Baker education legacy: continuity and change

Healey administration should build on bipartisan progress that has been state's hallmark

EDUCATION REFORM AND improvement is a journey, not a destination. And the timeline for meaningful impact tends to be generational, certainly not contained within a single gubernatorial administration – even one that lasts two terms. Nonetheless, the work of the Baker-Polito administration over the past eight years has generated significant progress that has the potential for lasting benefits – even in the aftermath of COVID and notwithstanding a few setbacks and some unfinished business.

From the beginning in 2015, the Baker-Polito administration pursued an education strategy that was a combination of both continuity and change.

We reinforced and updated the foundations of the bipartisan Education Reform Act of 1993, focusing on rigorous academic standards articulated through “curriculum frameworks,” aligned assessments to measure student learning, and a data-driven system for evaluating school and district performance. By 2021, updated frameworks had been promulgated in all the core academic subjects and a new framework had been issued for digital literacy and computer science. Among the many improvements was the introduction of a full-year 8th grade course in civics and a more inclusive treatment of US and world history.

Then-Gov. Charlie Baker, far left, and Education Secretary James Peyser, right, at Minuteman High School in Lexington to announce more than $32 million in grants to modernize equipment and expand programs at career technical programs in the state. (Photo by Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office]

Eight years ago, Massachusetts was in the middle of piloting a new student assessment, called PARCC, a multi-state initiative to upgrade test quality and create more comparability across state lines. After a rigorous evaluation, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education decided to maintain local control over our own tests to ensure consistent quality and fidelity with our curriculum frameworks, while investing in the development of a “next generation” MCAS.

In addition, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education undertook a redesign of our school and district accountability system to include new indicators of performance, such as chronic absenteeism, progress towards English proficiency for English Learners, and the percent of juniors and seniors completing advanced coursework. The new system also established individualized improvement targets for schools and districts, with a particular focus on raising the MCAS performance of students in the lowest quartile of achievement.

Notwithstanding the Commonwealth’s status as the top performing state in education, we still have long-standing problems and challenges that cannot be solved by standards, assessments, and accountability, however necessary they might be to enabling progress. Gov. Baker’s mantra throughout his administration was “do more of what works,” and this was the touchstone for our efforts to more directly improve student learning where it counts: in schools and classrooms. Four initiatives stand out:

· Adopting regulations requiring universal semi-annual literacy screening for all children in grades K-3, in order to identify in real time, for both educators and parents, those students who are falling behind or who may require further evaluation for a learning disability, like dyslexia.

· Expanding access to project-based applied-learning curriculum in STEM fields, through grants for evidence-based programs like “Engineering the Future” from the Museum of Science and Project Lead the Way, with new investments to increase paid STEM internships for high school students.

· Investing over $200 million to upgrade equipment and spaces in high-demand fields in career-technical programs at high schools, community colleges, and non-profit organizations. These investments have not only ensured that students can train on the latest, industry-standard equipment, they have also facilitated significant growth in vocational-technical enrollment, including evening certification programs for working adults.

· Establishing early college and early career pathways in more than 100 high schools, focused on low-income communities and under-represented students, including no-cost post-secondary and work-based learning experiences, complemented by robust college and career planning.

Of course, moving the needle in terms of long-term outcomes requires a wider lens than just K-12. In response to COVID and the influx of federal money, the Department of Early Education and Care launched a new operational grant program to help stabilize the entire childcare system and encourage the reopening of classrooms, with additional resources for benefits and compensation to attract and retain staff.

In higher education, the administration, in partnership with the Legislature, dramatically increased state-funded financial aid. The driver of these increases was the roll-out of MassGrant Plus, a last-dollar need-based scholarship for all public college undergraduates eligible for federal Pell Grants, thereby eliminating the need for millions of dollars in debt for thousands of low-income students.

Along with the successes, there were disappointments, too. The biggest was certainly the defeat of Question 2 in 2016, which would have created more quality charter school options in lower performing, mostly urban districts. Another missed opportunity was the chance to strengthen the tools available to the state to more effectively support or, if necessary, intervene in chronically underperforming schools and districts, including authorization to establish autonomous zones and self-managed schools within school districts, patterned after the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership.

Although the programs and policies of the Baker-Polito administration are having significant impact, more needs to be done. The Healey-Driscoll administration should expand and extend these efforts, in order to deepen their success and bring them to larger scale and sustainability. At the same time, there are other promising initiatives that could use more attention and resources. In particular, the new administration should consider the following:

· In early education, make permanent the funding to all licensed childcare providers for core operating expenses, in order to strengthen the capacity and sustainability of the overall system as a critical support to the state’s employers and workers. New investments in innovation, especially in so-called “family childcare” and employer-supported programs, should also be pursued to reflect the changing needs of businesses and working parents.

· Increase investments in diversifying the K-12 teacher corps and strengthening the school leadership pipeline, while adding a new high school enrollment category to the foundation budget formula to provide districts with reliable operating resources from the Commonwealth for early college and early career pathways, similar to the way the state now supports vocational-technical programs.

· And in higher education, build on the recommendations that are being developed by the Board of Higher Education to further increase student financial aid and restructure appropriations to public colleges, to ensure that increased funding leads to greater equity, transparency, and affordability, while better aligning system resources around strategic priorities and improved student outcomes.

Meet the Author
As our schools and students emerge from the pandemic, it’s critical that we not lose momentum in the long-term, bipartisan effort to strengthen our public education system and close persistent disparities in achievement, even as we redouble our sense of urgency in the near term to accelerate learning and get students back on track for success.

James Peyser was Massachusetts secretary of education from 2015 through 2022.