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Earlier this month, the Wyoming legislature convened for its semi-annual session. Of the many important issues discussed, the most controversial may well have been whether to place the question of eliminating the elected chief state school officer on the 2016 general election ballot.

The discussion was informed by a study commissioned by the Wyoming legislature and conducted by Cross & Joftus. For this study, almost 1500 Wyomingites responded to an online survey and extensive interviews were conducted with 31 stakeholders groups. The study found that most Wyomingites are weary of the periods of stagnating tension between the elected schools chief, Governor, and State Board and want to see change.  When the views of the elected Superintendent and appointed Board have aligned, the system has worked well. But when they have not, leadership has gotten bogged down and school districts have received conflicting messages about the state’s priorities.

Wyoming is a fascinating state. It boasts the smallest population in the nation but spends more (on a cost-adjusted basis) on education than any state, nearly twice the average of its immediate neighbor states. Despite this investment, Wyoming does not meet many of its student achievement goals. Low-income students perform quite well, but Wyoming has few concentrations of poverty and rural poverty can be far different than in urban areas. Non-poverty students do not do nearly as well, placing Wyoming in the mid-30s when compared to other states and about even with Slovenia if an international scale is used.

Across the study’s survey and interviews, a strong majority expressed dissatisfaction – even frustration – with the lack of a unified strategy for improving education at the state level. Time, energy, and attention seem to have been focused on the political leadership controversies in recent years, at the expense of a coherent vision and aligned services and supports to districts, schools, and children.

Our study concluded that Wyoming’s state-level education governance structure contains a structural flaw. The State Board is charged with establishing policies and standards, but when the elected State Superintendent determines that these are in conflict with his or her campaign commitments, there is no defined process for reaching a resolution. The result is often a stalemate in which the policies are either not implemented or done slowly or incompletely. Similarly, when the State Superintendent has made a campaign commitment to change certain policies or standards, that person lacks the authority to do so. The result can be four years of leadership stagnation – a serious problem when educational improvement is so vital to the future economic and social well-being of states.

Education is the largest single item in almost every state’s budget, yet elected chiefs are rarely at the table and can feel they have their own agendas to pursue. The state board and/or the governor can hold an appointed chief accountable on an on-going basis for effective collaboration, providing increased opportunity to ensure that districts are given clear guidance and support and that the state’s educational system continually improves. However, securing sufficient legislative and public support to change a state’s constitution is a difficult hurdle.

While we will not know for a few months what will emerge, it is significant that the public wants to see adjustments to the state governance structure. If the state does move away from an elected schools chief, they would be following in the footsteps of many other states. Today, 13 state chiefs are elected, down from 33 in the late 1940s and discussions around the issue of an elected versus an appointed chief are also likely to occur in Indiana and North Carolina.  Will Wyoming be next to better align state education leadership?  Stay tuned!

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross and Nancy Doorey

The question remains: can one person, the Superhero Superintendent, save a struggling, broken school district or is she a mere mortal, destined to be defeated by a lack of systemic coherence?

Back in 2008, I partnered with Susan Tave Zelman, former Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction and current Executive Director of the Ohio Department of Education, to write an article for the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice titled Systems, Not Superheroes about the need for districts and states to stop putting all of their eggs in the basket of superhero leaders and start investing in “complete and interlocking systems to support reform.”  Six years later, it seems that little has changed as demonstrated most recently by the Los Angeles Unified MiSiS record-keeping system problems and the subsequent leadership upheaval.

Nabbing high-profile executives is not a comprehensive school reform strategy, especially given how long most of those individuals stay in the job.  A recent survey conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools found that the average tenure of urban school superintendents dropped to 3.2 years in the 2013-2014 school year, a decline after 10 years of modest growth.

As Dr. Zelman and I wrote in 2008, even the most qualified individual would have a difficult time leading when faced with disconnected curricula and assessments; nonexistent resource tracking systems; disconnected teacher and principal recruitment, evaluation, and retention systems; and a demoralized, unsupported constituency of students and educators.  As depicted in the following graphic, an integrated system must be developed in which human, fiscal, and community resources coupled with accountability support and extend the instructional system to improve student learning and achievement.

Superheroes Blog Graphic

Figure 1: Complex, interrelated organization with subsystems (Ohio Department of Education)

When we create such a system,

  • Teachers and school leaders have the knowledge, skills, and professional development they need to help all schools learn;
  • Funding is aligned to a plan, based on data, focused on clear goals, and provides effective support for educators;
  • Parents and families, business and industry, local community organizations, state and local health and human service agencies, and the media are actively engaged in the effort to improve school efficacy and student achievement;
  • Performance targets regarding knowledge, skills, and abilities are set for students and educators that are fair, attainable, but also a stretch; and
  • Instruction is based upon clear expectations of what we want our students to know and be able to do and is implemented by educators with the capacity to teach well thanks to aligned community, human, and fiscal resources.

A coherent, interdependent, sustainable system such as this allows the district leader to abandon the failure-bound role of Superhero and embrace the far more valuable role of Instructional Leader. The district leader will then have the freedom to do something truly heroic, that of helping educators teach students in the most effective way possible so that they can achieve their true potential.  Because while strong and charismatic leaders are essential, systems and extraordinary leaders need to live in harmony.

Now that is the happy ending we all wish to see.


Thanks to Torrey Shawe for her contributions to this post.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross

While our national economy is showing many signs of recovery including higher job growth and lower unemployment, many state education budgets are still feeling the effects of the recent recession. A recent report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities provided the following sobering statistics.

  • At least 35 states provided less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent. (These figures are in inflation-adjusted dollars and focus on the primary form of state aid to local schools.)
  • At least 15 states are providing less funding per student to local school districts in this school year than they provided a year ago. This is despite the fact that most states are experiencing modest increases in tax revenues.
  • Where funding has increased, it has generally not increased enough to make up for cuts in past years. For example, New Mexico is increasing school funding by $72 per pupil this year. But that is too small to offset the state’s $946 per-pupil cut over the previous five years.

And even with reduced state investments, districts are being asked to do more—add more pre-K rooms; increase the use of technology; provide more options for high school students; support more STEM activities; ready teachers and students for new state standards and assessments; and upgrade their physical plan to support learning in the information age.

There is, perhaps, a hint of a silver lining in this very gloomy economic scenario. That is, in the face of declining revenues, district leaders are becoming more thoughtful and strategic in how they are choosing to deploy their resources (people, time, and money). Through our work with districts across the country, we are seeing:

  • A focus on trimming budgets where cuts can do the least harm rather than across the board cuts that were so common just a few years ago. For instance, some districts have been able to maintain investments in key reform strategies like a longer day or one-on-one technology while cutting other programs or activities.
  • The use of data to understand what approaches are working and attempts to preserve investments in those areas. The idea of calculating and measuring “return on investments” in education has gotten a large boost during this era of do-more-with-less.
  • More partnerships between districts and other city agencies and community organizations to bring additional resources into schools such as additional adult volunteers to support project-based learning or increase access to technology.

While some may argue that education budgets have become bloated over time, the reality is that districts can only do more with less for so long. Eventually, budget cuts will (and some argue already do) limit the ability of districts to provide students with the quality of education that we have come to expect and that is needed for continued national prosperity. If we believe that education is the driver of our economy and that investments to improve teaching and learning, in technology, and in the physical infrastructure of schools are necessary for the development of a competitive workforce, than the continued reduction in state education budgets should be a shared cause for concern.

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Author(s): Sharon Deich

I’m often asked why we should care about the history of federal education policy.

People usually want to know how past policy decisions are relevant to today. I always provide the same response. Knowing that religion and race were the issues that prevented any significant federal support for K-12 education until 1965, that IDEA was enacted to ensure that special needs children had legally enforceable access to education, and that the murder in Guyana of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan in 1978 was perhaps the major event in creating the federal department of education are all important to understanding issues that we confront year after year.

All of this and more helps to explain how it is that we have such a vast number of federal laws dealing with education and why every major action has been driven by issues such as national defense, civil rights, economic conditions, or international competitiveness.

Over the course of the past 60 years, we have learned a great deal about both the strengths and vulnerabilities of our education systems, but we have never had a discussion about our national commitment to education, about appropriate roles for states and the federal government, about the value that we assign as a society to education. Education has been a collateral issue. Because of that, students, educators, and parents have often been whipsawed by the changing political winds that have captured them in the various jet streams of other issues.

While these issues may seem esoteric, they underlie a great deal of the turmoil that we experience today around such issues as Common Core State Standards, assessments, teacher evaluation, charter schools, and accountability.

In the new edition of Political Education: Charting the Course for State and Federal Policy, I explore these issues and do so through the lens of the evolution of federal policy since the National Defense Education Act of 1958. I also highlight the role that various figures – Bobby and Ted Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Elliot Richardson, Carl Perkins, Ted Bell, Bill Bennett, Al Quie, George H.W. and George W. Bush, Arne Duncan, among others—have played over time in creating the policies that are with us today, and why those policies came into existence.

There is much that has been learned about the limits, as well as the need, for federal policy. Unfortunately, as political winds shift we are all too often eager to grasp solutions that swing from one extreme to another, never taking the time to recognize that complicated issues, and education is surely one of those, demand thoughtful consideration and solutions that draw on research, ideas, and experience that is neither simple nor partisan.

Before we make significant moves forward in state and federal policy, it would serve us well to engage in some thoughtful conversations about our expectations and commitment to education as a nation and from that derive a new model that builds on what we have learned about the strengths and limitations of institutions at all levels to fulfill those aspirations and commitments.

As Edmund Burke said, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”


The new edition of Political Education: Charting the Course for State and Federal Policy can be ordered on Amazon and Teachers College Press. It will also be available on eBooks at the end of the month.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross

For the first 200 years of public education in this country, from ratification of the constitution in 1789 through the 1980’s, states delegated the executive powers and even many legislative powers, such as property taxation, to local school boards. The state’s role was typically limited to monitoring the use of state and federal funds.

The past three decades, however, have marked a major shift in the role of states in educational governance. Responsibility for statewide academic standards and assessments, accountability systems, strategic support for professional development, and improvement of low-performing schools are just a few of a growing number of responsibilities now typically assigned to state entities. This trend can be seen across the country, as the connection between quality K-12 education and the future economic and social health of a state has become clearer, and the US has slipped further from the top on international assessments. The improvement of public education has become a top priority for governors and state legislatures. Nearly every state has enacted significant legislative reforms designed to increase the ability of the state to drive improvements in student performance and equity.

Wyoming, one state we are currently assisting, provides a strong example of this major expansion of state roles and responsibilities in recent decades. As these shifts in responsibilities are taking place, the state is re-evaluating their state level governance structure to ensure that the responsibilities are clearly defined and that each entity has the capacity and accountability to perform those duties more effectively than in the past. For some, the sense of urgency is palpable.

In January of 2013, the Wyoming legislature passed a law that transferred supervisory powers of the elected Superintendent to a Governor-appointed “director” of public instruction. One year later, however, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that law to be unconstitutional. The legislature has now sought the assistance of Cross & Joftus in reviewing trends in state-level governance structures and the strengths and challenges of the current Wyoming governance model. After in-depth interviews with more than 30 representatives of statewide stakeholder organizations and district leaders and with feedback from all interested residents through an online survey, we will provide a report that summarizes the input and frames important considerations for Wyoming in the design of a governance structure that will effectively allocate state-level responsibilities and support the delivery of high quality public education. The review will culminate in the presentation of one or more alternative structures that are appropriate to the Wyoming context for consideration by the Wyoming Legislature in the 2015 legislative session.

In many ways, the success of public education within each state, and in the U.S. overall, depends greatly on the effectiveness of state educational governance and leadership. Reviewing that structure periodically to ensure that it is meeting current state and district needs is an important investment in the state’s future.

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Author(s): Nancy Doorey

On January 8th, the nation celebrated two major anniversaries, each of which has significantly shaped national education policy. In 1964, in his first State of the Union address, delivered less than two months after the Kennedy assassination, President Lyndon Johnson declared a national War on Poverty. Johnson’s efforts led to him signing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act at a ceremony at a rural school in Stonewall, Texas with his first teacher Mrs. Katherine Deadrich Loney sitting at his side. On January 8th in 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act at a school in Hamilton, Ohio with a group of children and Congressional leaders standing beside him.

As we enter 2014, much remains to be done to achieve the goals of both initiatives. Poverty still prevails as a major factor in determining which children will succeed. We are also far from closing the achievement gaps between children of different races and income levels and determining how to create fair and effective accountability programs.

This year is an election year for 36 governors, nearly all state legislatures, 34 senators, and all 435 House members. While in past years such a big election year might have signaled that momentum was on the side of positive change, that will likely not be the case in 2014. At the federal level, a divided Congress – with one house engaged in open battle with the president and a federal budget that will almost certainly pinch program funding—will produce few advances. ESEA/NCLB is unlikely to be reauthorized. There will be a major, but probably unsuccessful, effort to enact a federal Pre-K program. Only laws such as Perkins and the Education Sciences Research Act may be passed, as they are far less controversial.

At the state level, we will likely see a significant push for Pre-K programs, even in the absence of substantial federal funding. Most controversial will be the efforts in a number of states to halt implementation of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and to adopt or reject the aligned assessments being developed by two federally funded consortia.

Of great concern is the possibility that it will be 2017, after the next presidential inauguration, before major action is taken at the federal level. In states, much will depend on whether groups representing parents and students are able to mobilize and prevail at the ballot box over those who oppose change. The need for such change is great as shown by recent results from PISA, NAEP, and state assessments.

Leaders in both states and districts can best weather the year by focusing time, resources, and attention on closing achievement gaps, raising the bar for everyone, and making maximum use of data and information in implementing proven effective programs and practices. Data from measures like PISA and NAEP do matter if we are to assure that our children and grandchildren achieve their life’s goals in this century. Only then will the goals established on January 8th in1964 and in 2002 be achieved.

Learn more about our policy analysis and development work.

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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross

This is the time that people, and especially school teachers and children, talk about how they spent their summer vacation. Not wanting to break tradition, I’ll share some of my summer.

The free time that I did have was spent in working on a new edition of Political Education, my book on federal education policy, as I have a contract for a new edition to be published next year.

When I started the project, I had hoped to include a nice neat chapter that summarized passage of an ESEA reauthorization bill. Boy, was that optimistic! While the House passed a bill in July and the Senate HELP committee has finalized their version, they are miles apart in philosophy and design. Indeed, with the next round of Congressional elections but 14 months away and Washington beset with decisions about everything from the national debt ceiling to agency budgets, sequestration, and various military conflicts across the globe, to say nothing of privacy and national security, it is nearly impossible to see how it gets done in this, the 113th Congress.
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Author(s): Christopher T. Cross