State Education Agencies as Agents of Change
Center for American Progress
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With recent state and federal legislation promoting school reform, the role of state education agencies has grown, yet the agencies are still shrouded in mystery. How many people do they employ? How big are their budgets? Little is known about the makeup of these agencies, and even less is known about their leaders. What obstacles do they face? How do successful chiefs push aggressively for change and what resources do they need? What role can policymakers, foundations, and other reformers play?

Join us for a discussion tackling these mounting questions, as former and current chiefs will share firsthand knowledge of the limitations facing state education agencies and steps they have taken to overcome these challenges. The Center for American Progress in partnership with AEI will release a report with perhaps the most extensive examination of state education agencies since the mid-1990s, featuring excerpts from in-depth interviews with thirteen former or current agency chiefs from around the country.
9:30 AM

10:00 AM
GENE WILHOIT, Council of Chief State School Officers

DAVID DRISCOLL, Former Commissioner of Education, Massachusetts
DEBORAH GIST, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Rhode Island
LILLIAN LOWERY, Secretary of Education, Delaware

CYNTHIA G. BROWN, Center for American Progress

Question and Answer

11:30 AM
Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Daniel Lautzenheiser at [email protected], 202.862.5843

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries, please contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected], 202.862.4871.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, JULY 27, 2011--Despite real challenges and increased expectations, state education departments can still play a leading role in school reform, three current and former chief state school officers concluded Wednesday at an event cohosted by AEI and the Center for American Progress. As Frederick M. Hess, AEI's director of education policy studies, observed, for much of their history, state education agencies (SEAs) were merely "wheelbarrows" for the federal government, channeling federal dollars and programs to local school districts with little responsibilities of their own. Yet over the past few decades, unprecedented demands have been placed on SEAs and their leaders surrounding such issues as turning around low-performing schools, developing stronger accountability systems, and fixing state data systems to track student performance. Indeed, Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, pointed out that there is an entirely new mandate for state education chiefs today: they are no longer just managers directing federal funding, but are now responsible for actively improving student achievement. The panel confirmed these new challenges. David Driscoll, former commissioner of education in Massachusetts, talked about the need to recruit talented employees to fulfill these new mandates and the difficulty of doing so on government-set pay scales. He confessed that he had to take a $15,000 pay cut to move from a school district to the role of state chief. Lillian Lowery, the secretary of education in Delaware, suggested that one way to combat this problem is to work with local and national philanthropies and businesses to target resources for certain goals and programs. She cited this as one reason Delaware was one of the winners of the highly competitive Race to the Top program, the Obama administration's $4.35 billion fund to incentivize school reforms. Deborah Gist, the state chief in Rhode Island--another Race to the Top winner--echoed this need to think strategically and creatively in addressing new concerns. Ultimately, the panel highlighted a few recommendations. With increased flexibility in federal and state laws, sufficient political cover to make tough decisions, creative thinking, and the requisite "can-do" attitude, SEAs can lead the charge on school reform. 


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Speaker Biographies


Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at AEI. In addition to his Education Week blog Rick Hess Straight Up, he is the author of influential books on education including The Same Thing Over and Over (Harvard University Press, November 2010), Education Unbound (ASCD, 2010), Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Revolution at the Margins (Brookings Institution Press, 2002), and Spinning Wheels (Brookings Institution Press, 1998), as well as the coeditor of the new volumes Stretching the School Dollar (Harvard Education Press, 2010) and Customized Schooling (Harvard Education Press, 2011). His work has appeared in scholarly and popular outlets such as Teachers College Record, Harvard Education Review, Social Science Quarterly, Urban Affairs Review, American Politics Quarterly, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Phi Delta Kappan, Educational Leadership, US News & World Report, the Washington Post, and National Review

. Mr. Hess serves as executive editor of Education Next, as lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, on the review board for the Broad Prize in Urban Education, and on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the American Board for the Certification of Teaching Excellence. A former high school social studies teacher, he has taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, Rice University, and Harvard University.

Gene Wilhoit assumed his role as executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in November 2006, having spent his entire professional career serving education at the local, state, and national levels. He began his career as a social studies teacher in Ohio and Indiana. Mr. Wilhoit served as a program director in the Indiana Department of Education; an administrator in Kanawha County, West Virginia; and a special assistant in the US Department of Education, before becoming executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, a position he held from 1986 to 1993. From 1994 to 2006, Mr. Wilhoit led two state education agencies, as director of the Arkansas Department of Education and as deputy commissioner and commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Education. In those positions, he shepherded finance reform, led equity initiatives, designed and implemented assessment and accountability systems, advanced nationally recognized preschool and technology programs, and reorganized state agencies to focus on service and support. He is a member of numerous education organizations, has served on national and state commissions, and has written and spoken on various education issues.

David P. Driscoll was the twenty-second commissioner of education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He was appointed by the board of education on March 10, 1999. Mr. Driscoll has a forty-five-year career in public education and educational leadership. A former secondary school mathematics teacher, he was named Melrose assistant superintendent in 1972 and superintendent of schools in 1984. He held that position until 1993, when he was appointed Massachusetts deputy commissioner of education, just days after the state's Education Reform Act was signed into law. He became interim commissioner of education on July 1, 1998, and commissioner on March 10, 1999. As commissioner, Mr. Driscoll oversaw the development of the state's curriculum frameworks, the implementation and expansion of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), the development of the state's School and District Accountability System, and the development and administration of the educator certification test and new licensure regulations. These initiatives and others have led to consistent annual improvement in student achievement as measured by state standards (MCAS), national measures (National Assessment of Educational Progress, SAT), and international tests (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study). Mr. Driscoll is past president of the Harvard Superintendent Roundtable, past president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and a member of several boards in Washington, including the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the K12 advisory board, and the Alliance for Excellent Education. He was recently appointed chair of NAGB by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Deborah Gist is the Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education, a post she assumed on July 1, 2009. Previously, she was state superintendent of education in Washington, DC. In Rhode Island, Ms. Gist has developed and published Transforming Education in Rhode Island, a strategic plan for public education in the state. She has raised the bar for entry into teacher-preparation programs, ordered that teacher assignments be based on student need, and announced partnerships with Providence and Central Falls to turn around the state's persistently lowest-achieving schools. In August, the US Department of Education selected Rhode Island as one of the winners of Race to the Top, which will bring $75 million to Rhode Island to improve teaching and learning. Ms. Gist taught and served directly in schools for more than a decade early in her career.

Lillian M. Lowery
is Delaware's secretary of education. Before her appointment, Ms. Lowery served as superintendent of the Christina School District in Wilmington, Delware, and assistant superintendent of Cluster VII for Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Virginia. She also spent two years as an area administrator for Fort Wayne Community Schools in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Ms. Lowery has seven years of experience as a school building administrator and has taught middle and high school English for seventeen years in school districts in Virginia and North Carolina.

Cynthia G. Brown
is vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress (CAP) and served as director of the Renewing Our Schools, Securing Our Future National Task Force on Public Education, a joint initiative of CAP and the Institute for America's Future. Ms. Brown has spent more than thirty-five years working in various professional positions addressing high-quality, equitable public education. Before joining CAP, she was an independent education consultant who advised and wrote for local and state school systems, education associations, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and a corporation. From 1986 to September 2001, Ms. Brown served as director of the Resource Center on Educational Equity of the Council of Chief State School Officers. She was appointed by President Jimmy Carter as the first assistant secretary for civil rights in the US Department of Education (1980). Before holding that position, she was principal deputy of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's Office for Civil Rights and codirector of the nonprofit Equality Center. Before the Carter administration, Ms. Brown worked for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Children's Defense Fund, and she began her career in the HEW Office for Civil Rights as an investigator.

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