Building Capacity in State Education Agencies: Using Organizational Theory to Guide Technical Assistance

Caitlin Howley, Keith M Sturges


Technical assistance (TA), and more recently, capacity-building, have been fundamental components of federal calls for education reform for at least the last 40 years. Nonetheless, TA and capacity tend to be underspecified and to operate from tacit, sometimes competing, epistemologies of organizational change. In this essay, we begin with a brief history of TA to support educational change and discuss common understandings of TA and capacity. We then describe the Van der Ven and Poole (1995) framework for distinguishing types of organizational theory and apply it to the example of a federally-funded TA center designed to improve the capacity of state education agencies (SEAs), ultimately suggesting that TA providers tend to rely on teleological and life-cycle theories that neglect the generative benefits of conflict and to over-privilege rationality. We propose potential reasons for this preference and its limitations in our case example, and conclude with a discussion of implications for practice and future research.


capacity building; technical assistance; state education agencies; theory to practice

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