The State Development Network: A year in review

In this post, Alison Segal and Larry Stanton (Senior Field Consultant at Mass Insight Education) reflect on the past two years of Mass Insight’s State Development Network.


Mass Insight began working with state education agencies (SEAs) on school turnaround in 2011, hosting occasional conference calls with interested SEA turnaround leaders. In 2012, we formalized our work with SEAs with the creation of the State Development Network for School Turnaround (SDN).  The first two SDN cohorts were joined by a total of 12 different states and included convenings, publications, webinars and on-site diagnostic reviews to the states.

As we complete SDN 2.0 and plan for 2014’s SDN 3.0, we have identified five lessons that we learned in our work with SEAs on school turnaround.

Lessons for SEAs:

1.            Use the power available

SEAs need to be clear about where they have leverage, and actually push on those levers.  Although most day-to-day work on school turnaround is conducted at the school and district levels, most SEAs have the power to allocate resources, establish goals, evaluate success, and determine consequences for school turnaround. As a first step, SEAs need to understand the powers that they have. The SDN publication, The Bold and the Bureaucrat: The Top Ten State Education Agency Levers for School Turnaround prompts a review of the powers available to an SEA.  The next step is for the SEA to organize their work to leverage the powers available.  Finally, SEAs can develop plans to obtain new powers that would advance turnaround in their states.

2.            Be clear about what you’re doing (and not doing)

Over the past two years we’ve seen most of the SEA turnaround offices we work with go through substantial leadership and staff turnover.  These changes make it difficult to sustain focus absent clear turnaround goals and strategies endorsed by the state commissioner and board. While it is probably unrealistic to expect turnaround offices to be exempt from the staff churn that afflicts SEAs, it is not unrealistic to expect state commissioners and boards to establish goals and strategies for turnaround that can be sustained through staff transitions.  Ideally, turnaround goals and strategies should be co-owned by state and local advocacy groups that provide the SEA with political support and hold the SEA accountable for implementing the turnaround strategy with fidelity. The SDN publication, Setting the Bar for School Turnaround: How Ambitious Public Goals Can Drive School Turnaround describes how SEAs can establish and report on turnaround goals.

3.            Recognize that we’re all in this together

Although turnaround challenges vary from state to state, too often we focus on the differences between states rather than the similarities.  The SDN has tried to identify a set of challenges and opportunities that are shared across states to encourage development of a common SEA turnaround vocabulary.  We’ve also facilitated cross-state learning by making connections between states.  For SDN 3.0, we’re formalizing this collaboration model. Each state will identify 2 or 3 priorities that they will work with MIE and other states to accomplish. This approach leverages power in numbers, and creates a learning community with a focus on sharing lessons learned and building useful connections among states.

Lessons for Mass Insight (or others helping SEAs):

4.            You’ll learn more on the ground 

For SDN 2.0 membership in late 2012, the SDN added an on-site diagnostic review that included interviews with SEA leadership and turnaround staff, district and turnaround school leaders and local advocates and stakeholders as well as a review of turnaround school performance.  The diagnostic reviews provided SDN staff with an opportunity to meet SEA turnaround teams on their turf and see their day-to-day challenges and opportunities.  In addition to providing recommendations to each SEA, the diagnostic visits informed the selection of topics for SDN convenings and publications.

5.            Balance practice and policy

The SDN aspires to impact SEA turnaround practice and policy, but in fact most SEA participants in our convenings are more involved in practice than policy. We have found that participants are most engaged in discussions of how they can improve the work they do with districts and schools (e.g., improving district monitoring protocols) and less engaged in more theoretical discussions about possible changes in policy (e.g., creation of autonomous clusters of turnaround schools).  Rather than abandon discussions of possible policy changes, this year we formalized a team lead role. Team leads participate in monthly steering committee calls to discuss SDN priorities and plan and reflect on convenings.  We also have occasional conversations with each team lead to identify opportunities to impact state turnaround policy, and offer individualized support based on state undertakings.

The evolution of the SDN has been a learning experience for Mass Insight, and has formed many valuable connections among state turnaround leaders in our SEA cohorts.  The partnerships Mass Insight fosters with other organizations through the SDN also serves to benefit the states involved, and create a stronger community around education, specifically around turnaround.

As we continue facilitating this network of SEAs, we aim to continue reflecting on what we have learned, and hope that in doing so, others may take our own lessons learned and put them into practice.