Education groups rethinking strategy to stay relevant
As groups representing local and state education players struggle to remain relevant in a policy conversation often dominated by foundations, think tanks, new advocacy groups, and political and business figures, a shift in leadership has been under way at major associations.
Most of the changes have come as part of the natural churn; former directors retire or move on. But at the National School Boards Association and the National Association of State Boards of Education, the shifts have come hand in hand with changes in organizational goals.
The NSBA is focusing on increasing the impact of its advocacy work, while NASBE hopes to find a leader who is more connected to state school boards to succeed one whose expertise was at the federal level.
For both the NSBA and NASBE, the challenge is "maintaining connections with the mainstream education groups while beginning to carve out independence and a middle ground for laymen," or board members who are not necessarily part of an education establishment, said Michael D. Usdan, a senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership, in Washington.
New executive directors have joined theCouncil of Chief State School Officers, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Governors Association, the National PTA, and the NSBA since 2011. NASBE is seeking a successor to James W. Kohlmoos.
The turnover in association leadership comes as the policy debate is being heavily shaped by players whose credentials generally are from outside the traditional education sphere, Mr. Usdan said.
Influential voices over the last decade on K-12 issues include philanthropies like the Broad and Gates foundations; self-described reform advocates, including StudentsFirstand Democrats for Education Reform; think tanks like the Center for American Progress and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; and politicians like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
There has been a sense, Mr. Usdan said, that these players have been "wresting away leadership in setting the education agenda from folks who are in the schools every day" and from those, like state and local school board members, who are responsible for setting key policies.
Teachers' unions and teachers have long complained that those who are actually working in schools have little say.
"Twenty years ago, school boards, superintendents, and principal associations were the innocuous good guys. Now, there's much more of a sense that the 'reformers' are these other groups, and the associations are established interests," said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
"Much of the challenge for [associations] is trying to pivot so that they're seen as proponents of improvement rather than champions of the status quo," said Mr. Hess, who also writes an opinion blog for edweek.org.
The K-12 groups that have continued to drive policy have strong connections to other groups with broader influence, Mr. Usdan said. The CCSSO, for instance, partnered with the governors' association on the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
Simultaneously, many associations have seen a slide in membership over the past decade. The NASSP, for instance, has seen its membership drop from 25,000 three years ago to 21,000 today, according to Bob Farrace, a spokesman for the organization.
Among principals, the younger generation is not as interested in being part of an association, or "wants something different from an association," such as opportunities to network and connect with colleagues, said JoAnn G. Bartoletti, the executive director of the NASSP since 2011.
"They don't seem as inclined to attend meetings or conferences, ... and they're acquiring information online and don't need the same kind of information" as older principals, she said.
Facing similar concerns, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the American Association of School Administrators merged some of their operations and moved to a shared workspace two years ago.
The associations are taking on the challenge in different ways.
The NASSP, for instance, is in a strategic-planning process, said Ms. Bartoletti, who came to the secondary principals' group after leading the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. It is trying to figure out how to be most useful to its newer members and to ensure principals' voices are heard as policies involving principals and school leadership are increasingly in the national spotlight.
The NSBA is aiming to build partnerships and insert its voice more forcefully into the advocacy conversation. The arrival of Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel in December, after the retirement of Anne L. Bryant, the organization's longtime top executive, coincided with the NSBA board's release of the "New NSBA," a strategic plan that aims to "promote local school governance in new and more visible ways."
For instance, the NSBA and the AASA supported a bill put forward by two Republican members of Congress last month that would limit the role of the U.S. Department of Education in creating new policies.
The NSBA hopes to create a stronger national voice for local officials.
"We don't view ourselves as a special-interest group that's lobbying for members. Our goal here is to connect our local elected policymakers with state and federal policymakers," said Mr. Gentzel, who headed the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
"We want to be leaning forward in our advocacy work," Mr. Gentzel said. "We do think there's an important role for state and federal government—it's important that there be a coherent policy structure. But we're very concerned about the diminishing role for local officials."
Meanwhile, NASBE, which represents state school boards, is searching for an executive director to lead the organization in a new direction, said Patrick Guida, the president of its board.
Its former director, Mr. Kohlmoos, had worked in the U.S. Department of Education and had extensive experience in Washington, which Mr. Guida said helped NASBE interpret and respond to federal decisions.
But the organization is hoping to forge stronger connections with state boards and help states address federal policies, Mr. Guida said. Many states are juggling complex policy initiatives like the implementation of the common standards or fulfilling proposals set out in waivers of key parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, he said.
Chris Minnich, who became the executive director of the CCSSO in January, said such support for states is increasingly valuable. "[Policy changes] have been very federally driven, ... but the shift in the last three years is into states," he said, citing Race to the Top applications and waivers.
Staying the Course
Mr. Minnich, who led the state chiefs' work on the common core as the organization's senior membership director, said the CCSSO will remain focused on supporting the implementation of the common standards during his tenure.
Likewise, Richard Laine, who came to the NGA's education department last winter after leading the Wallace Foundation's education leadership program, said the governors' group is also staying its course and homing in on the implementation of the standards.
Eric Hargis, who came to the National PTA from the Epilepsy Foundation, said his organization has been addressing internal organizational and financial matters over the past two years. The PTA moved its central office from Chicago to the Washington area in 2011 in an effort to get closer to the national policy conversation, he said.