Achievement gap holds Mass. back, says former US education secretary

Achievement gap holds Mass. back, says former US education secretary

King says he’s a living example of the transformative potential of schools

MASSACHUSETTS HAS MADE huge strides in educational achievement, but needs to redouble efforts to close the achievement gap. That was the message delivered on Thursday morning by former US education secretary John King to an education gathering in Boston.

“There is much to celebrate,” King said, as the state prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Education Reform Act. But “the success has not been there for the kids who are most vulnerable.” A similar theme was the focus of this feature story in CommonWealth’s new winter issue.

King spoke at forum sponsored by the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy where the organization released its fifth annual report card on the state of education in Massachusetts.

King said the state’s overall high student achievement can “mask” the enormous divide between different students. While Massachusetts ranks second in 8th grade reading when all students are included, Latino students here rank second from the bottom among all states, King said.

He said there must be a focus on both in-school and out-of-school factors that hold kids back, decrying the “false dichotomy” that insists it’s either one factor or the other that is responsible. King, who co-founded the Roxbury Prep Charter School in Boston nearly 20 years ago before going on to serve as New York state education commissioner and US education secretary in the Obama administration, also rejected the idea that poverty and challenges students face at home create insurmountable barriers to student achievement.

“I stand here as an example that that notion is false,” said King, who now directs the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit focused on advocacy for minority and low-income students.

He went on to describe his childhood in Brooklyn as the son of two teachers, a sturdy seeming family profile that was upended by tragedy that would claim both his parents’ lives before King hit his teens. King’s mother died of a heart attack when he was 8. His father soon began exhibiting symptoms of undiagnosed Alzheimer’s disease, which he would die from when King was just 12.

King said he was forced to figure out how to make his own food, do laundry, and take care of the house while still a child. “Home was a place that was scary and unpredictable,” he said, recounting his father, in the throes of his illness, waking him at 2 a.m. and insisting it was time for him to go to school.

After his father died, King was shuttled between various relatives. The one stable constant in his life, he said, was great New York City schools and teachers, who created a “safe and supportive environment.” He recalled a sixth grade teacher who had him reading the New York Times and performing in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

“He made learning fun and interesting and opened up this whole world outside Carnarsie, Brooklyn,” said King. “That saved my life.”

“Fundamentally, I think our problem is one of belief,” King said of those doubting the ability of schools to make that kind of difference. He pointed to big gains seen in the Lawrence schools under state receivership, high-achieving charter schools, and district schools that have shown strong improvements with challenged student populations as “examples of what is possible.”

He said students also need “wraparound” services that ensure access to health care, adequate nutrition, and other factors crucial to learning. He applauded recent congressional reauthorization of the CHIP program that funds childhood health care coverage. “But, God, why did it take months of uncertainty,” said King.

The Rennie Center report spotlighted three promising examples of education innovation across the spectrum from early education to higher education. They included a project to expand early education access and quality in Springfield, the Henderson K-12 Inclusion School in Dorchester, Boston’s only fully inclusive K-12 school, and the 100 Males to College program, which aims to help at-risk students, including low-income and minority males, complete high school and college.

The report emphasized the need for rigorous, evidence-based approaches to identifying and tackling challenges in education. It also touched on the reform fatigue in the education world that has led to pushback against new directives and emphasized the need to focus on effectively scaling existing proven practices.

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.

“Given the persistent challenges facing our schools and a sense of reform overload, we think now is good moment to reflect more broadly on the pace and progress of school improvement in our state,” the report said.

It said a big problem today is not the lack of strategies to promote educational improvement but the fact that “more often than not, innovative and successful ideas fail to spread.”