County office surveys show progress, remaining needs for System of Support

Recent survey results show that while more California county office of education leaders are understanding and accepting of the new roles of COEs in the Statewide System of Support, the state must further build out and enhance the system to see greater impacts at the district and school levels.

A product of the Local Control Funding Formula, the System of Support comprises California’s 58 county offices of education, along with the California Department of Education, the California Collaborative for Educational Excellence and these state agencies’ “lead system” approach. In addition to reviewing and approving district Local Control and Accountability Plans, county offices are called on to provide guidance and support to their local districts as they aim to improve the outcomes of schools and students.

A new brief from Policy Analysis for California Education, “The Changing Role of County Offices of Education: Survey Results,” examines the System of Support by comparing in-person surveys of county superintendents from October 2017 and January 2019 administered at meetings of the California County Superintendents Education Services Agency.

The PACE report authors found that the number of superintendents who said they have made major changes in the structure and operations of their county offices increased by nearly 40 percent from 2017 to 2019. Overall, 94 percent of superintendents said that the creation of the System of Support is a “step in the right direction.”

A separate survey question illustrated how superintendents’ views on their System of Support roles have shifted dramatically. In 2017, 18 percent of superintendents saw themselves as “brokers” of expertise, working with districts to identify sources of high-quality assistance inside the COE and among multiple agencies; while 43 percent saw their primary role as developing local expertise in one or two areas to share with other COEs and school districts. Those numbers flipped in 2019: 48 percent of superintendents saw their primary role as brokering, while 19 percent foresaw their COE specializing in specific areas.

“County offices of education have been assigned a critical role in this new system, as learning partners and assistance providers to local school districts, and our surveys provide evidence that COE leaders are moving towards acceptance of the responsibilities that this new role entails,” the authors said.

The optimistic takeaway from survey results comes as CCEE board members and staff are reflecting on how to best fulfill their System of Support duties with a limited number of resources.

Room for systemwide growth and improvement

Despite a clear self-reported belief in a cross-sectional System of Support, the superintendents’ survey results, coupled with additional data from members of CCSESA’s Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee, indicate that county offices “rely most heavily on the support of other COEs and relatively little on other agencies.” The members of the committee are from county offices staff, where they have the primary responsibility for assisting local districts and schools.

In breaking down the survey data, superintendents reported other county offices were the most common source of support for their county (27 percent), followed by CCSESA (21 percent), the CDE (12 percent), geographic leads (11 percent), content leads (7 percent), nonprofit providers (6 percent) and the CCEE (5 percent). The results are relatively similar amongst committee members, although some changes were seen in the percentage who seek assistance from CCSESA (14 percent vs. 21 percent) and those likely to seek assistance from the CCEE (9 percent vs. 5 percent).

The PACE report authors conclude that an overreliance on other county offices of education for support, combined with a general lack of engagement with the CCEE, means that “the System of Support remains more of an aspiration than a reality.” The researchers recommend that the state do a better job of cataloging, vetting and making information readily available that might help districts with the local challenges they face.

“Given the scale and depth of the challenges that most California school districts face, building an effective Statewide System of Support will require the mobilization and deployment of expertise and assistance from every available source and not just from COEs,” the authors write.

Unsurprisingly, considering the lowly state of California’s education funding level, a lack of resources is also a major roadblock to fully seeing the goal of the System of Support to its fruition. Just 23 percent of superintendents said that funding for the system is adequate in their county; the number improves slightly to 40 percent amongst the Curriculum and Instruction Steering Committee members. “The funding that COEs receive will have to increase if they are to provide the assistance that school districts need,” the report finds.