Ed reform needs a new plan

New models must accompany any new money

MASSACHUSETTS, WITH ITS innovative industries and history of leadership and reform, should be the laboratory for reimagining public education to ensure equity, opportunity and excellence for all.

But that’s not happening. As proud as we are of gains we have made in student achievement, our education system remains outdated – unable to deliver on the promise that all students graduate with the skills and knowledge their future demands. As a result, socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps persist and students get left on the economic sidelines.

Yet, education reform is dormant. The term itself has become a lightning rod for critics of past initiatives. Last year’s “Grand Bargain” was coopted by minimum wage debates, but for 25 years prior it stood as the moniker for the state’s unprecedented success in unifying stakeholders around a plan to aggressively address deficiencies in our education system.

Unfortunately, politics and public attention have moved from education to other pressing concerns even while the decades-old goals for students have not been achieved. Legislative committees occasionally remove the lid, peer into the pot, and claim that the education reform stew looks okay – maybe a little more meat or spice is needed — but there’s no unified constituency demanding a reevaluation of the recipe.

Although it was knocked off the ballot, the “millionaire tax” proposal promising a windfall of new dollars for education derailed hard and honest conversation about how to improve schools and made any focus on education all about money. Nearly universal calls for dramatic increases in state funding for schools are being put forth as the solution to every problem, although it’s not clear where funds will come from or how money will be spent to ensure it gets to students who need it most and has maximum impact on student learning.

It is time for that conversation and more. The fact that in 2017 less than 30 percent of the state’s black and Latino students were reading on grade level in fourth grade is reason enough to make education a top priority again.

While political enthusiasm for a new grand bargain for education may be lacking at the moment, we must lead our schools into the 21st century so students are prepared for productive citizenship and for careers that will sustain them, their families and our economy. The future of the Commonwealth depends on home grown talent that can fill positions in our knowledge economy and lead our communities. And our citizens must be able to afford the increasingly high cost of living here.

The good news is that we have a road map to act upon. Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education’s unflinching evaluation of our school systems four years ago gave us an aggressive 20-year plan to modernize our schools. Over 200 stakeholders across the state contributed to the report appropriately titled: The New Opportunity to Lead.

The plan is ambitious. It is designed to accelerate progress and avoid the inefficiencies of incrementalism. Its overriding message is the state can’t mandate greatness, it has to be unleashed by conditions that promote it. We have to create the environment in which schools, led by world class educators, can innovate to improve learning for all students, particularly those facing the most challenges.

Progress is being made on some of the recommendations of the report. But we can and must do more. Legislative focus on addressing shortcomings in our school funding system provides a unique opportunity to accelerate progress. New state funding, as well as staffing and scheduling authority, should be put in the hands of highly trained school leaders who can work with teachers to determine what is best for the students in their building. That will include deploying new models of teaching and learning that employ innovative online technologies and leverage skilled teaching. It will also require redoubling efforts to support an excellent teacher in every classroom, every year.  And, we must make evaluation of the effectiveness of our spending part of our decision about how we allocate our resources.

Meet the Author
Our mission is clear: Close persistent achievement gaps, ensure that a diploma means readiness for further study and workforce training, and eliminate the inequities in access to high quality schools.

While new money can help, we cannot rely on it to solve our problems. Let’s show the same courage and ingenuity that we did in the 1990s. Let’s get on with building an education system worthy of Massachusetts, and our children. Now.

Bill Walczak is chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.