The SEA of the Future
When I worked at the U.S. Department of Education’s Building State Capacity and Productivity Center (BSCP) in the 2000s, we promoted the concept of “The SEA of the Future.” At that time, State Education Agencies (SEAs) were largely viewed as Federally driven “grant-funneling compliance-monitoring” bureaucracies. The SEA of the Future was an aspirational view of how SEAs needed to be reimagined to meet evolving Federal policy demands. Those demands gradually increased and peaked with the 2015 passing of The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Our experience working with Wyoming this past year has led us to believe that, in fact, the SEA of the Future is already here, and it’s in Wyoming.
So what exactly is a SEA of the Future? It is a change from “random acts of technical assistance, scattered programs and projects, and loose affiliations with external partners” to more intentional systems that:
- Establish a common purpose and direction (mission, vision, values, goals, strategies, milestones, and performance measures);
- Align organizational roles, functions, and personnel to that purpose and direction; and
- Plan, execute, and monitor actions and milestones (Layland and Redding, August 2016).
That explanation is how my colleague, Sam Redding, described the SEA of the Future and it aligns well with what we have observed in Wyoming.
Through the National Comprehensive Center’s project, Education Stories from the Field, and a subsequent After Action Review we conducted with the Wyoming Department of Education (WDE) leadership, we learned a lot about how the agency not only survived, but thrived through the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that shut down schools across the country in March 2020.
The WDE is an agency with approximately 126 employees and a budget of $2B. They support 48 local school districts around the state who serve approximately 93,000 students. Its leader is State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, one of Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials. Balow believes that decision making should rest within the communities that know their context and needs best. During the pandemic, this was an important factor for LEAs; they determined whether they were remote, in-person, or a combination of the two based on state and local health orders and metrics.
March of 2020-The Beginning of COVID
When the nation was closing schools in March, Wyoming, like all other states, was left to swiftly figure out how to finish the school year without traditional in-person instruction. Wyoming’s vast size and decentralized school governance presented its own unique challenges. So, what did Wyoming do to meet this challenge? They quickly met the most immediate needs of students and families by ensuring meals still got to students by obtaining permission from USDA to switch the school nutrition program into the more flexible summer program. They worked tirelessly to help districts navigate health orders and provide instruction to finish the school year using all available technology and resources.
The work was 24/7 and more demanding than anything seen before, and at the same time, the COVID emergency necessitated adaptions to the WDE’s workplace. Thankfully, steps had already been taken to implement workplace best practices. For example, they had already started implementing a work from an alternate location policy one to two days a month for all staff. This meant everyone was set up and comfortable with working from home before they were forced to by COVID. This was part of a greater effort to put into place what turned out to be critical cultural and functional assets that led to many accomplishments during COVID. Not only did these assets turn out to greatly bolster their capacity to respond to the pandemic, but also to any other unknown future adaptive challenge (such as flooding, severe weather, etc.).
The cultural assets they had in place were critical to their ability to function as an efficient and effective team and included:
- An intentional focus on creating a positive, collaborative, and trusting agency culture.
- A work approach of empowerment, distributed leadership, innovation, customer service, and matching staff talents to tasks.
- Establishment of collective accountability; no one needs recognition.
Functionally, existing assets that helped the agency and its LEAs continue educating students even when schools were closed included:
- Flexible and mobile work arrangements; staff were equipped and accustomed to working remotely.
- Strong internal and external partnerships, such as with the Governor’s Office, the WY Department of Health, and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).
- Skilled and experienced agency leaders and staff.
- A strong assessment Technical Advisory Committee and highly skilled assessment and accountability consultants.
- Policies and funding focused on technology, access, and building infrastructure.
Despite the pandemic and closure of schools, the agency had created clear and focused priorities, a culture of collaboration and trust where staff felt empowered to act rather than wait for permission. There were many other assets in place that helped not only the agency continue to function while working remotely, but also educators, students, and families. Leaders and teachers had clear guidance and support, students had devices and connectivity, and buildings and staff members had what they needed to get students back into classrooms safely.
Smart Start Reopening
All of that enabled Wyoming to persevere through the immediate threat and seamlessly begin transitioning into reopening schools in the fall of 2020. That work began in May when the WDE started assembling a team of local and state leaders charged with creating and disseminating a comprehensive “Smart Start Guide” for districts to create plans for students’ return to school in the fall. And even before the fall reopening, they worked to find students who lost contact during the closure and get them into summer school. And they also worked to get the special education population back into school buildings to better meet their needs.
Once the summer work was in motion, and the Smart Start Guide was complete, WDE staff worked with local districts to implement their Smart Start Plans. By the fall, all schools except those in the Wind River Indian Reservation, which were still subject to stay-at-home Tribal Health Orders, were open for some form of in-person instruction. National data later in the school year showed that Wyoming was first in the nation for the percent of students receiving in-person instruction. Wyoming also managed to assess 96 percent of their students and run evidence-based assessment scenarios to jump-start their process of identifying and meeting student learning needs earlier than most states.
There is more to the Wyoming story that explains how they exemplify our earlier view of “The SEA of the Future.” To learn more, see videos and summaries from Superintendent Balow and LEA leaders and teachers, as well as an executive summary on our WY After Action Review see “Education Stories from the Field” and After Action Review.