A birthday reckoning

The state's landmark ed reform bill turns 25 this year. It launched Mass. to the top of the class -- but has not been the 'great equalizer' some hoped for.

Illustration by Kyle Webster

THIS YEAR MARKS a significant milestone in the state’s rich history of leadership in education. It was 25 years ago that Massachusetts officials came together to pass the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993. With a huge infusion of new funding, much of it directed at districts educating lots of students from low-income homes, combined with rigorous new curriculum standards and regular assessments to hold schools accountable for having students meet them, Massachusetts aimed to give all schools a solid foundation to educate every student.

Nearly 150 years earlier, in 1848, the first Massachusetts secretary of education, Horace Mann, regarded as one of the founders of modern public education, put forward the idea that education is “the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” The view that universal access to quality schooling could put everyone, regardless of station, on an even footing was an inspiring notion. By the late 1980s, however, it was clear that our public schools weren’t living up to that ideal. There were no common standards for schools or expectations of them when it came to student outcomes. Funding differed widely and was largely dependent on the wealth of communities. What’s more, it was becoming clear that students’ fortunes would be increasingly dependent on education and higher-order skills in an ever more knowledge-based economy.

Those were driving forces behind the 1993 law. The ensuing years have been, by many measures, a tremendous education success story. Massachusetts has gone from ranking in the top third of states on national achievement assessments to regularly occupying the No. 1 spot in both reading and math scores. The statewide high school graduation rate went from 79.9 percent in 2006 to 87.5 percent a decade later in 2016.

But when it comes to the idea that we might finally make good on Horace Mann’s noble vision, it’s a very different tale. “With respect to this audacious aspiration to educate all children to high levels, we have to say we pretty well failed,” says Paul Reville, who served as education secretary for five years under Gov. Deval Patrick. ”We haven’t come nearly as far as we’d hoped.”

Massachusetts has among the widest gaps in achievement between students from well-off homes and those living in poverty. On the most recent MCAS math exam, for example, 8th-grade proficiency rates were 83 percent in Wayland and 25 percent in Worcester. For reading, proficiency rates in the two communities were 81 percent and 33 percent, respectively. A third of all Massachusetts high school graduates who enroll in the state’s public higher education system, largely students from low-income households, are not capable of doing college-level work in math or English and require remedial coursework before they can begin to earn credits. It’s all evidence of what Reville calls “an iron-law correlation between socioeconomic status and educational achievement.”

That sober assessment comes from someone who not only oversaw the system in his recent stint as education secretary, but who was deeply involved in the 1993 effort to pass the reform law. At that time, Reville was executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, one of the leading groups responsible for mobilizing support for the law.

Reville does not endorse backing down from the high standards and accountability we put in place. If anything, he says, students need to aim even higher today to keep up with the changing demands of 21st century work. That was also the clear message from state officials last fall when they released the first results from the state’s  so-called “next generation” MCAS exam, which set a far higher bar for proficiency.

But Reville is part of a growing chorus of education leaders who say we need to confront two big realities if we want to live up to the ideal of equal opportunity for all. First, we need to dramatically rethink how we structure and operate schools—particularly for disadvantaged kids who enter school already behind their better-off peers—from the length of the school day to the role of teachers. Second, they say, we must also be willing to address the many factors beyond the school walls that greatly disadvantage kids growing up in poverty.

Getting there will mean finding a lot of common ground among reform advocates, district officials, teachers unions, and political leaders. The climate in the education world in recent years, however, has been characterized by anything but cooperation and comity. From a backlash against standardized testing to the bitter ballot question fight in 2016 over charter schools, the education wars raging across the country have landed in Massachusetts, too. It can make it hard to see a clear way forward, though the need for bold steps seems no less urgent today than it was 25 years ago.


If the state’s education law has not been able to break the correlation between family background and achievement, reform efforts in Lawrence represent the most ambitious attempt to upend that stubborn reality across an entire district. Legislation passed in 2010, the broadest update to the education law since it was enacted in 1993, gave the state new authority to intervene in chronically low- performing schools and districts.

Jeff Riley: “You get more out of people if they feel like they have a true voice and they’re invested in the process.” (Photo by Michael Manning)

In 2011, after years of abysmally low school performance in Lawrence, one of the poorest communities in Massachusetts, state officials used those powers to put the city’s entire school district in receivership. Jeff Riley, a veteran Boston school principal and administrator, was named receiver for the district and given sweeping authority over everything from staffing decisions to curriculum and the structure and length of the school day.

Over the first four years of Riley’s leadership, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the 10th grade MCAS test increased by 18 points in math and 24 points in English language arts. Lawrence math scores for grades 3-8 now top those in Boston. Meanwhile, the district’s graduation rate has improved by 19 percentage points, while the annual dropout rate fell by more than half.

“Nobody’s claiming victory, but we’ve had some strong results,” says Riley. “We had a plan we wanted to put in place. I felt like we executed on that.”

That plan represented a radical departure from previous state takeover efforts here and nationally. Rather than imposing a prescriptive top-down plan for the struggling district, Riley gave individual schools latitude to chart their own path when it came to budgeting, curriculum, and the structure of the school day. He cut the budget of the district’s central office by 30 percent and redeployed that money into schools, extended the school day for all K-8 students, and set up intensive tutoring services for high school students. Riley also brought in the leaders of a high-performing Lawrence charter school and another outside education organization to operate two of the district’s most troubled schools. A firm believer that students need both rigorous academics and a more rounded curriculum, Riley boosted theater, art, and other subjects.

When it came to staffing Lawrence classrooms, Riley says, “there were people who said we should fire all the teachers.” He kept about 90 percent of them, but replaced about half of all principals, concluding that many of the district’s schools suffered from “a failure of leadership.”

The biggest change he made to the district operation was to give school principals and teachers much more control over how they ran their schools. “I think you have to push the authority down to the school level, trust your leaders, teachers, students, and parents to make good decisions for their community,” says Riley. “It doesn’t mean it’s completely unbounded authority. It’s not a free-for-all,” he says of the need to hold schools accountable for results. “But you get more out of people if they feel like they have a true voice and they’re invested in the process versus—what’s that saying?—‘the beatings will continue until the morale improves.’ People don’t respond well to that.”

The idea that those working closest with students understand best how to shape a school to meet their needs seems like common sense. And the 1993 education reform law even recognized this, promoting the idea of “school-based management” in Massachusetts districts. But that has largely not been how the law has played out.

The approach Lawrence has employed is now being tried in Springfield, too. A swath of schools educating about 5,000 of the district’s 25,000 students are part of a new entity called the Springfield Empowerment Zone. It operates under a separate governing board and has nearly complete independence from the district system, though its teachers remain part of the district union.

The plan emerged in 2014, when the state was poised to use its power under the 2010 reform law to take over three chronically low-performing Springfield middle schools. Rather than let the schools fall into state-run receivership, state and local leaders hatched a plan to carve out a separate mini-district that would remain part of the Springfield schools but operate independent of its central office. In a sign that they thought the idea was not simply punitive but promising, district officials and the city’s teachers union agreed to include in the zone three additional middle schools that were not facing imminent state takeover, but which had been struggling for some time.

The empowerment zone operates with much of the same freedom as the Lawrence receivership has over curriculum, the school day structure, and staffing. Teachers receive an added stipend for the longer school day in zone schools. The zone is overseen by a board that has four outside members appointed by the state education commissioner and three Springfield officials – the mayor, school superintendent, and the vice chairman of the school committee.

The schools all operate with a “teacher leadership team,” instructors elected by the school teaching staff who share decision-making with the principal on curriculum and other issues. “It’s the real core of what we mean when we say empowerment at the school level,” says Julie Swerdlow Albino, co-executive director of the empowerment zone.

Sara Macon is in her 14th year as an English teacher at Forest Park Middle Schools, one of the schools in the Springfield zone. Prior to the new initiative, she says morale was dismal as the school struggled with low achievement and heavy-handed directives from the district’s central office. “It got a little crazy—to the point where we were handed daily lessons plans from downtown,” she says. “It just took the life out of teachers.”

Macon says the significant role given to teachers under the zone structure has made a huge difference. “I think everyone has sort of upped their game,” she says.

The city’s teachers union didn’t exactly welcome the empowerment zone. “We had a gun to our head,” union president Tim Collins said two years ago about the state takeover that loomed as the only alternative. At the same time, union leaders say the principle of giving teachers more say is one they’ve been pushing for years.

“The worst thing in the world is top-down command control,” says Collins, “because you give people the excuse not to feel bad about their failures—I did exactly what you said, don’t blame me if it didn’t work.”

It’s too early to say whether the zone structure will make a sustained difference, although its schools showed big improvement on the most recent MCAS results. “The fact that we’re seeing progress, I think, should be encouraging,” says Albino.

A similar embrace of school-level autonomy now guides Boston’s Mildred Avenue K-8 School. It opened in 2003 in a gleaming new building in Mattapan, but struggled for years, with achievement scores that put it in the bottom 1 percent of all schools statewide. Facing potential state intervention, the district and the Boston Teachers Union employed a rarely used provision of the teachers contract to let the union and school department jointly craft a turnaround plan that gave the school leeway from the district contract. They hired a new principal and agreed to add 30 minutes to the school day.

Andrew Rollins, the principal brought on in 2014, had authority to dismiss teachers as he worked to get the school on track. Like Jeff Riley in Lawrence, he only exercised those powers with a small number of staff members. “Our experts are in our classrooms,” Rollins says of the confidence he has in the majority of the school’s teachers.

The school has a long way to go to raise achievement levels, but in 2016 it had among the highest growth in math and English scores among all K-8 schools in the state, and its suspension rate fell from 16 percent in 2013 to 3 percent in 2016.

The school has been successful because Rollins “values teacher leadership and teacher voice,” says Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union. “That is crucial for any school.”

In November, EdVestors, a Boston education nonprofit, awarded the Mildred Avenue school the annual prize it gives to a Boston school showing strong gains. In the 15 years that EdVestors has given out the award, “we have not seen a rapidly improving school where you don’t walk into that school building and get a palpable feeling of teacher ownership, teacher leadership, and teacher agency, in that they are both responsible and empowered to improve that school,” says Laura Perille, the organization’s president.

Vanessa Grand Pierre, a K-1 student, working with her teacher, Min Wang, at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Boston. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

Greater school-level autonomy and longer school days are hallmarks of high-achieving charter schools. Some advocated broad expansion of charters as the best hope for students in low-performing districts, but the lopsided defeat two years ago of the ballot question lifting the cap on charters ended that conversation, at least for now. That has put more attention on the question of whether these features of successful charter schools could be more widely incorporated into district schools.

Everyone agrees they are no guarantee of success. It all depends on whether more time or autonomy are used well by educators with the capacity to take advantage of them.  A union-management agreement using the same contract provision employed at the Mildred Avenue School to take over operation of Boston’s long struggling vocational high school floundered badly under poor school leadership there.

The approach also represents a huge change in the role of teachers. “It’s a big culture shift. Teachers are used to being beaten down and blamed,” says Maureen Colgan Posner, who took over from Collins as president of the Springfield teachers union. “When you say, OK, you’re professionals, make decisions, people say, whoa, wait a minute. That’s part of my job?”

School-level autonomy is an example of just how polarized education debates have become. Even though all sides see value in moving away from highly centralized district systems, they can’t seem to agree on how to get there. Teachers often bristle over central office dictates in school districts, but Reville says unions have been slow to seize opportunities for teachers to have more responsibility and authority in schools. The 2010 reform law authorized formation of “innovation schools,” which would operate within districts but with more autonomy, but he says few applications for such schools have been initiated by teachers.

Legislation filed last year on Beacon Hill would create a mechanism for the state education department to carve out empowerment zones like the one in Springfield in districts that have schools at the bottom of the state accountability ranking system. Posner says the empowerment zone in Springfield has been promising but, like other union leaders in the state, she opposes a move to give the state education department unilateral power to set up such systems. She objects in particular to the lack of any provision in the bill requiring the collaborative structure in place in Springfield that includes teacher leadership teams.

Gov. Charlie Baker touted the empowerment zone bill in his State of the State speech a year ago. His education secretary, Jim Peyser, says it’s not “a silver bullet,” but he thinks it “creates a framework that is necessary although maybe not sufficient to really turn around or change the performance levels in urban schools that have been historically low-performing.”

“We’ve been, in theory, turning around low-performing schools for well over a decade, maybe even two. And it sure feels like we haven’t made a whole lot of progress,” Peyser said in 2015 shortly after taking office. “For me, it’s pretty clear we can’t just kind of work harder and better within the same constraints and expect significantly different results.”


Kim Driscoll has been mayor of Salem since 2006. The city’s rich history and picturesque cobblestoned downtown belie the challenges its schools face with a large population of English language learners and significant pockets of poverty. Driscoll says she has tried to stay out of the divisive education wars and has been open to any approach that might help boost student achievement. The city has been willing to “throw everything up against the wall to see what would stick,” she says.

That has made Salem home to a smorgasbord of non-traditional school offerings, including four district schools with longer days, an in-district charter school, an independently run charter school, and one in-district Innovation School. Despite some successes with the various schools, Salem remains home to “a pretty wide achievement gap,” says Driscoll.

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll: “It needs to be more than a schools effort.” (Photograph by Mark Morelli)

That made her very receptive to a new effort, launched two years ago, based on a belief that it will take more than great work by schools to close the achievement gap. The By All Means project, based at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and directed by Reville—the former education secretary who now teaches there—has enlisted mayors in six communities across the country who are committed to an all-out effort to even the playing field for disadvantaged students. It has meant marshalling resources and coordinating community organizations to provide everything from better mental health services to tutoring and mentoring programs for those who don’t have access through their families to the rich network of professionals that can give a leg up to students from better-off homes.

“We know we need to harness the resources that exist in Salem to provide more for kids,” says Driscoll. “This takes into account the enormous number of things that happen in the 80 percent of the time a child is not at school. It needs to be more than a schools effort.”

Lawrence, though not part of the initiative, has embraced the same idea, drawing in community partners such as the YMCA in a deliberate effort to extend the umbrella of opportunities for children beyond just its schools.

One organization that believes strongly in the idea that demography is not academic destiny is the network of KIPP charter schools. KIPP, an acronym for Knowledge is Power Program, is perhaps best known for its “no excuses” model that enforces a strict behavior code and pushes kids to excel academically.

KIPP operates 200 schools across the country. Its students consistently score much higher on standardized tests than their peers in district schools, and KIPP schools often boast of 100 percent of graduates being accepted to four-year colleges. To its credit, KIPP has not rested on the laurels of its success getting kids into college, but has instead tracked their progress once there.

In 2011, it released findings from its first comprehensive look at how KIPP graduates did. It found that just 33 percent of those in the early cohorts of KIPP middle schools had received a bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling in college. That was four times the rate of other students in the low-income communities where KIPP schools are located, and slightly above the rate for all students nationally, but it fell well short of the target the organization had established of 75 percent.

“The road to success is way harder and more challenging than we thought, and we’ve found that by tracking our alumni,” says Caleb Dolan, who oversees KIPP’s five Massachusetts schools.

A year ago, KIPP released results of a survey of some 3,000 alumni nationwide. To Dolan, one of the most troubling findings was that less than 30 percent of KIPP graduates said they had a job or internship the previous summer that was aligned with their career aspirations. “If you contrast that with an upper middle-class kid in Newton, they are likely doing some summer internship in college that is directly aligned with their aspiration,” he says.

Dolan says those kind of opportunities, and not just strong academic skills alone, are crucial to KIPP graduates having a shot at truly excelling and becoming leaders in a field. KIPP has started an “alumni accelerator” initiative, matching its graduates with people in their field “who are willing to give tough feedback,” says Dolan, “but also willing to open some doors” in a way that happens every day through informal networks for “a kid in Marblehead whose mom and dad work downtown.”

Figuring out ways to more equitably spread “social capital access,” says Dolan, is important if we really want our education system to operate as a meritocracy. For KIPP, whose simple motto has been, “Work hard. Be nice,” it’s been an education in the complexity of charting a strong path out of poverty. “Kids can’t just leave with good scores and wanting to go to college,” says Dolan. “That’s insufficient if they’re going to lead lives of independence and impact.”


The education reform debate across the country often seems to boil down to a tussle between two views of what’s needed to give disadvantaged students the opportunities of their better-off peers. One side views school reform—testing, accountability, and how schools are structured and operated—as the key to unlocking student potential, while the other says we need to address the many injuries associated with poverty that hold children back.

It’s the wrong way to look at the challenge, says John King, the US education secretary in the last year of the Obama administration, who co-founded the Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston nearly 20 years ago. “People set it up as a false choice: We can either strengthen schools or we can address the out-of-school factors that affect kids,” says King, who now leads the Education Trust, a Washington-based organization focused on educational equity for low-income and minority students. “We’ve got to have an urgency about both.”

“I believe in my heart poverty is something that matters, and we need to try to make up ground and figure out ways to get around that,” says Riley, the Lawrence schools receiver. “On the other hand, I’ve seen my children in Lawrence are capable of doing amazing things. How can you have it be a ‘both-and’ and stop having it be so polarized on either side,” he says, echoing King’s viewpoint on the debate over fixing schools versus fixing poverty.

“Are people willing to put down their swords? I don’t know,” Riley says of the toxic tenor of education debates. “I think we are at a huge crossroads. We used to say what we were doing in Lawrence meant we were either in the sweet spot or the cross hairs, because we drew from a wide variety of people with very divergent views on how to educate kids.” He calls it “the radical center,” and says “we need to get back into that collaborative spirit where there is room at the table for everybody.”

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“We are famous for our disagreements,” Reville says of the education battles in recent years. He thinks we have a “moment of pause” to think about ways to harness the good elements of the education reform law that set high standards and a system of accountability for results, while not being afraid to dramatically rethink how schools are structured and run. “It gives an opportunity, particularly for those in the field, to have more of a voice in shaping a vision for how we go forward,” he says. Reville isn’t overly sanguine, however, about the short-term prospects for finding common ground.

As the state prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the education reform law, Reville says it should be “a short celebration.” Reflecting on the ambitious goals at the time of its passage, he says, “I hate to be the skunk at the party, but I feel like I’ve got some ownership so this is self-criticism as much as anything else. Look, we didn’t get this completely right. We ought to be rethinking it now and taking a different look. But the sense of urgency ought to be at least as great as it was then, if not greater.”