A Shrinking Resource
Not that long ago, the state Department of Education was a robust repository of expertise for 500 Pennsylvania school districts, offering curricular guidance ranging from math to art to best practices for improving school effectiveness and education outcomes. Those days, however, are largely gone as a new environment has taken hold, one in which federal education laws that stress testing, data collection and school performance evaluation consume most of the time of a significantly reduced department staff.
Today, the Pennsylvania Department of Education has 532 employees, which is about 31 percent fewer than in 2003–04, according to staffing data from the department. Earlier staffing levels were not available. Most of the attrition has been in department jobs funded by state dollars. The number of positions supported by federal funds has remained stable and today accounts for more than half of the jobs in the state department compared to 34 percent in 2003–04.
“Taking apart the Department of Education is nothing new,” said Jerry Longo, associate professor of administrative and policy studies at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. “It’s been happening for 20 years. It’s part of this whole shrinking government idea. Once upon a time, it was a very vital department of education with a lot of expertise housed there.”
Some of the attrition is due to reductions in the department’s responsibilities. Positions were lost, for example, when the Scranton State School for the Deaf, which the Department of Education managed, was closed in 2009. But, education policy experts say, steady downsizing has eroded the role the department is able to play in how children are educated across the state.
“The department is understaffed,” said Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center, a nonpartisan education policy nonprofit based in Harrisburg. “It’s just one component of the department’s inability to do the things it would like to or should do. The people who work there do amazing work under difficult circumstances. The problem is that there are too few of them.”
Several factors influence the role of the state Department of Education, including changes in federal and state education laws and state political leadership. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 expanded the federal government’s influence in public education with a greater emphasis on testing, annual school performance evaluations and other measures. “Once NCLB came along, essentially the department became an agent of the federal government,” said Jim Buckheit, a former executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, which represents top school officials across the state.
In 2015, No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which kept the emphasis on testing, but gave states a greater degree of influence over how to determine struggling schools and how to help them.
The state Department of Education is mostly responsible for overseeing education from kindergarten through grade 12, although it is engaged in other endeavors, such as working with trade schools and colleges and universities on teacher training, standards and certification.
In K-12 education, the department is responsible for setting state academic standards and administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), which measures student progress in English, math and science, and Keystone Exams, which assess proficiency in 10 subject areas. The department collects data from schools across the state ranging from high school graduation rates to school safety reports that inform regular school performance evaluation, and corrective actions and other steps ordered when performance is below standard. The department also provides support for low-performing schools to improve their effectiveness.
One of the department’s primary roles is to allocate state and federal education dollars and monitor school district compliance with regulations that accompany those monies. The department, for example, is responsible for overseeing how districts spend funds earmarked for the education of students with disabilities.
Al Johnson, the superintendent of Woodland Hills School District, said he turns to the state for expertise in a couple of limited areas on a day-to-day basis, the most important being advice on special education issues, which the department has assigned a specific office to oversee.
The department historically played a much larger role in providing curriculum and subject matter support for school districts, such as sharing best practices in teaching and helping with selection of textbooks and other resources in subjects ranging from science and math to art, history, and civics and government. And subject matter experts were only a phone call away.
But that has changed, Johnson said. “The state doesn’t exist to provide expertise. We don’t get curriculum advice from the state. We don’t get technology advice from the state. They occasionally offer programs, but in a real day-to-day sense, getting curriculum advice from the state just doesn’t happen—not in 20 years.”
Cowell pointed out that the department no longer has a fulltime arts education advisor on staff. “Thirty years ago, there were seven or eight such positions. Today, there is one person who does part-time consulting with the department of education. And arts education in Pennsylvania is part of the core curriculum.”
Less support, more community
Local intermediate units in many cases are left to pick up the slack. These public educational agencies covering one or more counties that provide school districts with services ranging from professional development training for teachers to resources for gifted students and truancy management. The jurisdiction and the budgets of intermediate units can vary widely.
In addition, schools in the region’s urban core benefit from a more expansive network of expertise and other resources found within the community. In Allegheny County, for example, Remake Learning draws from public schools, local universities, foundations and entrepreneurs to develop and implement innovative uses of technology in the classroom.
But school districts in smaller counties, particularly in rural parts of the state, have much less exposure to such opportunities and their local intermediate units typically have fewer resources to work with than those in more populated counties.
“We have a very large number of small districts in Pennsylvania with fewer than 1,000 kids and it’s quite likely that those districts themselves are often understaffed because of cutbacks in state funding over the past several years,” said Cowell. “They’re less likely to have a person dedicated to curriculum or dedicated to some other key assignments. Those school districts are more dependent on a department of education to be the helper, to provide technical assistance or other forms of assistance.”
While significant increases in the Department of Education staff and budget aren’t likely, changes to the department are in the works. Top priorities include a creating a Division of Charter Schools to enhance oversight of the fiscal and academic performance of charter schools. In addition, the department is hiring staff with specialized backgrounds to work on the implementation of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and science, technology, engineering, and math education. Another initiative is to adopt a community school model for the state, which focuses on partnerships between the school and support services in the community such as social services or public health organizations, according to Nicole Reigelman, the department’s spokesperson.
School districts could also use more robust insight and support in navigating education in the 21st century, particularly smaller, more isolated districts, Longo said. “We need people who have that larger perspective of what’s happening in the country. What are the best programs in the state? We don’t have people who have that kind of perspective available to everybody. It’s a fairness issue. The quality of education shouldn’t be dependent on where you happen to live, but it is.”