Governors’ Critical Roles in Supporting School Improvement Efforts (by Sarah Silverman, Program Director, National Governors Association)

by Sarah Silverman, Program Director, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Education Division


Turnover in leadership is a challenge at all levels of an education system. Just as frequent changes of a school principal can threaten the stability and continuity of positive reforms and the strength of a school’s culture, so too can changes in school district and state leadership.

Yet length of tenure in key leadership positions across state education systems is steadily declining. For example, a Council of Great City Schools survey recently revealed that last year the average tenure for urban district superintendents was only 3.18 years. The average state education chief has less than three years of experience, with more than two-thirds having turned over in the last three years. As these education leaders’ tenures decline, governors—60 percent of whom are in their second term—play an increasingly important role in establishing a state’s vision for education and for ensuring education leaders can work together over a sufficient length of time to realize that vision.

NGALOGOFEATUREGovernors’ roles in state education systems have grown over the past three decades as they increasingly have connected the expectations of their education systems to the needs of their economies. In addition to strengthening states’ economies, governors are committed to ensuring all children have choice in both educational opportunity and the jobs they pursue. By ensuring students have access to high-quality education that suits their needs, governors can address both individual learning needs and the collective needs of the state’s workforce.

In 2015, 49 of 55 governors delivered State of the State addresses. Of those, all 49 mentioned education, and most cited education quality as a top priority.

Given that high-quality systemic education reforms often require nearly a decade to fully take hold, changes in state leaders and a state’s vision for education reform could easily threaten statewide education reform efforts. More and more governors are proving that transitions need not threaten positive change.

In a growing number of states, reform efforts have maintained a steady trajectory toward improved education systems through at least one recent change in gubernatorial party and several changes in state chiefs. For example, former Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen (Democrat) committed to raising achievement among the state’s highest-need students and ensuring that high-quality teachers and leaders taught in and led the state’s schools. In 2011, Governor Bill Haslam (Republican) won the state’s top post, and the two administrations eased the transition by establishing lines of communication between education posts in the outgoing and incoming administrations. Bredesen set the stage for improvement by devoting attention to educator quality and investments in evaluation and preparation reforms. Under his leadership, Tennessee became one of the nation’s first states to win a Race to the Top grant and launched groundbreaking work on incorporating student outcomes into evaluations of educator effectiveness. When Haslam took office, he elevated the expectations for student learning and rededicated the state to ensuring that teachers and leaders were adequately supported from preparation through evaluation and development. Haslam picked up where Bredesen left off by continuously improving the state’s nascent educator evaluation system and deepening investments into professional development focused on assisting teachers and principals to become better teachers and leaders of the state’s new college and career-training ready standards.

The continuity has begun to pay off. Tennessee was among the states that showed the most improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math over the last decade on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It is also at or near the top in gains in both subjects and grade levels for the last two years the tests were given, between 2011 and 2013.

The nation’s governors are not only prioritizing education quality in their states, they are increasingly the most stable leaders at the helm of state education systems. In any transition, there is potential for upheaval and even complete derailment of efforts to make positive improvement. Governors can establish agendas designed to improve their states, and most believe education is an essential component of any state’s progress. Governors have the power to bring attention to needed education reform and tie the results to the future value for individuals and the state economy, guide essential resources where they are most needed, and convene disparate entities and leaders to work together in the service of a shared goal.

By engaging and supporting gubernatorial leadership, school, district, and state education leaders can help sustain and scale their efforts during and beyond their tenures to provide the stability and urgency to make the necessary changes in policy and practice to improve student learning.


silvermanGuest Blogger Sarah Silverman is a Program Director at the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices Education Division. Silverman leads the Education Division’s work in early and K-12 education. This includes care and education system standards; caretaker, teacher and principal performance management and personnel systems; student learning standards; technology and infrastructure; and connections among early childhood, K-12 and postsecondary education.  She assists state leaders identify and implement strategies that ensure all students have access to high quality education and leave school prepared for college or career training.