Call to mind an image of public education, and that picture is not likely to include administrative offices in the state capital. State education agencies (SEAs) traditionally have focused on policy and compliance issues, typically considered distant from the daily action of classrooms. Yet SEAs are taking on deeper and more complex roles, often grappling more directly with challenges at the district and school levels. New accountability measures, for example, are leading states to work more closely with districts to help them better understand the measures and how to implement reforms.

Because expanding into these kinds of roles can be a tall order, SEAs are increasingly calling on outside expertise and partners for assistance. Often the call for help is answered by a comprehensive technical assistance center. There are 22 such federally funded centers charged with helping SEAs build their capacity to work with districts and schools to improve education for students.

WestEd is the lead agency in five such centers and serves as a partner in three others. A cross-agency group representing all of WestEd’s comprehensive centers recently reflected on lessons learned from their many years of experience providing technical assistance to SEAs throughout the country. Their reflections are summarized in a white paper, WestEd Comprehensive Centers: Building the Capacity of States Through Technical Assistance.

“State-level technical assistance is high-impact work, yet hard to quantify,” says Carlas McCauley, Director of WestEd’s Center on School Turnaround, part of the national network of comprehensive centers. The role of technical assistance (commonly known as “TA”) can be hard to pin down because TA providers wear multiple hats. They may provide research findings or offer training, or serve as a thought partner, helping a client problem solve. Sometimes they act as coaches, and other times they directly suggest what should be done. Often the work is behind the scenes, supporting SEA leaders to accomplish their objectives and contributing to, rather than directly leading, their initiatives.

Effective TA has led to impacts such as: new policies and systems for assessing and supporting educator effectiveness; new ways of turning around low-performing schools; restructured granting and monitoring policies and procedures to better support districts; and adoption and implementation of college- and career-readiness standards built on a process of broad stakeholder engagement.

According to WestEd’s recent white paper, key qualities of effective state-level TA that can lead to these kinds of impact include establishing relationships through credibility and expertise; building collaborative partnerships; and focusing on systemic capacity.

Effective TA begins with establishing relationships and expertise

According to the WestEd paper’s authors, outside assistance providers need to provide support that is customized and grounded in the context of a particular state and therefore must begin by knowing a state well — its history, values, policies, politics, and the SEA leaders and staff.

“Building trusting relationships is at the core of technical assistance,” says Marie Mancuso, Co-Director of WestEd’s West Comprehensive Center, which serves Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. “We build trust and credibility by being timely and relevant and by addressing SEAs’ highest priority needs,” says Mancuso. “It enables us to wear the different hats we ultimately wear: consultant, critical friend, provider of training.”

Having the right background can help TA providers establish credibility. Many comprehensive center staff have held leadership positions in an SEA, which helps them understand the opportunities as well as the challenges and constraints that SEAs face. The center staff bring that experience to the client relationship; having “walked in their shoes,” they have credibility with SEA staff, says Mancuso.

WestEd’s comprehensive center staff also build trust by providing content and technical expertise — not just in TA, but also in research and development. Centers not only draw on the expertise of their own staff but are adept at leveraging other sources of expertise as well.

Effective TA draws on partnerships

The comprehensive centers often convene communities of practice, bringing together SEAs to hear from experts and share ideas and strategies with each other. Convening cross-state groups can be a highly efficient way to provide technical assistance. When multiple states are focused on the same issue, the TA provider can efficiently provide the same information and guidance to many states at once, maximizing the resources and widening the impact, instead of expending resources and time providing the same support and expertise multiple times in different states.

In 2011, for example, numerous states had just passed legislation establishing a state educator evaluation system, using student achievement data as a significant indicator of teachers’ effectiveness, which had never been done before. In response to requests from states, the West Comprehensive Center created an Educator Effectiveness initiative and formed a regional community of practice with Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah, to help each state develop and pilot an educator evaluation model and make adjustments based on findings.

“It was one of the most complex things we ever had to implement,” says Robert Hammond, Colorado Commissioner of Education and a 26-year veteran education leader. “It involved designing an entire system focused on both professional practice and student growth.”

The comprehensive center brought together state chiefs, board members, and legislators, as well as association leaders, district leaders, even foundations. Over a five-year period, they’ve met more than a dozen times — hearing from national experts, sharing progress and challenges, and building cross-state relationships. Center staff have also provided state-specific assistance and partnered with other TA organizations for both regional and state-specific work. As a result, each state has fully implemented its educator evaluation system, moving from policy to practice.

“WestEd has been incredibly important, not only in getting players together,” says Hammond, “but in networking to share promising practices across the country.”

Our goal is to . . . facilitate national dialogue and develop a community of leaders around turnaround at the state level.

The topic of school turnaround is another for which states throughout the country face common challenges. But there has been no single entity providing a national perspective on this issue until recently. Today, WestEd’s Center on School Turnaround is helping move the conversation away from a school-by-school issue and toward leveraging expertise for change on a national level. “Our goal is to not only support the capacity of agencies with resources and tools,” says McCauley, “but to also help facilitate national dialogue and develop a community of leaders around turnaround at the state level.”

McCauley provides another example of the importance of collaboration around technical assistance: The Center on School Turnaround worked with a state where multiple SEA offices were active in low-performing schools. Each office was driven by its own funding stream, focused on everything from special education and English learners to school improvement grants. Due to lack of communication, these different SEA groups were not coordinating with each other — the proverbial left hand was unaware of the right, an all-too-common silo effect, notes McCauley.

To address this issue, “our center developed a strategic plan that incorporated the different offices touching these lowest-performing schools,” says McCauley. “Now they monitor jointly, provide TA jointly, and host conferences jointly.”

Effective TA builds systemic capacity

Another way that effective TA helps alleviate the silo effect is by focusing on systemic improvement. Going beyond just assisting individual SEA staff or leaders, TA that is focused on systemic capacity can have a much wider and more lasting impact by contributing to policy changes, such as promoting professional development or aligning support between feeder schools and high schools, says McCauley.

For example, a systemic capacity problem faced by many low-performing schools is that they need the best and the brightest teachers but often can’t compete to identify, recruit, and develop them. To address this issue, some districts in Louisiana, Oregon, Texas, and elsewhere now have policies allowing the lowest-performing schools to recruit teachers and principals four months prior to other schools. The Center on School Turnaround helps promote these kinds of changes through identifying promising practices, highlighting case studies of what’s effective, and sharing these exemplars around the country.

Systemic capacity-building also addresses a problem endemic to SEAs: lack of continuity due to frequent changes in initiatives, leadership, and staff. Orienting TA toward the organization’s systemic capacity, rather than any individual’s capacity, helps establish systems, processes, and procedures that are sustainable beyond any individual’s tenure. It also requires TA providers to be nimble as direction changes when leadership changes, priorities change, or new legislation comes along.

Discussing his retirement and subsequent transitions in staff, Hammond acknowledges the impact a systemic approach to the Educator Effectiveness initiative has had. “No matter what happens here, we have changed professional practices across the state,” he says. “I’m confident the work will go on.” And that is exactly the nature of the impact for which the comprehensive centers strive — systemic change that sustains.