Back to schools
This special issue of CommonWealth catalogues all of the unfinished business of the state’s 15-year-old education reform effort: the achievement gap between rich and poor, the high number of failing urban schools, the shaky ladder to college, and the huge demands being placed on teachers. It even adds a few items to the state’s to-do list, such as dealing with the troubling high school dropout rate and the lack of physical exercise in our schools.
Our coverage, spearheaded by executive editor Michael Jonas, not only documents what’s wrong with the state’s educational system but also offers prescriptions for what can be done to improve it.
There is no one answer, but it’s becoming abundantly clear that much bolder steps must be taken if underperforming schools — and students — are going to make the grade in the K-12 system and succeed in college. In “Held Back,” Jonas reports that we increasingly understand what it will take to elevate underperforming schools. Whether we’ll commit the political will and resources to do it is another matter.
Paul Reville, the state’s incoming secretary of education and one of the architects of the state’s 1993 education reform law, is understandably proud of the reform effort’s accomplishments, but he says a lot of work remains if the state is ever going to reach its goal of a near 100 percent graduation rate. His essay suggests that education policy must morph into urban policy, and that what’s going on outside the classroom is as important for many students as what’s going on inside.
“We must, institutionally, do for poor children what middle-class families are able to routinely do for their own,” Reville writes.
Teachers, particularly urban teachers, need much stronger support. Jessie Gerson-Nieder, an English and social studies teacher at Prospect Hill Academy, a charter school in Somerville, says urban teachers are being asked to not just teach a year’s worth of skills, but to elevate students to the educational achievement levels of their peers in wealthy suburbs. It’s a herculean and often thankless task.
“I work more than 65 hours a week, but I cannot imagine being able to buy a house given my salary,” she says.
Demographic forecasts give a sense of urgency to the state’s education debate. Over the next 15 years, analysts say, a declining birth rate and an outmigration of residents will shrink the state’s pool of high school graduates by as much as 15 percent. It’s a brain drain that state officials can do little about, so they have to focus on reducing the leakage from the high school pipeline by cutting the number of dropouts and sending more students on to obtain a college degree. Otherwise, the state’s economy may suffer.
Gov. Deval Patrick has an army of activists working on his Readiness Project, which is developing a blueprint for education action. Expectations are high — maybe too high, given the state’s finances and the troubled national economy.
Reville, despite my prodding, refused to discuss in his essay where funding for the next stage of education reform will come from.
BRUCE MOHL, EDITOR