Users’ Views: What Makes a Service Agency Effective?

by Hobart L. Harmon

In telephone interviews with 25 superintendents of rural school districts nationwide that use educational service agencies, I asked: “What essential quality or characteristic would you tell another superintendent to look for in determining whether the ESA could meet the unique needs of your rural school district?”

A synthesis of their responses follow. Many characteristics are interrelated and appear in no rank order.

An educational service agency that can meet the needs of rural school districts:

* Practices a servant mentality. ESA staff members ask what you need. They don’t tell you.

* Nurtures relationships. ESA leadership creates and maintains a great working relationship with local superintendents and a working relationship with the state department of education.

* Understands rural context. The ESA understands the circumstances of limited resources in a rural district and the issues associated with meeting demands of NCLB and state requirements of accountability.

* Responds to needs. The ESA is able to listen to the district personnel explain needs and then deliver services that address those needs.

* Employs credible personnel. ESA staff members and consultants are qualified and able to use available resources to effectively address the district’s issue or problem, particularly for improving student achievement.

* Provides cost-saving services. The ESA has the ability to leverage cost savings for goods and services through aggregation of needs and cooperative purchasing.

* Adapts promising practices. The ESA keeps up-to-date regarding best practices and research and knows how to customize the information to impact student learning, not simply offer a “canned” program.

* Manages data effectively. The ESA analyzes district data and puts it in understandable language for teachers, noting both strengths and weaknesses, and shows teachers how to use it to improve instruction. The ESA also continually assesses its own services and seeks to do things better.

* Uses technology efficiently. The ESA embraces the advantages of using technology, particularly in providing services that reduce travel time for teachers and administrators and ESA staff to attend meetings.

* Demonstrates effective leadership. The ESA leadership communicates a clear vision, uses decision-making processes effectively and encourages innovation that considers the needs of rural districts.

* Provides targeted training. The ESA provides specific, not generic, professional development that reflects an understanding of what the data reveal teachers and administrators need. Follow-up assistance is delivered in the district.

* Exhibits friendliness. The ESA staff exhibit a friendly, cooperative attitude and an openness in helping the district address difficult and complex issues. The ESA finds a way to be helpful and objective.