Using SEA Power Levers: Part I

This month, Alexandra Usher, an MPP candidate at University of Chicago, will discuss examples pertaining to an upcoming Mass Insight publication, The Top Ten SEA Power Levers for School Turnaround.  Keep an eye on this space for more information coming soon!


States around the country are focusing with increased intensity on improving their lowest-performing schools. A wealth of research on best practices exists, with some states upheld as exemplars in this work. But many state boards of education face the challenge of operating with a more limited budget and staff.

Yet this smaller capacity does not mean the SEA cannot engage in excellent turnaround work. It does mean, though, that identifying and using the most effective strategies is crucial, and Mass Insight’s Top 10 SEA Levers for School Turnaround provides an outstanding resource. Two of these levers are particularly salient:

  • #2: Tying grant awards and contracts to specific performance targets.
  • #9: Designing a monitoring system that quickly identifies struggling turnarounds so that actions can be taken.

Without creating a turnaround school district or providing increased technical assistance, an SEA can use these levers to maximize its effectiveness. By setting clear performance targets at the outset, followed by a monitoring system that quickly identifies when schools are not meeting those benchmarks, SEAs can sharpen their focus while allowing schools and districts flexibility in implementation.

Drawing on the best practices of other states provides important lessons. How do states define success for schools in improvement, and monitor progress towards that success? How does that monitoring allow for better identification of schools that are not meeting targets – and, in those cases, what does the state do to intervene?

To answer these questions, I reached out to states across the country, and administrators in three states graciously took time to speak with me about their work. Below are several broad themes that emerged from those conversations. In posts to follow over the next few days, I’ll delve deeper into how each of those states is excelling at applying the two power levers, and discuss key lessons that they shared.


Lessons Learned from Delaware, Nevada, and Virginia

  • Characterizing what “progress” means for schools in improvement is crucial. Thoughtfully and specifically defining what progress looks like, separate from test scores, can shape turnaround work.
  • Exiting improvement status should not be easy. Administrators stressed that criteria for schools to exit improvement or turnaround status should be complex – made up of several prudent metrics – and rigorous.
  • SEAs have many power levers they can use to hold improvement schools accountable for results.  Delaware intends to take a more active role, using SEA abilities such as taking over closed schools or withhold funding based on performance and implementation. Virginia threatens to pull lead turnaround partners’ contracts if satisfactory change isn’t occurring.
  • A focus on sustainability and budget is key. Monitoring systems that allow SEAs to closely track the budget and results of each improvement strategy help identify what’s working and what isn’t, as does a sharp SEA eye on budget requests, as Nevada explains.
  • SEAs play important roles as facilitators and leaders.  Whether connecting LEAs with lead partners and community resources, as in Virginia, or connecting the needs of principals and teachers with district administrators, as in Nevada, SEAs provide essential facilitation between parties.
  • A small SIG staff doesn’t mean small SIG work. Through clever monitoring systems, maximizing local and state partners, intentional work to increase district capacity, and clear and thoughtful frameworks and benchmarks for improvement, states are excelling in this work with smaller SEA SIG staffs.