When to Optimize and When to Deregulate, that is the Question (for State Superintendents)

Over the past few months, both Kevin Huffman and John King stepped down from their respective state superintendent positions.

They both did incredible work, and I hope their successors can sustain their efforts. I also know both of them personally, and I have a ton of admiration for each of them.

Specifically, I thought Kevin did exceptional work in launching and supporting the Achievement School District. He recruited Chris Barbic and then gave Chris a lot of cover to seed what I hope will be major improvements for children who are stuck in failing schools.

I’m also eager to see the results of John’s raising the bar on teacher preparation, which could work to solidify the trend of higher-quality teachers entering the profession.

Time will tell what these reforms are able to deliver.

In my past life at NSNO, I also worked closely with John White, who, in my mind, has been a near political genius in ensuring Louisiana students have the opportunity to engage in more rigorous coursework.


It will be no surprise to readers of this blog that I have pretty strong opinions about what city superintendents should do. They should relinquish. With the right leadership, I think any city in this country could transition to an all non-profit system within ten years. And I believe the primary duty of a city superintendent should be to lead this transition in a manner that promotes educational excellence and equity.

But being a state superintendent is different. For both political and pragmatic reasons, a state superintendent can’t simply relinquish. First and foremost, they have major policy duties (standards, assessments, accountability, etc.) that are regulatory, not operational, in nature; secondly, we have yet to build the non-governmental capability to scale school operation across entire states.

As such, in every decision, state supes face a question: should they optimize or deregulate?

These are not easy calls to make; see below for some thoughts.

What Should State Supes Optimize?

I think state supes should optimize core regulatory functions, including: standards, assessments, accountability, and teacher preparation. In short, they should make standards high, assessments rigorous, accountability transparent (letter grades are my preferred labeling system), and teacher preparation functional (at minimum, publishing value-add data of programs).

What Should State Supes Deregulate? 

I think state supes should promote deregulation via alternative governance such as Recovery School Districts; support charter school growth via state authorization; and increase options via accountable voucher programs.

The Squishy Middle

I’m much more up in the air around what state supes should do around supporting schools. Some states have done a lot around material creation (curriculum, lesson plans, etc.). Others have done a lot around direct support to superintendents (coaching, consulting services, etc.). Others have done a lot around direct support to teachers (master teacher training, train the trainer, etc.).

Kevin, John, and John have taken Common Core implementation very seriously. Whatever you think of the new standards, implementation is important, and these three supes have been national leaders.

All that being said, I’m mildly skeptical about much of direct state support to educators.

But, admittedly, I really don’t have any other better idea outside of don’t do anything at all, which, at the very least, is not politically wise when rolling out major initiatives such as higher standards and assessments.

In Sum

I think the core of a state superintendent’s work is to optimize policy and deregulate school operation. My guess is that this is where state supes have most leverage to do high impact work.

My guess is that direct support to districts, schools, and teachers will have less impact.

But I might be wrong.

And if anyone will prove me wrong about the effectiveness of direct state support, it will likely be one of Kevin Huffman, John King, or John White.

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