A Network for Educational Change in the Great Lakes Region: A View Through the Lens of Educational Service Agencies

The main purpose of this descriptive report—based exclusively on self-reported data collected from responses to a survey administered to state educational service agency (ESA) leaders in five Great Lakes states—is to provide an overview of the structure, capacity, and roles of ESAs in the region, within the context of the broader statewide systems of support for educational improvement and progress. This is accomplished by providing a “snapshot” profile of the general structure and current capacity of the ESA networks in their respective states by describing ESA programs and services, funding sources, policy relationships to state and local educational agencies, and available resources as reported by the questionnaire respondents. A discussion then follows about the exemplars, trends, and findings observed across the Great Lakes region.

The overall survey question is as follows: What is the capacity of ESAs in the Great Lakes states to play a more prominent role in their respective statewide systems of support to assist districts and schools in the work of educational improvement that will positively impact student performance? The report provides a brief discussion of the current educational landscape in which expectations for American education have changed faster than the system has been able to respond. In turn, state education agencies (SEAs) have increasingly developed relationships with other entities such as higher education institutions and ESAs to facilitate the transition from oversight to capacity building. Despite this increase in collaboration, the anticipated rise in student performance/competitiveness with global peers has seen only limited success. Contributing factors include inequities in per-pupil spending, increased commitments to serve special student populations, SEA trends, and a limited ability of districts to train and support staff.

The first part of the report, “Profiles of Educational Service Agency Networks by State,” encapsulates the ESA capacity profiles of individual states and is based solely on information reported through the questionnaire. The second part of the report, “Capacity of Educational Service Agencies,” is devoted to a more regional exploration of trends and exemplary programs, beginning with a literature-based, survey-supported rationale for the inclusion of ESAs in statewide systems of support for school improvement activities and partnerships. This is in recognition of ESAs’ demonstrated ability to leverage resources to create innovative solutions, to improve student learning and teacher development, and “to provide a network of success." To support this ability, exemplary programs and services across the region are highlighted—with an emphasis on collaborative, multiregion, technology-driven initiatives. A general examination of collaborations within statewide systems of support follows, which focuses on the critical nature of the relationship between ESAs and their respective SEAs.

The report’s findings are as follows:

  • Literature supports the potential of ESAs to make a difference in the statewide systems of support. 
  • ESAs continue building a network of support through exemplary programs and services (but not always with universal access). 
  • There is a lack of formalized agreements between SEAs, LEAs, and legislatures regarding the roles and responsibilities of the ESAs. 
  • Resources available to ESAs in their educational improvement work are not adequate. 
  • ESAs’ standardized evaluation and accountability processes are emerging but remain sporadic.

These findings are followed by concluding remarks, which support previous assertions that ESAs are well positioned to provide much-needed support because they are “the least expensive, most readily available infrastructure available” and a systemic component that “would have to be invented” if they did not already exist. Ultimately, it was concluded that district and school improvement may continue to grow very slowly unless ESAs can be better utilized and mobilized.