State Education Agencies (SEA) are often not visible to the general public, or even to those in the education field. There exists a wide inconsistency of understandings as to what happens inside the walls of an agency. This has resulted in a great variety of opinions as to how much leadership should be exerted by an SEA. But it is interesting to note, that the functions and requirements of SEAs have changed dramatically over the past decades, as have the roles of the individuals who are the hard-working public servants in those agencies.
The US Department of Education wasn’t officially established until 1979 with the primary purpose of ensuring equitable education opportunities. In contrast, SEAs date as far back as 1812 and initially served primarily in an advisory capacity. With compulsory education coming in the early 1900’s, departments took a stronger role in determining minimum standards. It was between 1953 – 1983, and prior to the official creation of the US Department of Education, that the federal influence on education increased. Thus, the current memory is that SEAs were primarily tasked with administering state and federal education laws, dispersing state and federal resources, and providing guidance to public districts and schools across the state. This oversight role translated into agencies being viewed as compliance entities only.
A pivotal moment occurred with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which required each state to adopt standards, assessments, and accountability programs. Heightened attention to issues such as turning around low-performing schools, fixing state data systems, and improving teacher evaluations put a significant burden on state education agencies and sometimes putting them at odds with school districts and their leaders. And, often under the media spotlight.
The next significant movement occurred with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act (ESSA) in 2015. As SEAs worked to improve their accountability systems, there were requirements to engage the communities and education field for input. Adoption of what was termed “rigorous” content standards, upgrading teacher evaluation systems, joining newly formed assessment consortiums, and moving high stakes tests online placed state agencies in the spotlight.
This did not, however, lessen federal and state compliance and reporting requirements, placing an even heavier burden on SEA personnel. Controversy surrounding many of the reform initiatives implemented by SEAs sometimes caused additional and unwarranted scrutiny. Oversight offices with direct ties to legislatures and governors, driven by pressure from outside constituents, would sometimes question department authority and competence. It was not unusual to see roles and budgets challenged resulting in state departments being downsized and suffering reductions from proponents of smaller government.
While compliance and regulatory functions remained important and substantial, expectations expanded. There was and continues to be, mounting pressure for departments to incorporate measures to support increasing performance for all students. Their function has evolved from monitoring compliance with state and federal laws and regulations to supporting school districts in pursuing the daunting task of inspiring and stimulating local school systems to strive for the highest educational quality.
However, today and throughout the past year, state education agency leadership and staff have faced unprecedented demands. There was no playbook for how an SEA should function in a year-long pandemic. Immediate, decisions needed to be made when schools closed in the spring of 2021.
While many determinations needed to be made at the local level, schools looked to SEA leadership for guidance. Most immediate was the need for agencies to quickly determine where to direct resources and how to support districts in getting students the access and devices to participate remotely. District leaders needed state-level decisions made regarding attendance and graduation requirements to complete the school year. Policies and laws for reporting and compliance at both the state and federal level needed to be examined to determine what was reasonable and possible without in person schooling.
With no ability to predict when things would improve, the summer of 2020 required the SEAs to engage in conversations with the departments of health for guidance on safely resuming face to face instruction. Social distancing, masking, and building air quality were completely new conversations that were critical to gain public and educator trust prior to returning to the classroom.
SEAs are now faced with the rising concerns over the impact of the past year on students, both academically and mentally. While additional federal funds are being allocated to address the many effects of the pandemic, critical questions and conversations are occurring regarding how to accurately measure learning disruption and which interventions should be invested in to support students upon return.
But behind all those decisions and policies, you find dedicated staff. They are the invisible individuals who work tirelessly to ensure that districts have the information they need to continue to function for the ultimate goal of continuing to improve opportunities for students’ success. People are the SEA and have proven, more than ever, over this past year their impact on the culture and learning in our schools.
Dr. Melody Schopp has spent over 40 years in education with two decades as a classroom teacher. She joined the Department of Education in 2000 and held numerous roles prior to her appointment as Secretary of Education in 2010, which she held for seven years. Dr. Schopp took her leadership capabilities beyond the borders of South Dakota and served on numerous national educational boards. She was chosen by her peers to serve as the president of the Chief State School Officers, where her platform was focused on elevating the teaching profession. After “recareering” in 2017, she supported a number of clients across the country as a national education consultant. She joined the SAS Institute in December 2020 as a Principal Education Advisor. She dedicates her spare moments to staying active as well as her adult children and most importantly, her granddaughter Vivienne, that reminds her daily of why this work matters.