Skip to main content

Creating Balanced and Flexible Systems of Decision Making

STRATEGY: Support school modernization practices aligned with district and state policies and balance authority with flexibility and agency.

State education agencies face intense challenges amid increased global competition, magnified by the pressures of federal regulations. One of a state education agency’s responsibility is ensuring that districts comply with federal legislation, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which has given more autonomy and flexibility to states to manage their own schools. State education agencies also manage the performance of schools, requiring them to construct accountability plans and execute performance management systems that allow them to identify low-performing schools. Due to this shift, state leaders across the country are shifting from a focus on compliance toward a focus on continuous improvement, to support local efforts to redesign K–12 education around student-centered learning. A balance of authority and flexibility is required to ensure alignment of new educational practices and policies that support the modernization of K–12 education, bringing about more innovative policies and practices to support twenty-first-century teaching and learning.


All systems struggle with the balance between top-down managerial prescription and bottom-up professional judgment; however, consistent alignment of teaching, learning, and assessment is the goal. Successful implementation of these new systems will require states to collaborate with local school districts and to support efforts around alignment. For example, as states invest in building educator professional judgment and capacity to create, implement, and evaluate performance metrics, local school districts must be supported in aligning the curriculum and assessment practices and the professional learning opportunities that support them. These systems should include baseline, formative, interim, and summative measures that are innovative and support twenty-first-century learning competencies. All states share a common vision of the school improvement process. States follow a similar path regarding setting standards, holding schools accountable, and identifying which schools are successful and which need to be improved. Their approaches begin to diverge at the point at which the state education agency begins to intervene in those failing schools. The most significant dimension of variance is the degree of disruption the state agencies introduce to local education agencies. Attending to accountability issues while supporting districts and their schools can be a difficult issue, but it is a necessary one and must be addressed with considerable attention.

First Steps to Consider

  • Partner with local businesses and community organizations and, with them, build momentum for change.
  • Use student performance data that is broken out into specific subgroup perf
  • ormance, particularly subgroups with significant achievement gaps.

  • Offer teachers professional learning opportunities, which connect them to authentic experiences in the workplace, giving them access to resources and expertise to expand their repertoire of strategies.
  • Use technology-based programs, which can be effective in increasing student academic achievement.
  • Look for creative ways to repurpose space to support a more flexible and effective learning environment.

Complexities & Pitfalls

  • Ineffectively communicating the need for change, with little buy-in and support.
  • Not adequately managing the necessary balance between top-down managerial prescription and bottom-up professional judgment.
  • Inconsistently aligning teaching, learning, and assessment.
  • Enacting policies without the support that schools need to carry them out.
  • Being unprepared for the degree of disruption a school improvement process can cause to the state education agency and, by extension, the entire K–12 system.

Guiding Questions

  • What is the role of school districts and their communities in turning around the lowest-performing schools in ways that support twenty-first-century learning?
  • What is the theory of action underlying each school improvement strategy?
  • What activities are necessary conditions for success but may be beyond the control of the local and state education agencies?