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State of flux: Pa. Education Department needs more people, less churn





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​Whatever the race, whatever the candidate’s party, when it comes to government agencies, modern campaign platforms have time-honored goals: cutting red tape, doing more with less, and streamlining programs.

In this year's race for governor, though, those goals would be short-sighted. 

With education front and center in the looming contest, every candidate — Democratic and Republican alike — is advancing an ambitious set of proposals. Yet the agency that will be charged with implementing these plans, whatever the result on Nov. 5, lacks the capacity to provide any meaningful level of support to the state’s 500 school districts and more than 3,000 public schools. 

In the same way that school districts have faced pressure to reduce operational expenses and central office staffing, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s staffing levels have steadily declined over the last decade. A 2011 survey of state education agencies found that Pennsylvania has one of the smallest relative to student population, and as of April 1, more than a quarter of the most senior positions in the agency are either vacant or filled by temporary employees. 

To be clear, this isn’t an exercise in blaming the current governor or his staff. Governors of both parties have failed to make the investments necessary to grow the capacity and skill of the state’s Education Department.

In addition to basic functions, such as grant and subsidy administration and providing technical assistance to schools statewide, the department is working to implement — simultaneously — the wholesale revision of the state’s academic standards to align with the Common Core, institute a system of high-stakes high school graduation requirements, and employ a new teacher evaluation system that relies in part on student-growth measures associated with standards and assessments.

In recent testimony on the state’s emerging system of revised academic standards and high school graduation requirements, the respected head of one of the state’s Intermediate Units argued that “after years of budgetary cuts and positions being eliminated, the good people at Pennsylvania Department of Education cannot properly manage this system. … The implementation pushes a limited team beyond any reasonable limits.”

Personnel changes and political shifts further fragment the department’s limited capacity. Since 2004, eight individuals have served as secretary of education. With the exception of one, the average tenure of these officials is best measured in months, not years. 

Lessons from the high turnover levels of school district superintendents can be instructive here. Research shows that superintendent churn disrupts educational improvement, causing administrators and teachers alike to let the waves of education reform wash over them as they wait for the next change in leadership. Initial research suggests that the same phenomenon may apply to chief state school officers as well.

Steady reductions in staffing and support at the Education Department and a revolving door for agency leadership mean that policy implementation is increasingly determined by external parties — from testing companies to consultants. Although these partners bring additional capacity and technical expertise, it is important to evaluate whether routine administration of broad public policy should be so dependent on outside staff.

With the possible exception of major school district consolidation efforts in the 1950s and ’60s, Pennsylvania is experiencing a period of unprecedented change in education policy and practice. State appropriators must commit to providing the support and oversight necessary to implement these changes responsibly, especially in areas where new mandates have increased accountability for students and teachers. 

For its part, the Pennsylvania Department of Education must look inward, study its operations, and identify ways to repurpose existing resources to provide the greatest levels of support to the districts in greatest need. 

And the next governor — whoever it is — must commit to growing the capacity of the state’s Education Department so that staff can effectively tackle its lengthy to-do list. A key first step? Ask candidates for the department's corner office to commit to a full four years of service to ensure collective breathing room for the entire education community.

Adam Schott is director of policy research at Research for Action (RFA) and the former executive director at the State Board of Education. Jessica Beaver is a research associate at RFA. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.

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