Day 3: Modernize state agencies to encourage local school reform

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In a recent blog, I noted how bloated the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has gotten, even as the state cuts local aid to schools. The DESE has grown diffuse, has protected its personnel and added highly compensated deputy and associate commissioner positions, and shared in none of the cuts made to actual programs (METCO, Special Education funding, etc.) and schools.

It’s important to send as much money of our education budget to schools (and frankly to get superintendents to do the same). It is just as critical to ensure that the state office is supportive of reform and not simply a compliance office. The current state of play is this: We’ve created a web of nominal education jobs that are really just a bunch of adults pushing paper back and forth. New state regulations require new state positions to push the paper to the districts, and new local positions in the superintendent’s office to push the paper back to the state education offices.

Think about it: Almost half of all K-12 education positions in the United States are not teachers. Massachusetts needs to take the lead in making by far the majority of positions to be teachers in the classrooms.

To make progress in increasing positions that are actually teachers, we need leadership from the top and a transformation of the state’s education department from a compliance agency to one that supports local district efforts to improve performance.

The DESE has well-demonstrated strengths in establishing policy, collecting data, administering standardized testing, and promulgating regulations. It is, however, too focused on compliance, such that local officials working with the DESE might think they were dealing with the state’s most focused regulatory agency, the Department of Environmental Protection. As a result, its ability to strengthen local efforts and provide technical assistance to fully implement education reform is limited. It has proven incapable of strong technical support to schools and localities as evidenced by the lack of alignment of local curricula with the state standards in urban districts. Local officials often complain, with reason, about needless non-accountability regulation and paper-pushing. The department has also proven incapable of transforming the incredibly rich sets of data it possesses into a platform that can aid teachers in the classroom. Finally, the department’s lack of a culture of project management and continuous improvement led to the utter mismanagement of the School Building Assistance Program, which was removed from the DESE in 2004, overhauled and re-established as an independent agency within the Treasurer’s Office that won a 2008 Better Government award.

The first step toward modernizing the DESE to support district and school level reforms is an external departmental audit that examines and reports back to the Commissioner on:

  • Management and financial practices at all levels of the department
  • Technical assistance to align local curricula with the state academic standards
  • Expertise(s) needed to provide solid technical assistance, and particularly the dissemination of a data system that makes accountability reporting easier and provides teachers easily digestible information is an unfortunate, missed opportunity
  • Positions no longer needed in the department
  • Non-accountability regulations and reporting requirements
  • Ways to combine all school and district audits to a single comprehensive exercise per year
  • Ways to administer the MCAS and reduce the time to report results to districts

Actions taken to address these issues would likely lead to a significant reduction in paperwork and in the DESE’s headcount.

A second important reform would be to eliminate the Executive Office of Education (EOE) and the Secretary position. The Secretary position did not exist during the period of reform that led to Massachusetts’ ascension to lead the nation in student performance. Since the advent of the Secretary’s position, we have seen no evidence of accelerated improvement; rather, student achievement on national assessments has flattened. Given the number of questions about how the Secretary has politicized the charter approval process and the education agenda broadly, elimination of this position would cause no harm.

A comprehensive audit of the DESE should carry one-time costs of no more than $200,000. Even viewing potential savings conservatively, it is reasonable to expect a 10 to 20 percent drop in dollars spent on state employee headcount, or roughly $1 to $2 million in savings. Redeploying any savings from the reform of DESE and the elimination of EOE to actual programs is a good start in focusing the Bay State’s education budget on schools not central state bureaucracies.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse blog.