Resetting the bar

New education vision needed to guide Massachusetts schools in the 21st century

With headlines routinely proclaiming that Massachusetts “tops the nation” on national or international comparisons of student performance, it might come as a shock that over 40 percent of all students and nearly two-thirds of high-needs students are not proficient readers by the end of third grade. And these numbers have remained largely unchanged for the last decade. In fact, Massachusetts was one of three states that saw a decline in fourth-grade reading scores on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress. In a state dependent on education to fuel economic productivity and innovation, stagnation and decline are not good news. Our children must be prepared to compete not only within the US but also with Singapore, Hong Kong, and other countries.

It is true that since passage of the 1993 Education Reform Act, Massachusetts has distinguished itself as an education leader. However, the comprehensive reforms of the past 20 years, including the adoption of high standards, an accountability framework, and increased investment in our schools and students, are now proving inadequate. Far too many students lack the skills needed to successfully enter the workforce, and performance gains in other states and competitor nations are surpassing our own.

In short, we are at a crossroads. The Massachusetts gubernatorial race now underway presents an opportunity to engage in significant discussion of policy solutions to better serve all students. We are also approaching the point where federal funding for many important initiatives will be expiring. To determine how to proceed, we must assess the status of our education system, acknowledging both our strengths and deficits, and use this knowledge to pursue a comprehensive vision for the future. Maintaining the status quo is not an option.

The organizations we each direct are committed to informing and driving this important discussion, and are engaged in complementary efforts to play such a role. The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy is conducting a detailed diagnosis of the status of student progress and proficiency throughout our education pipeline, while the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) is identifying the innovations that are producing the greatest results in the US and around the world in order to craft a state policy agenda for the future.

The Rennie Center’s November 2013 data report on the Condition of Education in the Commonwealth identified and measured educational outcomes at critical stages of learning and development, from early childhood through the emergence of a strong and productive workforce. Important indicators in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) were highlighted at each stage and specific attention was given to the need for prepared and effective educators. Findings showed that barriers to student success begin early but extend well into high school, where only 68 percent of students complete MassCore coursework, the recommended program of study to prepare students for college and the workforce.

It therefore is no surprise that 36 percent of Massachusetts public school graduates attending state institutions of higher education place into remedial courses, reducing the likelihood they will continue towards degree completion. Ultimately, in a state dependent on a high-tech economy and college educated workforce, it is alarming that just over half of all Massachusetts adults hold a two-year college degree or higher (only 39 percent hold a four-year degree) when nearly 70 percent of all jobs by 2018 will require some level of post-secondary education, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

To further inform the work ahead, MBAE has commissioned Brightlines, a collaboration of international education experts, to assess the present status of education in Massachusetts and the implications of these conditions for future policy direction and structural improvements. The analysis will provide a common, factual understanding of our current system and what we can learn from public education systems in other states and nations that consistently achieve high levels of student performance. Along with the Rennie Center data, this analysis of best practices can provide the basis for frank discussions among stakeholders about the action necessary to achieve new levels of success in Massachusetts.

Preliminary findings confirm that our challenges affect everyone—even the highest-performing schools and districts. Recent data point to a “top talent” gap between the Commonwealth’s highest achieving students and those in the highest performing countries globally. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessments (PISA) show that while 19 percent of Massachusetts students scored at proficiency level 5 or higher in math, nearly three times as many students from Shanghai scored at this level. Massachusetts also has a well-documented “employability gap” confirmed by a recent poll of employers conducted for MBAE and 15 business organizations. Over two-thirds of respondents struggle to fill available jobs because of a significant mismatch between skills and knowledge needed in our workforce and what our students know and are able to do.

There is a lot at stake, but Massachusetts has a track record of bringing the best minds together to solve problems. A pivotal player in the state’s previous education reform efforts was the late businessman Jack Rennie, a cofounder of MBAE and the inspiration for the Rennie Center, which bears his name. Just as he did 25 years ago, we can develop a blueprint for education reforms that will put us on a path to becoming a world leader not only in test rankings but, more importantly, in preparing our students to be engaged citizens, productive members of society, and lifelong learners capable of adapting to a changing workplace.

As we engage in this conversation over the year ahead, three elements can help us structure the debate. First, we have to consider what has worked and should be expanded or explored in system reform. The value of rigorous standards is well established, so implementation of the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks, revised and adopted in 2010, is clearly a top priority for the next few years. We also know that we need to assess a range of competencies, so new assessments tied to these standards must measure the skills and knowledge needed for college and career success. Similar system reform initiatives in human capital and the structure and organization of schools provide direction for future work.

System reform, however, is not sufficient to get us where we need to go. We also need systemic innovation—imagining what the future looks like and unleashing the power of our schools to get there. The state is uniquely positioned to link our unrivaled higher education and technology sectors with our education system to become the world leader in education innovation. This means addressing the limitations of traditional schooling by acting on evidence demonstrating the need to expand learning opportunities through competency-based, individualized approaches, while simultaneously developing new schooling models to be welcomed as part of a portfolio of education providers able to meet a range of student needs.

Tying additional investments to measurable improvements is certain to be part of this process. A focus on efficiency and implementation is necessary in an environment where limited resources are likely to be the norm for years to come. Supporting districts that undertake productivity reviews to examine current use of resources and identify ways to achieve greater effectiveness is one of a number of actions that should be examined.

By addressing these three elements, we can confront the underlying problem of current education reform. Too often, we make the mistake of building around our existing school system, introducing new strategies that are evidence-based but designed to augment limited and ineffective educational offerings. The result is we are preparing students for a 21st century economy by tinkering with an outdated 20th century school model. Instead, we must build on our strong history of educational entrepreneurship and recognize those innovations that can bring about transformative change statewide.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Our challenges are clear but we also have the capability to meet these if we have the will. Our focus must be on the long term—what does an educated citizen look like in 2030? What is the core of knowledge and skills all students will need to adapt to a rapidly changing global society and workforce? This is a debate that many countries around the world are having. Massachusetts can learn from and contribute to this debate. We have a new opportunity to lead, and we must take it.

Chad d’Entremont is executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. Linda Noonan is executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.