A birthday reckoning

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.”

  • Monty Neill

    One flaw in this article is it keeps repeating the false belief that standardized testing adequately measures academic learning. At best, MCAS and PARCC measure but a limited slice of important learning, but that slice, because of the stakes attached and PR from the powers that be, has taken over curriculum, teaching, learning and the very definition of academics. Neither those tests nor MCAS2 assess deeper learning, rich enough content, the ability to think critically or apply knowledge in the real world. Thus, by focusing on testing we deprive students of much of what they should learn, as well as too often reduce learning to rote, dry, boring and disengaging pieces of information and skills. That’s why those of us calling for an overhaul of state assessment say we first need to re-decide what is truly important, which should be in significant part a local decision, that can then lead to rethinking curriculum, teaching and assessment. We can rely on important knowledge from many sources, including about assessment. For example, see FairTest’s report, http://www.fairtest.org/assessment-matters-constructing-model-state-system.

    • QuincyQuarry.com

      With all due respect, I have decades of experience VERY critically looking at standardized testing and – quite frankly – you don’t get it.

      As much as I can show all sorts of weaknesses with such tests – and often in ways wicked amusing – depending on their design and other factors, the fact of the matter is that they are still very useful sampling tools within a larger portfolio of assessment tools.

      After all, standards-based MCAS testing is at the core of the considerable overall skills improvement for Massachusetts public school students in recent years.

      That and all sorts of very effective diagnostic tests exist than can readily help to discern when a child might benefit from something different, be it more diagnostic testing, extra help or identifying a latent talent to then foster.

      Granted, underlying curriculum is always open to fine tuning – if not also sometimes major revisions – as such is what sets the stage for assessing what has been learned at some later date. Similarly, the socioeconomic nut has yet to be fully cracked.

      Even so, by far the bigger problems with high stakes testing are the often inane policies and practices developed – all too often politically – at the state level to set passing standards, deciding which test instruments to use, scheduling testing times and setting retest policies.

      In turn, such is why setting standards locally is an even more insane idea. As it is, we already have school
      districts treating creationism as essentially actual gospel rather than as religious gospel along side of solid science – and I say this as a religious person.

      Simply put, all children need to possess solid basic skills before they might be able to move onto to more complex sorts of learning. Failing to appreciate these verities will thus only as well as needlessly shortchange children, if not also permanently so.

      • Monty Neill

        A key underlying flaw in this argument is that first one has to learn the basics, then one can have the opportunity to engage in more holistic learning. This is largely debunking theory of learning that plays out in harmful ways, esp in the communities suffering most poverty, underfunded school and overemphasis on testing. Read this fine summary of the issue: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/learning_deeply/2018/01/a_pernicious_myth_basics_before_deeper_learning.html?cmp=eml-eb-popweek+01122017&M=58340468&U=1125804

        The first two paras:

        If there is one prevalent assumption that stands in the way of deeper
        learning, it is that you have to do “the basics” before you can engage
        in deeper learning. We see this idea in various guises. One version is
        the idea that deeper learning is fine for advantaged kids who come to
        school with significant amounts of social and cultural capital, but for
        students who don’t get the “basics” at home they need to focus on it in
        school. Another version is something we frequently observe in high
        schools (of all stripes): a fairly prescribed course of study in grades
        9-11, and then lots of interesting opportunities for seniors to make
        choices, take electives, and in other ways go deeper in areas that
        interest them. A third version is what Sarah Fine and I came to call the
        “Waiting for Godot” pattern: teachers would promise that the day we
        observed was when students were learning the “basics” that would provide
        the foundation for a deeper investigation that would come on a
        subsequent day. But we would go back, day after day, and that “deeper”
        moment would never arrive.

        You can see the appeal of this idea. Foundations before choice. Learn
        the notes before you play the concerto. But while it is true that most
        fields have some sequential ordering of topics, it is also true that
        what David Perkins calls “playing the whole game at the junior level”
        has a lot of advantages. Perkins cites Little League as an example: we
        don’t spend a year learning to throw, another to catch, another to bat;
        rather, we play the whole game of baseball from the beginning, just at
        the junior level. Playing the whole game gives young players a chance to
        see how the sport as a whole works, and, just as critically, it means
        that they get to see why one would want to play the sport. This
        engenders motivation, which is what provides the fuel to practice the
        parts. To return to music, even the youngest children play whole pieces
        of music in concerts, which is a critical part of what gives rhythm and
        meaning to the work.

  • Tracy Novick

    It’s unclear to me how we can authentically evaluate how we’ve done on education reform when the state itself has conceded that it hasn’t kept up with funding. The Foundation Budget Review Commission estimates we’re underfunded by at least $1 billion a year; MassBudget estimated more like $2 billion, and that was now several years ago. Given the structural inequities in the systems, particularly in our most needy schools–those that were the focus of many of the changes–to laud Lawrence and Springfield in particular around worrying governance changes without speaking of inequitable resources misses a significant portion of the story and a failure of the state to keep its constitutional commitments.

  • Lisa Guisbond

    I strongly agree with the comments by Tracy Novick and Monty Neill about the lack of adequate funding and the overuse and misuse of standardized testing dragging down what could be a world-class public education system. Yes, it’s important to acknowledge the impact of poverty, but we must also recognize and address the fact that many of our schools (yes, those serving our poorest and neediest students) lack enough resources to meet basic educational requirements. Until we do that, our students and families will continue to be denied the schools they deserve.

  • Michael Jonas

    I agree that funding is a huge issue. I didn’t think I could do the issue justice in this piece, which was focusing on where people think the ed reform law went wrong. That led to the two main conclusions: That we need to rethink more deeply how schools are operated and structured, including things like the length of the day and other variables, for kids who are far behind their peers, and we need to reckon more honestly with the out of school factors that also hold kids back, as they’re trying to do in Salem or as the KIPP schools are trying to think deeply about. The funding formula clearly needs to be addressed, especially for the poorest districts. At the same time, the difficulty we have had in breaking the link Paul Reville talks about between race/SES background and achievement seems to transcend spending. 23% of Hispanic 3rd graders in Cambridge, which spends $28,000 per pupil, exceeded or met expectations on the most recent MCAS reading test compared with 25% of Hispanic 3rd graders in Lawrence, which spends just over $15,000, per pupil and 27% of Hispanic 3rd graders in Springfield, which spends about $15,500.

    • Tracy Novick

      Michael, did you compare anything else about the experiences of the children in Lawrence versus those in Cambridge? If you look at the disparities that Paul is talking about, you aren’t going to find the gap in third grade reading; you’re going to find it in much more. The spending Cambridge does vastly enriches the lives of its children far beyond third grade reading. Mercifully, we’re finding our way to a richer way of measuring education than simply that (which also warrants further coverage, incidentally).

      • Michael Jonas

        Tracy, I agree that other things matter — and perhaps Cambridge is doing well by those things. But I still don’t think we can ignore something like third grade reading — given all the research showing what a crucial indicator it is — and the fact that it doesn’t look like Cambridge is doing any better with some challenged populations than Lawrence or Springfield and is, in fact, lagging their performance. I also agree that we need to look for broader, more all-encompassing ways of measuring how kids and schools are doing. I think the comments in the story from KIPP leader Caleb Dolan really hit on that — they are doing a lot of reflection on the fact that high test scores alone are not equipping their students to persist and graduate from college. (I think district systems should take up this challenge, too, and be willing to track and be accountable for the trajectory of their students in post-secondary education.)

        • Patrick B

          I appreciate the author engaging in the debate here. Longer school days are heavily related to the funding problem. If we’re already $2 billion in the hole how do you pay for longer days? Do you not pay teachers extra and have high turnover? Or do we find a way on top of the $2 billion? How do we handle that long days may be good for some grades but developmentally inappropriate for others?

  • Beth Kontos

    How can we admit that ” Funding differed widely and was largely dependent on the wealth of communities.” But then allow the state to continually underfund our school systems?

    Poverty is the problem. The way we fund our schools is the problem. We must do the social justice work in our communities to fight for a living wage, universal health care, affordable housing, free public funded higher education, AND put money into our schools to decrease class size, increase the number of reading teachers, EL teachers, and special education teachers in all schools at all levels…. Even if the city or town cannot afford to pay for it on its own. Horace Mann’s vision was an education system that was fully supported by the Commonwealth for the benefit of the Commonwealth in its entirety.

  • tamarix

    This article relies exclusively on voices that are attempting to prop up the same failed policies and approaches used for the last 25 years. I wondered as I read this article why there was not one progressive voice included to represent the “radical middle.” All the voices represented the failing education reform perspective. They’re just rebranding and trying to push the same policies that continue to provide posh resources and rich, well-rounded educational experiences to rich kids, and the exact opposite to poor kids.

    Testing, measuring, and accounting does not equal education. I worked in a low-income district for 17 years where we focused almost exclusively on raising MCAS scores. We succeeded, but we had countless seniors who passed the MCAS and graduated without understand how to structure anything in writing but an open response or long composition. The district received awards and accolades for improvements made on MCAS. Meanwhile class sizes exploded and whole departments were cut as the state and federal government kept cutting aid and funding for schools in low-income communities. Books were falling apart and libraries were shuttered while everyone talked about increasing literacy through testing and measuring.

    Changing the MCAS test or offering more school choice or offering better receiverships will do nothing to change the inequities.

  • Max Page

    This article is flawed in ways that previous articles on education “reform” in Commonwealth have been flawed:
    –It accepts that test scores are the measure of “good schools” and “bad schools.” This despite the many studies, including the recent one by Paul Reville’s colleague, Daniel Koretz, that shows what a “charade” the testing regime is.
    –It assumes that the only good models for education lie in charter schools, the “best” of which are so because, well, they have higher test scores. (That they consistently manage through various means of skimming to have lower numbers of English Language Learners and students with disabilities is ignored).
    –It lets Mr. Reville claim that “poverty matters” while offering zero concrete proposals to address it, and then ignores the issue for the rest of the piece.
    –It fails to even give a sentence to the many proposals made by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and its allies in the education community to truly advance schools: filling the $2 billion education funding gap; putting a moratorium on high-stakes testing, supporting bilingual education (recently signed into law), guaranteeing recess, guaranteeing debt-free public higher education, not to mention those ballot initiatives put forward by the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, including lifting nearly one million people out of poverty with the $15 minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, and the Fair Share Amendment, which could bring $1 to $2 billion into our public schools and colleges.

    Like a moth to a flame, the author cannot seem to help but drift toward the tried and failed policies of charters, testing, and blaming teachers.

    • Michael Jonas

      Max: I think you overlook some things in the article in an effort to paint it in a particular light. You say I accept the idea of test scores as the measure of school quality when I actually highlight the limits of reliance on test scores as a measure of great schools by pointing out the disappointing college graduation rates of kids who went to KIPP charter schools, which are known for high test scores. At the same time, I do think it’s also folly to ignore test scores and pretend they tell us nothing about schools or about how kids are doing. When I talk about the joint Boston Teachers Union-Boston Public Schools agreement to oversee the Mildred Avenue K-8 School I don’t say this is a charter model, but rather say it’s an example of a school embracing a greater role for teacher voice, something that the head of EdVestors says they’ve seen in all BPS schools that have received their annual “School on the Move” award. Some good charter schools do this, too. As for Reville’s “poverty matters” focus, this is what’s driving his By All Means initiative, which aims to get communities to organize a much more comprehensive set of supports for kids in poverty than what can be done within schools alone. Although this wasn’t included in my article, he believes some of this can be done though better coordination, but some of it will require greater spending if we are serious about this. It’s true that I don’t address school spending issues. That is certainly a big issue, but I didn’t feel I could tackle it within the constraints of this story, which focused on where the ed reform law may have missed the mark. I’m not sure where in the story I drifted, like a moth to a flame, toward a failed policy of “blaming teachers.”

      • Max Page

        Michael: Thanks for your thoughtful response. Three further thoughts. First, test scores. You come to the defense of tests, as if they are endangered. The problem is the enormous expansion of testing, and their centrality to how we view schools. As Daniel Koretz has recently argued (backing up the work of many others, like Monty Neill), the testing regime is a charade. When I grew up in Amherst, we took the California Test of Basic Skills. It took up part of one day. We did not prepare. I don’t remember kids talking about their scores; maybe they were never reported to our parents. Perhaps they provided some useful diagnostic for one part of what we were learning in school. But they did not determine the reputation or fate of the school or the educators. The problem now is how they are the main — perhaps the single — currency by which we talk about “good” and “bad” schools.

        Second point. I am glad that you and Mr. Reville note that poverty matters. In fact, it is the single most important factor in determining how well kids are able to do in school. While I fully believe in wrap-around services in schools as part of the solution, the bigger issue is systematically addressing poverty. Why shouldn’t that be the central focus of this discussion when we look at the relative lack of success over twenty-five years in addressing the gap between the wealthiest and poorest districts in our Commonwealth? Why not put on hold the “innovations” of charters, empowerments, tests and more tests, and instead decide that by far the best “educational reform” would be the $15 minimum wage, paid family and medical leave, and progressive taxes to reinvest in public schools — just as a start. Addressing economic inequality is not an issue “over there,” beyond the interest of school advocates. It should be absolutely central to our work.

        On that last point: given that the article is about a variety of actors in the education debate, why let Paul Reville speak for (meaning, against) teachers unions? I am glad you consulted Jessica Tang. But why not at least discuss what the largest teachers union, the 116,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association has put forward under Barbara Madeloni’s leadership as a research-based program for true education reform: A $15 minimum wage, paid family medical leave, and progressive taxes; funding of the Foundation Budget Commission’s objective evaluation that we need up to $2 billion invested in our public schools; a three-year moratorium on high-stakes testing so we can develop assessment tools that the full range of what we hope our schools will accomplish; bilingual education (recently signed into law); recess for all kids; debt-free public higher education, and more. These are not outlandish. These are based in research and in the experience of our professional educators. And they are backed by a majority of the legislature.

      • deb mccarthy

        I think it is time for Commonwealth Magazine to interview testing guru Daniel Koretz, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. While there is much that I do not see eye-to-eye with in his recent book, ‘The Testing Charade,’ his expertise and investment in a fair and balanced accountability system seems above approach. I welcome all to read and then challenge anyone to attempt to argue against the merits of a moratorium. A continuance of the present system is wreckless and it is time to personally hold accountable BESE for their educational malpractice upon our students in The Commonwealth.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    What else is going on in the Springfield public schools beside the Empowerment Zone where there’s still no documented student success since its inception back in 2014? Springfield’s public schools are among the more than dozen public school districts enrolling more than 2,100 students from Puerto Rico…evacuees from the hurricane. Those students have been in those public schools for more than three months now. What financial assistance has the state given to those school districts with the addition of dozens and even hundreds of unanticipated students enrolling in schools long after their budgets have been set? For the twelve schools districts receiving 50 or more students from Puerto Rico, Governor Baker awarded $60,000 in federal grant money. Those twelve school districts are: Boston, Chicopee, Fall River, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, New Bedford, Southbridge, Springfield and Worcester. So each school district will receive a $5,000 to “use the money to offer a variety of activities, including tutoring, before and after-school programs, and collaborations with mental health providers and community services.” How much did that $5,000 grant work out to on a per pupil basis for Springfield…the school district enrolling 546 students? $9.15 for each new student. There’s a reason public education funding isn’t addressed in this article and that’s because it’s the central issue here in Massachusetts…no matter how you look at it.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    It’s bad enough this article ignored public education funding but the history re-write is unacceptable. What happened 25 years ago was the Supreme Judicial Court ruled the education clause in the Massachusetts Constitution imposes an enforceable duty on the state to provide an education for all its children, rich and poor, in every city and town through the public schools. The Massachusetts officials who “came together” ran out the clock until the Supreme Judicial Court ruling was issued then passed the Education Reform Act of 1993. How much time was on that clock? FIFTEEN YEARS! But wait…there’s more! It then took those same Massachusetts officials seven years to fully fund the mechanism distributing state aid to local public schools. So we’re really talking 22 years before the state did its duty. That’s what really happened. An entire generation of public school students attended underfunded schools while Massachusetts officials were coming together. That’s how education funding works in this state. The need is identified and the state legislature does nothing until a court drops a ruling like a ton of bricks on the State House. That has to change. Public school students across the state are being shortchanged on their education thanks to the state not meeting its financial obligations to local public schools as clearly laid out in the Education Reform Act of 1993 and clearly identified by the Foundation Budget Review Commission in its 2015 report. This article did a disservice to CommonWealth’s readers by not addressing what’s going on with public school funding.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    If CommonWealth would like to tackle public education funding then I’ve come up with 8 areas where Massachusetts is not meeting its financial obligations to local public schools:
    #1 The Foundation Budget…the mechanism distributing state aid to local public schools…is underfunded with reports going back to 2010 confirming that fact.
    #2 The Massachusetts School Building Authority is underfunded leaving at least a couple of dozen public school construction projects to re-apply for funding the next year.
    #3 Charter schools drain funding from public schools exceeding $500,000,000 a year.
    #4 The charter school reimbursement formula is broken and underfunded.
    #5 2,440 students from Puerto Rico enrolled in local public schools over the past three and a half months and all Governor Charlie Baker did was to award a grand total of $60,000 to twelve schools districts working out to $8.47 for each of the 590 students enrolled in Springfield and that’s all the Governor plans on giving those school districts this year.
    #6 The state is not fully funding the special education Circuit Breaker program.
    #7 The state is not fully funding regional transportation costs
    #8 The state is not meeting its obligation to pick up the costs for transporting homeless students.