States vs federal government in education reform

Chris: I would say to some of these folks that have been critical of states, it’s time to get into the states and be critical of them face to face. It’s not time to sit in D.C. and sorta criticize from afar. Like go help them get better. Andy: Chris, thank you so much for being here. Chris: Thanks, Andy. Andy: So, I’ve been talking recently with state-level leaders about what we have learned over the past call it 5, 10, 15 years worth of state-level reform.

And I could think of no better person to invite than you, given your role over the last several years. So let’s actually start there. You are ending a very successful, in my words, you’re too modest to say that, tour as the head of CCSSO. So why don’t you tell us what CCSSO is and what you’ve been up to the last few years?

Chris: Yeah. So CCSSO is the organization that represents the State Superintendents of Education. And, you know, we’ve had the opportunity over the last 10 to 15 years to work together as states to raise standards across the country. Write better assessments, work on things like teacher preparation, and now we’re sorta beginning to think about, “How do we make sure every kid has a career-ready possibility as well as a college-ready possibility?”

I mean, I think the reform arc is really interesting because we started with standards, right? We knew the standards in the country weren’t high enough in some places. Andy: And this goes back to the 1980s to 1990s. Chris: That’s right. And it’s been a long run.

And I think we’ve largely been successful at raising standards now. There is still controversy obviously about the name of those standards and what… Andy: Common core or something else. Chris: The common core or something else in a state. But for the most part, states have now higher objectives for their kids. And the question is now, through, you know, Race to the Top, and I will talk about that in a second, but Race to the Top and now this era of kicking some of these decisions back to the states. Are the states gonna have the courage to hold on now?

And that’s what an organization like ours is continuously talking about it with state chiefs, is, “Look, we’ve raised the standards. It’s going to be hard to hold the line on some of those things,” because people will want to say, “Well, you know, my kid couldn’t quite get there because of this or because of that.” And I think state chiefs are ready and we have a different breed of state chiefs right now that are more reform oriented, more interested in making sure all kids achieve these standards.

So, I think we’re at a moment in the country’s history where since all these decisions are now gonna be made at the state level, it is so important to have that state role be strong. Andy: So that’s a perfect segue. So, we’re gonna… Let’s talk in a minute about why states have so much more power now than they had. So that’s the Every Student Succeeds Act passed in 2015 that states are now implementing new accountability systems.

But before we talk about ESEA, to understand that we should probably talk about what the era that came before. So, in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act got signed into law and then…so that was really the Bush administration’s effort. Then we had the Obama administration’s Race to the Top effort. So, why don’t you just reflect a little bit on, as you and your members, the state chiefs, thought about reform over the past, I don’t know, 5 or 10 years? A big question was always, is the federal government doing too much?

Are they pushing us too hard? How did that look from the state’s point of view? Chris: Yeah. Well, I mean I think there’s some truth to the fact that there was too much prescription from the federal side. But I will say at the beginning of all this, I was in a state in 2003, 2004.

And the way it felt to us was we weren’t being transparent about desegregating data yet. We were not showing gaps between low income and minority kids and white kids in the state I was in. And so, the federal government’s No Child Left Behind Act forced us to do that in a good way. So, you know, I think there’s a lot of power to that. At that time it was bipartisan.

And I think it just kinda outlived its usefulness because once everybody was sort of being clear about performance and sort of putting that on the table, the next action is actually to take action about those gaps. And so, No Child Left Behind was weaker on the intervention side. It was sort of prescriptive from the federal level, you could write a letter, you could reconstruct the school. There were things you could do, but you weren’t forced to necessarily go there until six or seven years down the road. So, I think the history of No Child Left Behind is one to say being transparent with our communities is what No Child Left Behind required us to do and it was a good thing. Andy: Do you mind if we just pause there?

Because this is a really interesting framing. So, before No Child Left Behind some states had tests, but virtually no states had as clear on their standards and their tests and their desegregation as we have now, which is we couldn’t really say in Missouri, all black kids learning as much as white kids or Hispanic kids learning as much as other groups of students. So what you’re saying is No Child Left Behind, by getting states to have clear standards, clear assessments, clear desegregation, really what that era was about is the federal government having a stronger hand in making sure we were transparent about what was happening in our schools. Chris: That’s correct.

Andy: And then we go to this next era which, and I think this is where more conservatives people on the right side of the political spectrum will say, “Okay, maybe I can get with the transparency stuff,” but when the federal government starts to have a bigger say in what are the standards, “We’re gonna fund the tests or we’re gonna force teacher evaluation reform.” So, did your members draw a distinction between, “Transparency from the feds is good, but once they start to tell us more on how to make our schools better it becomes an issue”? Chris: That’s the exact distinction that I’m trying to draw here and you’ve said it very well.

I mean, the difference between transparency and then prescription is pretty clear to me. Under Race to the Top there were some things that were prescriptive, there were also some things that were encouragements. And, you know, I actually think that’s decent policy-making and to… Andy: Say more about that. Chris: …encourage a state to go in a certain direction. So, for example, to ask a state to evaluate their teachers in a certain way is pretty prescriptive.

But to encourage them to have a system to give feedback to their teachers is not prescriptive because then you could make decisions on how you wanted to do that as a state. So, there’s really a line between those two things. And I think Race to the Top got it right in some places and not in others. But the states that did sign up in the first couple of rounds, they knew what they were opting into.

So, I don’t think Race to the Top is something we should be decrying as awful policy-making. I do think it resulted in some good changes in states. Did it go too far in prescribing some things to certain states? I would say yes. But I think the balance there, and especially as we look going forward and when we talk about ESEA, all these decisions now are kicked back to the states.

And are we going to have a moment where states all make good decisions? I mean, I think that’s pretty hard to say. But I think more states will be making good decisions because they’ve been given this authority. Andy: Right. So, some advocates of the Race to the Top era, so this is the major Obama administration’s effort into K12 reform really beginning in 2009, 2010, a lot of advocates of that era would say, “Listen, NCLB happened for a reason, because we trusted states and they weren’t being transparent enough.”

People would also say, “The reason why Race to the Top happened and why so many states jumped on board, is because states weren’t doing enough. And if we gave them a little bit of money, maybe they wanted to do tougher standards, they wanted to do teacher evaluation reform, they wanted to do better testing.” So, a lot of folks would say, “It was just a little nudge from the federal government. It wasn’t all that bad.”

Why are so many people up in arms? So, were there examples of your members saying, “Actually, this isn’t a nudge. This is a strong push from Uncle Sam.”? Chris: You know, we didn’t have it as much because the states that signed up were the only ones involved in the Race to the Top era. Now, where we had… Andy: Because it was voluntary. Chris: Yeah.

Where we had it more was when we started talking about waivers from No Child Left Behind, because that felt more required. Andy: Okay. So talk about…

So when did that happen? Chris: That would have been probably 2013 and ’14, somewhere in that range, because No Child Left Behind had a requirement in it that by 2014, 100% of kids would be proficient in every school in the state. So, when we got to that point in the law’s arc, it became clear that many schools would be failing in every state.

So, the Obama administration offered up an opportunity to get out of some of those requirements if they did certain things. And that felt a bit more transactional to the states than the Race to the Top stuff did, because the Race to the Top was truly an effort to allow states to apply. And in the waiver process, I think there were some things, especially around teacher evaluation, that may have been a bit more prescriptive. Andy: So the arc that you’re painting here I think is very, very helpful.

So, we can look at maybe as No Child Left Behind thing, states be more transparent about what’s happening. Then Race to the Top was the federal government saying, “We need to do some reforms. We’re not gonna force you as much.

We will encourage you with some money.” Then the next step is the waiver saying, “If you wanna get out of No Child Left Behind, you have to do these very specific things that we have in mind. And that’s when your members are gonna to bristle.”

Chris: Yeah. You know, that’s when it fell to the states. Like it was more…it wasn’t an option to opt in. Like the states felt like if they’re gonna get out of these things that are really bad for their state, like, you know, 20%, 30%, 40% of their schools failing every year under No Child Left Behind. And as a state superintendent, we didn’t feel like they were goals that we could achieve, right?

And this is where we come to ESEA. There’s a lot of talk about how states are setting goals. Are they ambitious enough? Are they achievable? Like those are the two things that states are really wrestling with. Like how far and how fast to push the education system.

If we have another 10 years like the 10 years we just came off in terms of policy-making, that would be good for the country. We would be seeing continuous push towards higher standards, better expectations, and kids achieving those standards. If we don’t stick at this, it’s not gonna be a three-year turnaround for this country. We have set those higher expectations. We need another 10 or 15 years of going at those expectations. Andy: Yeah.

So, one last question before we actually talk about the ESEA era. So, even if there are people who are critical of, and some people call it the Bush Obama era, the NCLB, the Race to the Top, the waivers, if people are critical of just the federal government getting more and more involved, would you at least say to those people, “Yes, you can be critical in general, but at least a couple of good things came out of that.” So, transparency is one that you named. But do you think common core, or tests, or teacher evaluation, or longitudinal data systems…what is the good news story of this era? Chris: Well, I mean, the good news is that every state has higher expectations. And that is due to the work of state leaders more so than the federal government, I’ll say, because there’s a lot of talk about whether or not states would have adopted these higher standards or wouldn’t.

I’m sure there were incentives that helped states push towards adopting these standards, but we were headed down the path of raising standards, but well before anybody from the Obama administration even knew they wanted to try to help on that. So I think state leaders, you know, in the last 10 years, it’s just a different environment at state education agencies. You’ve worked in one, I’ve worked in one. When I worked in one, we were not seen as the group that was leading the state.

Now in most states, the state agency is the one leading the education discussion in the state. And that comes from an era of just being more active around the state policy frame. And I think ESEA is…it’s the right moment for states, right?

So, you’ve spent 10 years sort of building muscles. You know, your paper about the boat, what’s it called? The Helm, Not the Oar or something like… or the Oar, Not the Helm? Something like that. So, your paper where you talked about what is the role for the SCA in a state is really whether or not states know they’re doing that, that’s what they’re trying to do.

They’re trying to guide the state in a direction. And I think that’s what we’re gonna see in the next 10 years. Andy: Well, I totally appreciate your publicizing this paper that I wrote with one of our mutual friends Juliet Squire, where we were trying to make this case that if states have more authority, we should be thoughtful about what do state departments of education actually do.

What are the things that they ought to do themselves or defer to others? And so that’s a good transition to the ESEA era. So because the federal government had been pushing more and more over a longer period of time, congress, the president states in general said, “We’ve got to get Uncle Sam to back up.” So in 2015 this new law was passed and now states are in the throes of getting new accountability systems approved by the federal government. But the gist of this is that states have much more authority than they have probably over the 10, 15 years over the basics of accountability.

What does it mean to be a good school? How do we assess that? What are the interventions that we’re using? So, what are some of the lessons that we ought to take heading into this ESEA era from the past era? “Can states be trusted now?” is what a lot of progressives are saying, “Do we know they’re gonna do the right thing?”

What do you think? Chris: Well, first off, nobody should trust any states. I mean, this is not like… I’m not here saying states have made good choices in every situation. And I’m not here saying that states should just be given carte blanche to do what they want.

I think there is an important federal role. I think our members think there’s an important federal role. Andy: So, what is that? What should the feds do? Chris: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a really important role for holding states accountable for results, that if we’re not seeing kids do better by a set of metrics that’s agreed upon in the negotiation back and forth with the federal government, I think it’s important for the federal government to say, “Hey, that’s not good enough.”

Like, “You need to push harder on that.” And I think they’re doing that to a certain extent. I think in the back and forth on the plan development, we are seeing them push on certain things that some said they wouldn’t push on. And so, I think the states are getting their plans approved, you know, sort of one by one now. And so, the federal role to me is one of helping states set their expectations, monitoring progress, being a partner in trying to think about different ways to do things, incentivizing, you know, through policy-making. And clearly, this current administration’s really interested in incentivizing school choice options.

I think that’s a prerogative of the federal government. Now, I don’t know how many states will take that, but I think incentivizing is an okay way to spend some of those federal dollars. But I think states really have felt that it’s time for them to make these decisions, you know, that it’s not time to sit back and be cautious. And I would say to some of these folks that have been critical of states, it’s time to get into the states and be critical of them face to face. Like, you know, it’s not time to sit in D.C. and sorta criticize from afar.

Like go help them get better, because most of them just wanna do better for their kids. Almost all of them. And the questions are, instead of sort of just criticizing from afar that they don’t have a school improvement strategy, let’s say, let’s go in and help them build their school improvement strategy. And that’s what our organization is trying to do, is to say to states, “Look, you know you… I know you understand why you didn’t detail some of the stuff, you don’t wanna necessarily in a contract with the federal government.”

But we’re gonna look back in seven, 10 years whenever we reauthorize the law again, and whether or not states do their job is going to be the narrative, right? And so if they do their job, a lot of this will stay and we will have state control over these decisions. If they don’t, we could end up in an era that’s more prescriptive than we’ve seen before. Andy: And it’s a terrific point and something we need to point out, which is NCLB happened for a reason.

Race to the Top happened for a reason. And the reason, even if we don’t totally agree with it, is there was a sense in Washington D.C. that states weren’t doing enough. So now that ESEA gives states all these authority back, the assumption, the hope, is that states are gonna do great things, they’re gonna innovate, they’re gonna help all kids. But your point, five, six, seven years from now, if we realize how the state authority actually led to bigger achievement caps or less innovation, there probably will be another push to centralize even more. Chris: One, for me, I think we’ve gotta look at metrics like how kids are doing after they leave our care. So, you know, like, are we seeing more kids leave high school and go on to do something productive with themselves?

Be a good citizen and transition into some sort of further education, whether it be into a career pathway or a two-year college, a four-year college? So, those kind of metrics I see in state plans. And that’s really exciting for me because now we’re not just talking about, “Well, did the eighth grader pass the eighth grade test?” Like we’re trying to build for the future here. And I think if we’re more creative about those metrics, we will see growth in those things we’re driving at. Andy: Let’s spend a little time on this because this is the area that I think is potentially the most exciting, or at least encouraging if everything goes the way that we’re hoping, which is that for so long, because of standardized tests and just the way we thought about accountability, states were encouraged, or essentially forced, to focus on reading and math tests or graduation rates.

But now that states have this more flexibility, the hope is they will define school success more broadly in a more nuanced way. And so, you alluded to one. It could be the case that this ESEA era leads to state saying, “High school success isn’t just how many kids go to college, it’s how many kids by the time they’re 25 are gainfully employed. How many kids go into an apprenticeship program. How many kids graduate from college, not just go.” So, are we seeing any of that so far in the state plans?

Chris: You know, early…it’s really hard because we have to do something in the next couple of years to get ready for that. So I will have to use some of the measures we have right now in the interim as we’re building towards those measures. But I am seeing in some states, you know, a state like Kentucky is now giving credit for certifications on their career readiness piece.

So, if a kid leaves with the certification, the high school is getting that. I’d love to see us go a little further than that even to make sure that the kid is using that certification, because we still have too many certifications in the country that aren’t resulting in jobs for people. And so, a real focus on education not only preparing kids for more education, but also preparing them to do something with their lives. So, this is a really important topic for our members. It’s, you know, it’s difficult in the education space.

Sometimes we get pushback that like, “Well, our job is not to prepare kids for a job.” Well, I think our job is both. Like, you know, it’s also to make them love learning, but also make them ready for what they’re gonna do next. Andy: Great. Two last questions just as we’re finishing up here, one looking backward and one looking forward.

Are there any states that you would point to over the past call it 5 or 10 years that succeeded during this era of NCLB, Race to the Top, waivers, that you can really say they got it right, they did the things necessary to move their schools and their kids forward? Chris: I mean, the one that stands out for me is Tennessee. I mean, they’ve just been fierce in terms of not allowing kids to fail.

They’ve… Andy: How do they do it? Chris: Yeah. I mean, they’ve tried everything. So, from revamping their career readiness, we’ve talked about that already, but also just sort of really going at failure very hard. So kids that are stuck in schools that aren’t doing it for them, they’ve actually pulled those schools out of their districts and created what they call a Recovery School District, where those schools are now able to flourish without the governance of the district that they were in that they had been failing in. And, you know, it’s not universally successful, but more kids are doing better in Tennessee because of education policy in that state.

Another state sort of consistent gains, you always hear people talk about Massachusetts. But they’ve dedicated themselves to 20 years, you know, over multiple leaders. And there’s a big lesson there for me, that we know how to do this, we just got to not get…every time a new leader comes in, just totally shift off center, right? So, they raised standards in Massachusetts.

They developed better tests aligned with those standards. They made it clear to everybody in the state, “These are our expectations.” And then they just worked at it. They worked at it with professional development, they worked at it with how they prepare their educators, they worked at it, you know.

One of the big successes of Mitchell Chester’s tenure, who just passed on and obviously a good friend mine, but… Andy: One of the great state chiefs of this era. Chris: Yeah. He was a great state chief, absolutely. But in Lawrence, a district that was failing…and the state went in and re-did the governance of that district and they did it in a way where the community felt part of that reboot.

Andy: It was done with them not to them. Chris: Yeah. And so there’s really a lot of lessons to learn from those types of things.

So, I mean, really the Massachusetts and Tennessee stories are a story of dedicating yourself to something and sticking with it. You know, and in education policy we don’t do that often, you know. We come in we lead for three years and then we go.

Andy: This is such an important point. Chris: You know, if we can figure out a state structure to continue this over a 10-year period, that’s when you’re gonna see the success. Andy: Just to linger on this for a second, my colleague your friend Rick Hess wrote about this years ago, “Spinning Wheels,” how often it is the case that districts and states they go from one set of reforms to the next without giving it a chance to actually have successful implementation. And recently I talked… In that chair was Pete Shulman from New Jersey, and he made this exact case that the reason why New Jersey has had success over the past five, six, seven years, is they had a plan they stuck to it, actually gave a chance for teachers and schools and administrators to actually work through it.

So there’s something to be said for less grand sweeping reforms and having a plan and having some fidelity. Chris: For sure. And New Jersey would be a state I would point to as well. I mean, they’ve had complicated politics obviously in this era. You were there for part of the time and I do know that New Jersey really has…

I mean, I went to a school in New Jersey that was no good five, six years ago and now it’s a great school. And the way they did it was by empowering locals but requiring results. And, you know, they talk about it that way in New Jersey.

So… And local control isn’t just a word. You know, like in order to keep long-lasting change, we need people locally to buy it, you know. And that’s where there’s some of this controversy between the federal push and the state push…

Honestly, you need change at the local level. And the only way to do that is to do it with people, but require results. You know, there’s got…

It can’t just be, “Oh, everything’s fine here.” And so, all of these states we’ve talked about, that’s been the difference in those states. Andy: This is one of my big lessons of 20 years working in public policy at the federal and state level, is you can have these grand visions at the highest level.

And I think either Rick Hess or someone else came up with this great line that Washington, or a state capital, can force people to do something, they can’t force them to do it well. So, unless you have state and local buy-in, your grand plans are only gonna get so far. So, that leads to this very last question which is, okay, now that states have all this authority back and they’re decentralizing even more power to locals, we have, who knows, five, six, seven, eight years of this new era.

If you could tell state chiefs, governors, state legislatures, right now what are the one or two things that they really ought to focus on so that this era, we look back on 20, 30, years from now and say, “Wow, this decentralization empowerment of states led to great results,” as opposed to, “Heavens. We’re back to this era where we need another No Child Left Behind because states didn’t do what we were hoping”? Chris: I mean, to state chiefs and governors, don’t care as much of what school districts are doing, but care a lot about the results they’re getting for their kids. And I’m not talking about test scores, right? I’m talking about, “Are more kids in our state on a trajectory to do something with their life?”

It’s really hard to do something after high school without a high school degree or without the ability to read and write and do math, you know. And so, granted, these test scores don’t tell everything, but they are a good indication of whether a kid could do something. And so, holding on to some high expectations in your state is really like job one.

And it would be very easy to erode that without you kinda even noticing. And so, making sure that as a state chief you hold on to those things is job one. And then the next thing is give a lot of flexibility. I mean, we’re not good from the state level at taking over school districts generally. And so, if we can find ways to empower the locals but hold them accountable for their results, that’s what you see from state to state.

If they’re doing that, they’re winning. And then the last thing is just don’t be afraid to make a change. Like it really… you have to go in and do something different. If you just keep doing what we’ve been doing, you’re gonna get the same results. And there are far too many states still that even with these ESEA plans…I’m really proud of what states have put forward. But at the same time, they can get better.

And there are some things that aren’t in ESEA that you should be doing, things like school improvement. You didn’t have to sort of identify how you were gonna improve schools very specifically in the ESEA plans, but you better have an idea of what you’re gonna do as a state. You know, like you’re gonna end up…five, six years from now you’re gonna have the same schools on your improvement list.

And so, those are the types of things I’d be wrestling with right now if I was a state chief. Andy: Terrific advice. So, I think that’s a good place to end.

Thank you so much for your service at CCSSO, for your work with state leaders. Schools and states are better off because of your leadership. Thank you. Chris: Thanks, Andy.

Appreciate it. Andy: Thanks for being with us. Hi everyone, that’s the end of our discussion with Chris Minnich.