State Improvement Begins with School Improvement

As new governors prepare for new legislative sessions, improving schools should be at the top of the list.
By Dale Chu, Education Consultant | December 10, 2018 AT 3:00 PM

The midterm elections ushered in twenty new governors who will join a class of state executives to face a vexing conundrum: harvesting the fruits of rapid technological progress as these same advancements threaten to displace millions of Americans from the workforce. Theories abound as to how the country can keep pace, but one thing remains certain—any potential solution must include the demanding work of improving the nation’s schools. 

“What it really comes down to is this: The longer our graduation lines are today, the shorter our unemployment lines will be tomorrow,” said President George H.W. Bush nearly twenty years ago. Governors and chief state school officers have been handed a unique opportunity to further increase the length of those graduation lines—and their state’s future prospects—with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the most recent reauthorization of the federal education law.

At the heart of this opportunity are fifty-two state plans (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) that outline how each state will ensure educational excellence and equity in their lowest-performing schools. This effort will require a massive undertaking, matched only by these commensurately sized plans, which were written over a year ago with broad public input.

Recently, I participated in an independent peer review of school improvement efforts in seventeen of these states, which were selected because they had the most publicly available information at the start of our review process. Along with a bipartisan group of national education experts, we looked at how each of these states planned to go about the work of improving schools based on a number of key criteria. The results of our study—called Promise to Practice—can be found at

What we found was that too many states are missing the mark on equity when it comes to doing what’s needed to improve low-performing schools. From resource allocation to human capital, many states are choosing a hands-off approach that creates a greater risk in schools and districts that have historically struggled. Stronger plans—like Tennessee’s and New Mexico’s—are more assertive in supporting school improvement, and reflect a greater understanding of the mission-critical nature of a state’s education system.

My advice for these governor-elects and their staffs: make excellence and equity a priority in your state. Use Promise to Practice to better understand what states are doing well, and ensure your state is adopting the best strategies by utilizing the information from our expert review. There’s undoubtedly a lot on your plate as you build out your team and transition to the daily grind of governing. But when it comes to education, no other issue deserves more thought and care.

It is anticipated that a number of states will revamp—and hopefully improve—their plans (the federal government has already outlined a revision process). However, these revisions will likely be done without the same level of public scrutiny as when states initially drafted their plans—leaving it open for debate as to whether states might end up squandering the opportunity.

Our report provides a set of recommendations in the hope that states don’t choose the path of least resistance. While it’s still relatively early on in the process, now is the time to impress upon state education leaders the importance of finding the right policies, practices, and interventions to prevent our most marginalized students from falling through the cracks. It won’t be easy. Regardless of whether you’re a policymaker or a private citizen, following the ins and outs of school improvement is not for the faint of heart.

New governors have a real opportunity and a responsibility to provide all of their students with an excellent education. Getting a good plan in place, without delay, is critical to putting a governor’s vision for education into action. But a plan is only as good as the implementation that follows. Promise to Practice offers the first glimpse into how states will implement their school improvement plans. With this report, every state can utilize an evidence-based approach to drive meaningful school improvement, and better prepare its schools and students for the ever-changing economy.

About the Author

Dale Chu is an independent education consultant. His experience includes senior positions at the Indiana and Florida Departments of Education.

Twitter: @Dale_Chu