of the education reform law, a slow and cumbersome teacher re-certification process, and difficulty managing budgets. Departmental failings with budget management are best illustrated by the School Building Assistance and early childhood education programs that have in the past decade been moved under the authority of separate agencies.

Finally, Candal and Ardon cite two recent developments that signal a move toward a larger, more bureaucratic department that was the trademark of education delivery prior to the commonwealth’s landmark 1993 education reform legislation. One is the development of “innovation schools,” a smaller, less autonomous version of the charter schools that have proven to be one of the major successes of reform. Innovation schools are essentially the same as Boston’s pilot schools and the in-district Horace Mann charter schools created in 1997.

The Patrick administration is also growing the state education bureaucracy. The best example is the development of ill-defined regional “Readiness Centers” across Massachusetts. Beyond a laudable focus on teacher improvement, it’s not entirely clear what the centers will do. The centers resemble a smaller version of the regional department of education centers of the 1970s and 80s, which were eliminated after they came to be viewed as fragmented, wasteful, and an impediment to coherent state- and district-level reform.

This expansion of the state education bureaucracy comes at a time of scarce resources and declining student enrollment. Between 2002 and 2006, statewide public school enrollment has declined by 10,000 students. That decline is projected to accelerate over the next several years, with the loss of another 60,000 students by 2018.

Over the past year, Pioneer has held a variety of forums on state-level education reform, virtual schools, and the liberal arts. These events have featured Commissioners of Education from across the country:

Hanna Skandera, New Mexico Secretary of Education (March 1, 2012): https://vimeo.com/43176807

“Changing the Bureaucracy,” Keynote Addresses by Tony Bennett, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction; Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Robert Scott, Texas Commissioner of Education (September 20, 2011): https://vimeo.com/30752687

“Changing the Bureaucracy,” Panel Discussion featuring former Massachusetts Education Commissioner David Driscoll; Paul Pastorek, former Superintendent of Education, State of Louisiana; Bill Evers, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and moderated by Nina Rees, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, Knowledge Universe (September 20, 2011): https://vimeo.com/30994425

Gerard Robinson, Florida Commissioner of Education (March 29, 2011): http://vimeo.com/21798384


Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.