Implementation will be key to education bill

Success of Student Opportunity Act rests on follow through

LAST MONTH, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a $1.5 billion education bill that will provide a much needed update to the state’s education funding formula, including built-in accountability measures to ensure the money flows to students who need it most. The Student Opportunity Act is the most ambitious endeavor since the landmark education reform of 1993 that made Massachusetts public schools the best in the nation.

I applaud our lawmakers for bringing together teachers, parents, and the business community to help craft comprehensive legislation that not only takes aim at our state’s achievement and opportunity gaps but also requires higher standards around college readiness and new investments in workforce development.

I worked on the historic reforms as a state senator in 1993, and later promoted steps to follow through on its commitments. Working in the education technology sector for the last 15 years provides me with a new lens through which to look back on those initiatives, and convinces me that success or failure was often contingent upon a single factor: Implementation. Or, more important, that the fidelity of implementation is essential to achieving desired outcomes for students. Whether you’re implementing a new technology solution or a broader set of reforms, fidelity means strictly adhering to a set of standards and bringing your plan to fruition consistent with research-proven practices and with an eye toward data-driven decision making. To paraphrase an old adage: A mediocre policy implemented well is better than an outstanding policy implemented poorly.

I am convinced that the 1993 reforms had a lasting, positive impact on student achievement largely because of the work the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and teachers out in the field devoted to the implementation stage. They worked in concert to extract the data from assessments and to put their findings into action in the classroom. One thing I’ve learned during my tenure in the innovation sector is that you can’t leverage the best possible learning tools without being attentive to the needs of parents, students, and teachers.

We still have a long way to go in closing our racial and socioeconomic achievement and opportunity gaps and to bringing more college and career-connected learning to our public schools. The Student Opportunity Act presents a fresh chance to get it right, coupling new investments with policy updates designed to monitor and measure progress and support effective approaches to increasing access to high quality education, regardless of zip code.

By focusing on innovation and implementation, these reforms will work to maximize the impact of new funding in improving outcomes for all students, especially the ones who need it most. For instance, the bill addresses the needs of districts educating high concentrations of low-income students by providing additional funding based on the share of low-income students in each district. Districts educating the largest percentage of low-income students will receive an additional increment equal to 100 percent of the base foundation. This is just one of the many sections of the bill where fidelity of implementation will be key, as data collection and reporting, specifically around use of funding, will require utmost accuracy.

The bill also will create a Data Advisory Commission to help improve the use of data at the state, district, and school levels to inform strategies that strengthen teaching, learning, and resource allocation to ensure greater financial transparency, including tracking funding for low-income students and English learners. The implementation of new reforms or curriculum can be challenging for teachers and administrators in any educational system, but remaining true to policy (and the data) will provide a foundation on which real, meaningful change can occur. As always, the critical work will happen in the classrooms, hopefully with the continued support of technology partners, the business community, administrators and parents.

Meet the Author
A generation after the landmark education reform bill of the 1990s, the Legislature and governor came up with important next steps to improve schools in Massachusetts. Now, it is up to the rest of us in the village to do our part in getting the implementation right – because it really does take a village to educate a child.

Jane Swift is the president and executive director of LearnLaunch in Boston. She also served for 15 years in state government, holding the offices of governor, lieutenant governor and state senator.