The Role of the State in Creating Equity & Excellence in Education

By Shelley Zion, Professor and Director, Culturally Responsive Urban Education (CRUE) Center, University of Colorado, Denver

In 2012, the United States Congress created the 27-person Commission on Equity and Excellence, which included scholars, teacher union leaders, state and local education officials, education reformers and advocates. The Commission’s charge was to advise the U.S. Secretary of Education on disparities in our educational system that create opportunity and achievement gaps, and to recommend solutions to those disparities. The ensuing report defines the failure of our education system to provide equitable opportunities and outcomes in keeping with its stated role. It calls this failure economically damaging to our country and failing to meet the moral imperative to educate all our people well. The report names several areas of focus, including better allocation of fiscal resources, a focus on supporting high-quality teachers and leaders, the provision of early learning opportunities for all students, ways to improve services for low-income students and families, and the role of government in ensuring accountability for these goals. In this article, I take on the challenge of exploring the role of the state in meeting the goal of equity and excellence in education.

This report was the latest in a long line of reports and legislation commissioned and enacted by the federal government to ensure equitable outcomes for all students in the K-12 educational system. Beginning with 1954’s legal decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which required schools to provide equal educational opportunity for all students — and reinforced through legislation, including the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004) — law and public policy have established a requirement that all students in the United States be provided with equal educational opportunities. These legislative actions set the framework for the state to define how it would carry out its duty to ensure that the goals are met. As discussed in the next paragraphs, this has yet to be achieved.

NCLB established a high-stakes accountability system that not only holds schools responsible for student learning, but also explicitly holds schools accountable for improving the performance of historically low-achieving students (e.g., low-income, limited English proficient, special education students and students of color [No Child Left Behind Act, 2002, §1111 (b)(2)(C)(v)(II)(aa-dd)]). IDEA’s 2004 reauthorization not only broadly addresses ensuring a free and appropriate education for students with disabilities, it makes specific requirements to eliminate the disproportionate representation of students of color in specific special education disability categories and settings. As has been well-documented, these require solutions to issues of inequity in educational opportunity, achievement and outcomes that plague our educational system, which show up in: 1) disparities in achievement between white students and students of color; 2) disproportionality in special education referral, identification and placement; 3) high dropout rates for students of color; 4) disproportionate discipline and referrals for students of color; 5) under-enrollment of students of color in higher education; and 6) an array of other issues related to decreased education and life opportunities for students of color, students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, students from immigrant families and students in urban areas (Kozol, 1991; Ogbu, 1987; Patton, 1998; U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2005).

Over the past 15 years, I have worked with states, districts and schools in a variety of roles: as a leader of a nationally funded technical assistance center focused on eliminating disproportionality; as an independent consultant working on issues of equity; as the director of continuing and professional education at a state university; and as a board member of two charter schools. During that time, I’ve identified barriers to state capacity to ensure equity and excellence in K-12 education, including: available resources to help schools are overly complex; organizational structure (including State Education Agencies) guarantees siloed work; political pressures; resource competition; and a knowledge and skills gap among personnel in how to advance an equity agenda. In this paper, I explore these tensions to focus attention on the state’s role in ensuring educational equity and make recommendations for how states can create capacity and leverage resources to ensure equitable opportunity and outcomes.

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School reform efforts to address these issues abound, yet there have not been sustainable, scalable reforms leading to equity for all students. Part of the challenge is that the United States Constitution established a decentralized education system, granting states, districts/ local education agencies (LEAs) and schools authority for public education.

While the federal government does enact legislation, enforce education-related civil rights and administer funds for specific programs or populations, the onus for ensuring equitable access to education lies with the state. Over the past 15 years, I have worked with states, districts and schools in a variety of roles: as a leader of a nationally funded technical assistance center focused on eliminating disproportionality; as an independent consultant working on issues of equity; as the director of continuing and professional education at a state university; and as a board member of two charter schools. During that time, I’ve identified barriers to state capacity to ensure equity and excellence in K-12 education, including: available resources to help schools are overly complex; organizational structure (including State Education Agencies) guarantees siloed work; political pressures; resource competition; and a knowledge and skills gap among personnel in how to advance an equity agenda. In this paper, I explore these tensions to focus attention on the state’s role in ensuring educational equity and make recommendations for how states can create capacity and leverage resources to ensure equitable opportunity and outcomes.

The Role of the State

State Departments of Education (SEAs) were designed to ensure compliance with federal and state regulations by: 1) determining that basic administrative duties performed by local schools comply with state and local laws; 2) ascertaining that public school funds are properly used; 3) enforcing health and safety rules for construction and maintenance of buildings; 4) determining and requiring that teachers and other educational personnel are properly qualified and licensed; 5) ensuring that all children are provided minimum educational opportunities through enforcement of compulsory school laws and child labor laws, and through pupil personnel services; 6) ensuring and monitoring the development of state educational standards and student performance measures, and determining whether required procedures are used; and 7) ensuring that schools are organized according to the law (Herrington & Roe, 2015).

Beginning with the authorization of NCLB, SEAs assumed a new role — providing technical assistance and support to meet reform goals. This has led to tension between two roles: evaluation and support. Smarick & Squire (2014) suggest that the solution to this tension lies in “scaling back the tasks SEAs perform and empowering nongovernmental organizations to take up the slack” by focusing SEA on monitoring and regulating, and developing a new state-level network of public and nonprofit entities to provide technical assistance and support. Murphy & Hill (2011), on the other hand, name the challenges SEAs will face in taking on a new role, but pose no solutions. And Lusi (1997) named the challenge as one between top-down and bottom-up reforms.

Additionally, state agencies and their staff face fundamental challenges: the expectation of political neutrality; tensions inherent in being the nexus between federal guidance and local enactment; the pressures of unfunded mandates created by accepting federal funding; and the charge to be both regulator and the provider of technical assistance. In the next section, I’ll first describe the varied players at the state level then explore these tensions.

How are states organized to do school improvement work?

A majority of states have a network of education service agencies (ESAs) established by state statute and funded by a variety of federal, state and local funds to provide educational supports. These include professional development, school and district improvement planning, special education services, purchasing, and administrative services. Some provide other specialized services such as technology supports or teacher preparation, or respond to specific legislative priorities such as responding to disproportionality or Response to Intervention (Williams & Alsop, 2008). In some states, ESAs are organized by geographic region; in others, each ESA may have a specific area of expertise regarding services provided. Local education agencies (districts) can choose whether or not to buy into the services provided by the ESA. Most often, larger districts tend to participate less than smaller or more rural districts.

CBN_graphicZION_-07In addition to the state level ESAs, the federal government has funded a series of comprehensive technical assistance centers, at both a national and regional level, to work in specific focus areas (see The list below includes current topics that are supported by the national centers:

Beyond the national centers, there are regionally based technical assistance centers that include Equity Assistance Centers, Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs) and National and Regional Parent Centers. These regional centers serve specific areas of the country, with specific foci. But again, both state education agencies and local education agencies (districts) have the option of participating with each, and may or may not know the variety of resources available to them through these centers.

Equity Assistance Centers. There are 10 Equity Assistance Centers (EACs), funded by the U.S. Department of Education under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to serve specific geographic regions. Their charge is to help public schools, upon request, promote equal educational opportunities in the areas of race, gender and national origin. EACs provide training and technical assistance for state or local education agencies and individual schools when requested to do so by teachers, principals, parents, community leaders or state/district administrators.

Regional Educational Labs. There are also 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs), funded to bring the latest and best research and proven practices into school improvement efforts. Current REL work is focused on identifying educational challenges in their regions, partnering with practitioners, policymakers and researchers, and using data to understand those challenges and to develop and implement improvement strategies.

Both the RELs and EACs compete for renewed funding every five years. In some regions, the same institutions have hosted the REL or EAC for decades. In others, new providers are chosen each cycle.

In addition to these entities, there are a wide variety of nonprofit and for-profit organizations, along with individual consultants, available to help state and local education agencies across a variety of content areas.

At first glance, this might seem like a powerful set of resources that states can draw on in their work to provide equitable education for all students. However, an analysis by the Center for Reinventing Public Education (Jochim & Murphy, 2013) identified three significant barriers to states’ ability to support school improvement: 1) flat or declining funding in spite of broader responsibilities; 2) siloed work and a compliance mindset; and 3) limited authority and the complexity of local control.

Exploring the Barriers

Resources, including personnel, are especially problematic at the state level owing to an ongoing decline in funds available to support education initiatives. Further, available funds are linked to specific programs and often are focused more on assessment than intervention, and the recruitment and development of talented personnel falls victim to the structure of the state system. Johnson, Oliff and Williams (2011) noted that between 2008 and 2011, 34 states had substantially cut education budgets, with very few anticipating increases through the 2013 school year. Jochim and Murphy (2013) call additionally problematic the fact that state budgets are developed and reported by program or organizational division, a practice that inhibits strategic allocation of resources when different program areas share similar strategic priorities. For example, departments concerned with bilingual education and with special education share a priority around supporting schools to be culturally responsive, but each has separate funds and personnel to carry out those activities, creating potentially overlapping efforts rather than shared and strategic offerings. And, even as the role of the state expanded from a focus on compliance to include supports for intervention, state funding is still allocated disproportionately toward efforts to assess and evaluate rather than intervention or capacity building. This table shows the ratio of assessment to intervention dollars spent by states (Jochim & Murphy, 2013, p. 7).

Lastly, the relationship between funding and the recruitment of highly talented personnel is underscored by the differential salary for district level administrators versus similar positions in state departments. “An educational coordinator in the Maryland State Department of Education can expect to make between $50,000 and $81,000, depending on experience, while the same position in the Baltimore City Public Schools pays between $75,000 and $120,000. The median salary of district administrators in New Jersey is approximately $120,000; the median for administrators in the state department of education is just $80,000” (Jochim & Murphy, 2013, p. 8).

The organizational structure of state departments of education, education service agencies and, largely, Technical Assistance and Equity Centers create silos by program focus or content area, with slim opportunities for cross-program collaboration. This is replicated in school districts, which minimizes resource sharing and the strategic alignment of personnel and resources, creating redundancy. As mentioned in the earlier resource allocation sections, in conjunction with the required focus on compliance, funding patterns exacerbate divisions, often creating rigidity.

The final and perhaps most complex barrier faced by state departments sits at the intersection of local control, local politics, and the state’s level of authority to act. While some states have a clear mandate and authority to require district action to promote equity or address issues of inequity, other states must cajole or encourage districts to act in support of students and equity. In some states, the state board is elected; in others it is appointed. In some states, political pressures created by local control, union influence or legislative dynamics create opportunity; in others, those same elements erect barriers to action. Moreover, states are the nexus between federal guidance and local enactment, but rarely have formal power to require local education agencies to participate. They monitor compliance and can impose sanctions by withholding funds, but are limited in their capacity to require action. Given that the mandates states must implement are predominately unfunded but linked to federal funds, states are often perceived as bureaucrats rather than partners in improving schools. These relationships become further complicated by the complex political dynamics between communities, LEAs and states, and the oft-perceived lack of authentic partnership among them to improve opportunities and outcomes for all students (particularly the most marginalized).

So what is the state’s role in promoting equity and excellence?

CBN_graphicZION_-06The previous sections have described the role of the state, the structure of organizations within the state and the barriers to effectiveness that plague states. But perhaps the ultimate barrier lies in the gap of understanding or agreement regarding the purpose of education, and the pressing need to develop common understandings of both equity and excellence. Figure 2 shows varying purposes around which education is organized (deMarrais & LeCompte, 1995; Kubow & Fossum, 2007). Irrespective of which purpose is emphasized, if we are to meet the mandates codified in law, public policy, community interests, and congressional commissions, we need a framework for thinking about, talking about, and organizing our work. One such framework is laid out in the “Opening the Doors to Opportunity for All” series supported by the Equity Project at the American Institutes for Research. The series names education as “the best hope for achieving the ideal of an equitable world — where all people, everywhere, have the chance to develop their potential, their capabilities.” (Marshall, 2015, p. 17.)

Equity is often used interchangeably with equality, or as somehow undermining excellence. We must be clear that equal is not necessarily equitable. Equal implies that everyone receives the same resources, opportunities and supports, whereas equitable meets each person where s/he is, utilizes and builds on his/her strengths and ensures everyone receives what he/she needs to thrive.

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Equity is often used interchangeably with equality, or as somehow undermining excellence. We must be clear that equal is not necessarily equitable. Equal implies that everyone receives the same resources, opportunities and supports, whereas equitable meets each person where s/he is, utilizes and builds on his/her strengths and ensures everyone receives what he/she needs to thrive. Further, we must be clear that equity and excellence must co-exist. There can be no excellence (in our system as a whole) if all children do not have the resources they need to achieve it.

Pursuing equity and excellence in school system improvement can be thought of as (Osta & Perrow, 2008, p.3-4; Petty, 2010, p.58-59; Petty, 2015, p. 64-66):

  • removing and interrupting the predictability of academic success or failure based on social, economic or cultural factors and inequitable practices; eliminating biases and creating inclusive school environments for adults and children;
  • discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that each human being possesses, with schools, districts and communities working in partnership;
  • broadening notions of “successand the skills students need to include more robust competencies for their individual thriving, contribution to communities and to creating a society that better supports the well-being of our diverse world; and
  • using a combination of structural, technical, cultural, political and social approaches to achieve deep and lasting system-wide improvement, which include:
    • a systemic focus on multiple levels of experience in educational systems (bottom-up combined with top-down expertise);
    • the central place of the experience of local educators, students and communities in defining, implementing and refining strategies, in combination with policymakers and funders and
    • an intentional focus on the nature and impact of race, class, gender, socioeconomics, power and history in how systemic change processes are undertaken and evaluated at local, state and national levels.

Why not adopt an Equity-Centered Capacity Building approach?

In order for states to adopt such an approach, they must develop a foundational understanding and shared definition of equity, commit to building the knowledge base of all staff, and develop a comprehensive approach to considering equity in all decisions about people, practices and policies. What isn’t (and hasn’t been) working is assigning the work of “equity” to one department, or to one ESA to focus on, or to the EACs, or to a “diversity” consultant or staff on whom all equity issues rest. Rather, all organizations, agencies and departments should have mutual ownership and specific responsibilities for ensuring equity in their crucial functions in support of school systems.

The Urban Strategies Council developed an equity framework (n.d.) that states might use to begin their work in creating a system that has equity as its foundation. In this model, states would:

  1. Define equity and link that definition to expected outcomes in various settings. This is a complex process and requires that all personnel develop a deep understanding of issues of equity, power, privilege and culture. This work includes the following:
    • defining the purpose of school as the pursuit of equity AND excellence, which may require expanding current definitions based solely on standardized tests and looking to additional metrics to determine excellence (see for example;
    • developing a set of questions that will guide all decisions (i.e., policy, hiring, resource allocation and intervention) — that are grounded in the twin notions of equity and excellence, and questioning the status quo (i.e., reconsidering routine ways of doing work);
    • committing to the long-term creation of a climate in which equity can flourish by training staff, noting that untrained staff will ensure the failure of the effort and that it takes time to develop skills in equity/inclusion; such skill-building is both a process and a goal;
    • set expectations of all funded organizations (e.g., ESAs, grantees) that equity and excellence are the core of their work, and work to develop their understanding of what this means;
    • identify the network of providers who have deep knowledge of equity and excellence in supporting school systems, and leverage it; strategically recruit and hire people who have expertise already, but not as siloed “diversity specialists”;
    • remove barriers to LEA participation in equity and excellence work by minimizing the number of initiatives, creating communication channels across departments, coordinating efforts and strategically leveraging resources so that silos are avoided.
  1. Mine and utilize data systems to understand how equity is either supported or constrained. Too often, states rely solely on quantitative measures as a proxy for equity (namely test scores, graduation rates, special education referrals and identification). States should use those metrics as indicators or “flags” to look deeper.An SEA committed to ensuring equity would also utilize such strategies as site visits or equity audits to understand the contextual issues and perceptions of stakeholders about the depth and breadth of equity in school systems. A wide array of stakeholders authentically involved in planning and decision-making (including students, families and community members) would be optimal.
  1. Ensure that all outcomes or goals explicitly address issues of equity and identify strategies to achieve equity. Again, this means that SEA personnel must be deeply versed in equity issues, and possess the capacity to assess the depth and breadth of goals and strategies designed to improve both equity and excellence in school systems.
  1. Commit to representation of diverse perspectives in leadership, staff and community input. This requires a look into the internal hiring and representation of state department personnel. Full participation by diverse community stakeholders who can collaborate around day-to-day practices and their impact on students, schools and communities is also necessary.
  1. Focus on dual goals of ensuring equity in access to opportunity and in outcomes. Too often, equity work focuses solely on outcomes (by focusing on quantitative data), rather than looking at access to opportunity and the removal of barriers to access that lead to particular outcomes.
  1. Utilize a “targeted universalism” approach (powell, Menendian & Reece, 2009). In this approach, policy and practices must be both designed to improve outcomes for all as well as targeted specifically to address the unique needs and conditions of marginalized groups.
  1. Continually assess for equity. Rather than identifying equity only as a goal to be assessed as an outcome, create mechanisms for reflecting on how equity considerations inform design, ongoing interim assessment, resource allocation, training and outcome measures.
  1. Hold systems and individuals accountable for equity in both system-level reviews and individual job descriptions and performance evaluations.

Question for Further Exploration

To make substantial movement toward our democratic ideal of equitable educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, we must contend with the changing expectations placed upon states, and rethink how states should be organized to address the tension between enforcement and support. What would happen if the role of the SEA were conceptualized to include:

  • Leading:
    • setting the strategic vision, including short- and long-term planning
    • developing standards and interpreting policy
    • coalescing vendors, service providers, and LEAs around a vision for equity and excellence
  • Regulating/evaluating:
    • ensuring that LEAs are in compliance with state and local law
    • ensuring that public funds are distributed and used appropriately and equitably
    • ensuring that LEAs meet the standards and expectation set by the state, specifically related to equity and excellence
    • ensuring that all vendors meet standards for equity and excellence
  • Connecting:
    • brokering services by connecting LEAs with appropriate technical assistance providers, support services and agencies, such as those listed in previous sections?

There are two key challenges inherent in this suggestion: 1) the knowledge and capacity of current state personnel to lead work around equity and excellence (or effectively partner with those with this expertise), and 2) the complexity of state governmental authority, and the process it would take to shift the role of the state. This might, however, be a potentially useful direction. Narrowing the focus of the state to the above three categories can help mitigate or eliminate the conflict between being both evaluator and coach.


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About the Author

Shelley Zion, Professor and Director, Culturally Responsive Urban Education (CRUE) Center, University of Colorado, Denver

Dr. Shelley Zion is the Executive Director of the Center for Advancing Practice, Education & Research (CAPER) in the School of Education & Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver. In this position, she is responsible for establishing and executing a vision for outreach and partnership activities, particularly related to entrepreneurial program, grants and continuing education programs, through the development of collaborative and entrepreneurial partnerships aligned to the mission, vision and values of the school. Additionally, she holds an assistant research professor appointment, and teaches in the doctoral program, conducts research on topics related to school reform and equity, and serves as the executive director of the CRUE center, which provides technical assistance and training to schools and districts who are working to address issues of equity in their schools. Dr. Zion’s work is multidisciplinary, grounded in the social sciences, and specifically within sociology as it seeks to understand how institutions, social systems and individual experiences create and sustain systems of power and privilege that ensure access for some while excluding others. Her research is situated within a framework of sociopolitical development, informed by a range of critical theoretical perspectives, and advanced by an understanding of the nature of both individual and systemic change. This framework requires that to impact a transformation of the current public education and other social systems towards goals of equity and social justice, we must work to disrupt dominant ideologies by creating spaces in which people begin to develop a critical understanding of the cultural, political, economic and other institutional forces that perpetuate systems of privilege and oppression.