Helping State Leaders Build Capacity to Execute Education Reforms

As states and districts confront the challenges of implementing major education reforms, significant capacity gaps exist, and strategies for overcoming them are not well-documented. To help support state reform efforts, ESG conducted a comprehensive analysis of implementation challenges confronted by states and school districts and designed innovative strategies for building stronger capacity in states. The State Capacity Initiative was completed on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Analyzing state implementation challenges

With a declining federal education footprint, the state leadership role in education continues to expand. This has led to a significant increase in the number of state-led education reforms. The volume and complexity of reforms in the past few years was unprecedented in education. Through the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and new teacher/leader effectiveness systems, many states grappled with how to strengthen their systems for working with districts and schools and to find high-quality people to lead that work.

To support current and future education reform efforts, ESG examined how State Education Agencies (SEAs) can transform themselves into implementation support organizations; challenges they face in recruiting and hiring top talent to lead the work; and partnerships that can be created with external organizations to expand state capacity and drive successful implementation. We also studied the relationship between SEAs and districts; specifically, how their work together must evolve in order for implementation to succeed.

Identifying elements of success

In looking across the states, clear patterns emerged among those states doing the best work in executing reforms at scale and with fidelity.

  • Focus—High capacity SEAs are focused on a few priorities and use those to drive leadership attention, management routines, and resource allocation. Some have restructured their agencies to emphasize those priorities; others have driven them into their existing structures and taken action to create more cross-agency coherence.
  • Feedback—The most successful state leaders understand that they are dependent on great district leaders to implement reforms, and they embrace a sense of mutual trust and accountability. Sometimes this requires tough love—pushing districts to move faster, take on new initiatives, or prioritize their resources differently. But other times it requires following districts’ lead—listening to their concerns, allowing them to shape and own the strategy, letting their good work serve as a model and motivator to others. To do this, states need strong feedback loops with their districts and new approaches to supporting them.
  • Talent—High capacity states are led and staffed by great people. Their leaders attract these people from the outside but also find and cultivate them from inside the agency, and they create an environment where high flyers want to work.
  • External Partners—The best state leaders recognize the limitations of what they can accomplish on their own, within the constraints of their agencies, and they find outside partners to help carry the load. These partners can help in multiple ways, from taking the lead on key components of implementation to providing access to high quality staff and experts.

ESG engaged with many of the nation’s leading state reformers in conducting the State Capacity Initiative analyses, and we subsequently shared with them the results of our work to help support their ongoing efforts. The findings and solutions have shaped ESG’s ongoing work with its many clients.