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We have reason to be proud, but Massachusetts has still not achieved the school reform we need

The commonwealth of Massachusetts is frequently, and with solid justification, considered to be the poster child of successful, systemic, standards-based school reform, but the ultimate goal of the 1993 Education Reform Act, proficiency for all, has not been met.

Our students top the nation on several indicators of educational achievement. Massachusetts fourth- and eighth-graders ranked first or tied for first on all four examinations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and have held this unique position since 2005. Massachusetts students are the first to lead the nation in both reading and mathematics at both the fourth- and eighth-grade levels.

Student performance on our state assessment, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), has also risen dramatically since the test’s introduction in 1998. More than half of all 10th-graders score within the “proficient” or “advanced” categories in both of its subjects, English Language Arts (ELA) and mathematics. In addition, MCAS passing rates have considerably improved. Between 1998 and 2004, the failure rate of 10th-graders taking the test dropped 30 percentage points in math (from 45 percent to 15 percent) and 23 percentage points in ELA (from 34 percent to 11 percent).

While students are given several chances to pass the examination and earn their Competency Determination between 10th and 12th grades and beyond, the vast majority of students in the classes of 2007 and 2008 passed both the math and ELA examinations on the first try. The passing rates for the first administration of the examinations were 82 percent for the class of 2007 and 84 percent for the class of 2008, up from 68 percent in 2001 and 48 percent in 2000. Massachusetts’s academic standards have also been heralded as a model.

Finally, the Commonwealth also has one of the best records of performance on the SAT, despite slight declines over the past two years that are consistent with many other states’ dips in performance. Fourteen straight years of improvement along with steady increases in participation rates, especially among racial and ethnic minority subgroups, are another indicator that we’re on the right track.

We have much of which to be proud, yet the celebration, while deserved and necessary, should be short-lived. Policymakers and practitioners clearly recognize that Massachusetts has not fully achieved what school reform set out to achieve — an equitable and excellent system of education for all, one that provides every child with an opportunity to achieve a high level of performance and become prepared for a lifetime of learning.

Beneath all the glowing testimony to its success, Massachusetts, like literally every other state, still yields disturbing evidence of persistent achievement gaps that must be closed if the overriding promise of education reform — excellence and equity for all — is to be realized. For example, while 84 percent of the class of 2008 passed the MCAS examinations in mathematics and ELA on the first try, only 61 percent of Hispanic students and 68 percent of African-American students earned this distinction. In addition, while the statewide graduation rate for the class of 2006 cohort is 80 percent, this falls to 62 percent in urban areas.

It is still the case that in Massachusetts, as in virtually the entire country, educational attainment correlates closely with socioeconomic status. Education reform was supposed to make socioeconomic status irrelevant as a factor in educational achievement, but that has not happened anywhere, yet. Maybe the ideal was painfully naive, but I believe we can do much better, even with the limited tools and resources at our disposal.

Before charting the course ahead, we need to look back at what we’ve done well and what we’ve not done well since passage of the Education Reform Act. First, what have we done well?

The Commonwealth, and especially the Board of Education, set high and nationally exemplary standards for student learning. We created some of the most admired and multifaceted assessments in the country. We not only set high standards, but we created high stakes for performance, and we “hung tough” whenever advocates of lowering standards sought to tear down the equity architecture of setting high standards and making them count.

Although it took too long, we eventually established an accountability system that held adults (administrators, teachers, districts, and schools) as well as children responsible for contributing to educational success. That accountability system began to provide modest doses of support and technical assistance to districts and schools needing assistance in “turning around” lagging performance trends.

Our leaders in the governor’s office, the Legislature, and the private sector have maintained a strong, visible, consistent commitment to the key principles of education reform and have expressed their commitment in the form of substantial increases in education funding, at least in the first eight years of school reform. These leaders provided new financial resources through a highly progressive school finance formula, which supported the achievement of dramatically increased expectations. Finally, the state found ways to work with various partners in the private and nonprofit sectors to develop and sustain reform implementation.

What have we not done so well?

Our biggest error in the conception and early implementation of reform was to systematically underestimate how much the system’s capacity would need to be built up to meet the dramatically increased expectations set by somewhat naive policymakers.

If teachers had known how to educate all students to proficiency, they would have done it without the prod of education reform. The notion of “all students at proficiency” represented a radical departure from the system that expected schools to provide the traditional bell curve distribution of educational attainment — a few students at proficiency, lots in the mediocre middle, and a handful or more (depending on your school system) failing. This kind of distribution of achievement served the industrializing, immigrant-socializing, early 20th century very well. In the early 1900s, it generated a single-digit graduation rate that was acceptable at the time. But in the 21st century, we have very few low-knowledge, low-skill jobs, and we are striving for a 100 percent graduation rate.

School administrators and teachers need much more assistance if they are to educate 100 percent of students to proficiency. We policymakers failed to see how our radically increased expectations had fundamentally changed the job of teaching and required new skills and expertise. We grossly underestimated the need for the equivalent of a Marshall Plan to improve the quality of teaching in Massachusetts schools.

The 1993 act hugely expanded the role and responsibilities of the Department of Education (now called the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), making it the prime driver of education reform, yet there was virtually no capacity building at the department. The current staffing level is roughly half of what it was in the mid-1980s, while the department has arguably tripled its organizational responsibility.

For example, the education department is now called upon to provide diagnostic and technical assistance service to a cascading number of schools and districts declared “underperforming’ by our accountability system, but it is woefully understaffed to accomplish this task. As a result, we have an accountability system that “calls out” underperformance but is incapable of providing assistance to correct this condition.

We also failed to see how much more time would be required to get all students to world-class proficiency and give them a well-rounded education at the same time. As a result, our curriculum has narrowed as we have sought to guarantee each and every child “gateway” skills in English and math. We are trying to cram 21st-century expectations into a late 19th-century school structure and schedule. Not surprisingly, our contemporary expectations don’t fit the old model.

And we didn’t act on the clear implication of standards-based reform that the use of time should be differentiated according to student needs. We should give to each student the quantity and quality of instruction he or she needs to master the skills and knowledge needed to be successful.

Finally, we underestimated the impact of poverty on student achievement and continue to be naive about its impact. We cannot get all students to a high standard if we pretend they all have the same learning needs that can be met in the same way. We must, for example, do a far better job of alleviating problems that impede poor children from coming to school ready and able to learn. We need to give poor children more preschool education, after-school and summer-learning opportunities, and a variety of interventions designed to level the playing field with middle-class children. We must, institutionally, do for poor children what middle-class families are able to routinely do for their own. This means deep and constant support. This means a system that differentiates between children’s needs and responds differentially to address those needs — supplying whatever it takes, in quantity and quality, to get each child to proficiency and, ultimately, success.

As a consequence of these various oversights, coupled with the fact that the foundation budget was built prior to the existence of standards and clear performance targets, we made an educated guess at what it would cost to accomplish the goals of education reform and how much it would take to adequately finance the reforms. State government routinely dodged the obligation, outlined in the 1993 reform act, to review the foundation budget, and, consequently, it appears that what was once considered an adequate “foundation budget” for school reform in the early ’90s is no longer adequate now.

The beauty of the standards, assessments, and accountability system is that it regularly generates data on performance, and that data (while serving many constructive purposes) regularly and sharply force us to come to grips with the yawning gap between our aspirations (proficiency for all) and the reality of our performance (substantial and persistent achievement gaps). Faced with this cold splash of reality, we can either walk away from the aspirations, declaring them naively ambitious, or we can recommit.

Clearly, we, as a Commonwealth, are committed, with renewed urgency, to redoubling our efforts to close the achievement gaps.


We see the challenge ahead as meeting each child where he or she is and providing the support, services, and teaching necessary to take that student all the way up the ladder of achievement so that he or she may enjoy the fruits of success in our 21st-century economy and society.

In particular, we must simultaneously pursue two major strategies: an all-out effort to improve teaching and learning coupled with the building of a robust system of services and supports to guarantee that each child has an unimpeded opportunity to learn.

To improve the quality of teaching, we need to create a genuine teaching profession, thereby drawing the most highly qualified candidates into the field. Once we have these teachers, we need to build their content knowledge and skills and provide high-quality mentoring, professional development, supervision, and evaluation. We need to recognize their outstanding skills, knowledge, and willingness to undertake special assignments, to compensate them fairly, to recognize their achievements, to provide them with career ladders, and to create for them and their colleagues genuine, adult learning communities.

At the same time, we will need a 21st-century curriculum that demands high standards of content mastery as well as an array of skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and the use of modern technology. Many of these skills are difficult to measure with our conventional assessment tools, but we must find new metrics to capture them. Parents and the public want children to receive a well-rounded education replete with the arts, civics, character building, physical education, and the joy of learning for its own sake. Finally, our nation’s economic and political future depends on a citizenry with a global perspective and the capacity to be culturally competent in a variety of situations.

For children with specialized challenges, especially the challenges of poverty, we will need to build systems that replicate the common supports of middle-class life. As mentioned, time must be expanded to match the size of children’s learning deficits. Pre-school from birth onward, after-school programs, and expanded and differentiated school time must all be utilized. Health and human services must be readily available at school sites.

Where we have school underperformance and high concentrations of poverty (a common correlation), we need to guarantee that nurses, counselors, and other support personnel are readily available to help students, their families, and their teachers.

How will we get there?

Gov. Patrick has proposed and secured from the Legislature a new governance structure to expedite an ambitious next chapter of school reform. This new structure is designed to foster interagency collaboration within the education sector in order to produce a seamless PreK-16 education system while at the same time integrating other government services like employment training and health and human services into the world of education.

The governor has commissioned the Readiness Project to do conceptual and design work to map out the steps needed to take us from where we are to where our children need to be. Legislative leaders are participating in this process and, in addition, have ideas and initiatives of their own, as do the several boards of education that govern education subsectors.

The Readiness Project’s report aims to come up with an ambitious vision and also to detail a set of specific action steps that can be taken in the near and long term to realize this vision for 21st-century Massachusetts schools. The report will articulate a strategic plan for an education future that will serve the children and the society far better than our current system. The plan will suggest cost savings as well as some new initiatives that have associated costs. Once the education vision is articulated, we can then begin the process of grappling with how to pay for this education future.

At the outset of the coming press for renewed reform, we will need to recognize several important principles for a transformed system:

Our approaches can no longer be “one size fits all.” We need differentiation and the recognition of individual needs on everything from the use of educational time to support services to the delivery of educational services to the hiring and promotion of educators.

We will need to be creative, to foster innovation, to demand continuous improvement, and to rely on hybrid educational delivery systems.

The new system will require unprecedented collaboration between the pre-school, K-12, and college and university sectors in addition to the participation of our health and human services, employment and training, and other systems of support. We will need a fully integrated, fully aligned, coherent, and seamless system of education.

Meet the Author

We must build a system that recognizes the realities and demands of the 21st century and prepares our children to succeed in this contemporary world. We are asking more than ever of our schools: world-class achievements in core subjects, 21st-century skills, a well-rounded education, and the development of character and civic virtues.

To do all this, to prepare all students for proficiency and success, will not only require a bold re-envisioning of our system but major new investments in bootstrapping this system from the early 20th century into the 21st century. We will need the courage to move beyond the status quo and substantial persistence to realize our audacious dream of making every child a winner.

Paul Reville, chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, is the secretary-designate of education and will assume that office on July 1. He is currently a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and president of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy. He was a key participant in the design, passage, and implementation of the Education Reform Act of 1993.