Chris Minnich: How States Have Led on Education — and Will Continue to Lead

Chris Minnich (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

I’m leaving our nation’s capital after a nearly a decade and heading back to my home state of Oregon. I have learned so much during my time here. There are so many thoughtful, committed education policy experts in this town. While they all bring different opinions and perspectives, it is clear they all care about kids and doing what is best for kids across this country.

Before I leave, I’d like to share a few reflections I have had as the leader of the K-12 education chiefs in the states. These reflections inform a few requests I’ll leave with you as well, to invest in the nuance of this hard work, value state leadership, and sometimes hit the road. Let me explain.

First, it is incredibly important to embrace the moment we are living in today. Today, states are being empowered to take the lead in education. I am confident they will seize this opportunity and use it to create better education systems for all kids.

I worked at the state level at the beginning of the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act. Because the law was so new and directive to the states, most of our time was spent trying to comply with those new federal mandates. It left little space for us to work with educators at the local level to do little more than get an accountability system in place. The Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) gives states the opportunity to take a better approach: working with stakeholders to figure out what is best for kids and then seeing how that aligns with the law, rather than the other way around.

Because of this, I anticipate we will see fairer systems of accountability, stronger interventions for low-performing schools, and more targeted investments in our educator workforce over the next five years. That’s not to say states will get this exactly right in the first year.

Many organizations have spent time and energy in recent months conducting their own reviews of state ESSA plans. In many cases, these offer good insight, but at the same time, these reviews miss the larger, more complete picture of how states will execute on implementing this law. ESSA plans are important, and states spent countless hours getting stakeholder input to craft these plans. Still, these are technical submissions. They do not reflect everything a state is doing to move education forward in their state, nor does the ESSA state plan template even reflect everything states must do under the federal law. I am confident that states will leverage ESSA to improve their education systems and better meet the needs of all students, especially those who have been traditionally marginalized, because of the level of passion and commitment from state leaders to get this right.

By working with state and local stakeholders to craft these plans and then implement them, I believe state leaders will take the time necessary to evaluate what’s working well and what’s not and continuously improve these systems for all kids. In places like North Dakota, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C., leaders are already asking stakeholders to stay at the table and guide the work of implementation. My ask is that you support them. Push them fairly in places where they can improve and certainly hold them accountable. But invest the time to understand their intentions and the enormity of their responsibility.

This leads me to my next lesson: Get out of your office. As much as I have learned living and working in Washington, D.C., I have learned far more getting out of the city and into schools and communities across our country.

During my time as executive director at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), I have traveled to nearly every state, from Alaska to Florida, and even recently spent time working with the state chief in Puerto Rico. It is energizing to get into classrooms and see how policies are working to support students, or where they need to be tweaked to be more helpful to educators on the ground. In recent years, it became clear state chiefs wanted to do more in their states and across the country to create more equitable education for all kids. The crushing urgency of this became even starker to me while visiting schools on American Indian reservations in Montana in 2016. In the hallway in one school, students posted messages about why they were committed to graduating from high school. One student’s short handwritten message said, “I am going to graduate because I promised my mom I would, even if I lose her before I graduate.”

The fact is, some of our students shoulder so much: poverty, trauma, and even low expectations. Until every child is receiving an equitable opportunity for a high-quality education, we all must try harder, and I am proud to see our state chiefs stand together to take action on this through the Leading for Equity commitments. If you are working in education policy, please get out into schools and communities as much as possible — in your own backyard and in other states and regions. Seeing education happen in small schools and big schools, rural schools and urban schools, schools in wealthy neighborhoods and in low-income neighborhoods will change your perspective on what’s really happening and how we can best help states solve the problems in today’s education system.

Which brings me to my final reflection: No matter what the federal government does, the decisions made at the state and local levels are the ones that matter the most if we want to make and sustain change for all kids. Today, our schools are in a better place than they were 10 years ago because state leaders have taken the lead to make the changes that are necessary for all kids.

Together, state leaders decided to raise academic standards, improve accountability systems, transform educator preparation, invest in career pathways for all students, and provide greater access to early childhood education, and now are working more holistically to create equitable opportunities for all children. States will continue to lead and make progress for the kids in this country. I met with state education chiefs in November and was amazed to hear every state in the room report on several ways they have already begun implementing the Leading for Equity commitments in their state, from changing funding formulas to rethinking how to use Title II funding to better support teachers. When you get out into states, talk to these leaders and the teachers and students in their communities, you can clearly see how states are taking the right steps to support schools in closing achievement gaps and creating more equitable opportunities for all kids.

I am proud of the work states have accomplished in the past 10 years, and I am honored to have been part of what we as advocates and policymakers at the national level have accomplished by finding common ground and working together on behalf of kids. We are headed in the right direction, and I look forward to seeing the incredible progress states will continue to make in the next 10 years.

Chris Minnich is the senior adviser and former executive director of CCSSO. During his tenure, he helped states raise the bar on standards, assessments, and accountability; transform educator preparation programs; design new approaches to teaching and learning; create a meaningful Career Readiness Initiative for states; and implement and sustain promising reforms across the country.

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