School committees support stronger, lasting reform

Five steps to guide any “Education 2.0” initiative

SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEMBERS from across the Commonwealth are a varied but pragmatic bunch. During this budget season they are focused on balancing budgets and working with school administrators to reallocate existing funding in order to best meet the needs of their community’s children. Responding to the tremendous complexities of federal and state educational policies turns this already difficult job of managing local school districts into a game of whack-a-mole or “which unfunded mandated do we try to respond to this year?”

Patrick Murphy, Barnstable School Committee, president, Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

Patrick Murphy

So, it is with great interest that we are seeing several major education policy initiatives percolating in the Massachusetts Legislature. Senate President Stan Rosenberg has mentioned that it may even be time for major legislation in the form of an Education 2.0 initiative.

From the perspective of Massachusetts’ elected school committee leaders, who are charged with continuing to provide oversight of the best public schools in the nation, we would appreciate if the executive and legislative branch of our state government would incorporate our Education 2.0 vision into their agenda. Our focus is simple and direct: What can we do now that will absolutely improve educational outcomes for children over the next 20 years?

We have shared our answer in five straightforward action steps.

1. Do no harm

The decades of unintended consequences due to even the most well-intentioned unfunded or partially funded legislated mandates are now truly burdensome to local school districts. The governor did attempt to address some issues with the municipal modernization bill. The irony for school committee members was asking the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to figure out if any of its own regulatory behavior or other state agencies’ interactions with school districts was unneeded or burdensome. If the governor is serious about an effort to reduce burdens on school districts he should appoint members of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, and Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials to make objective recommendations.

2. Funding matters

The reality is the state budget remains under a structural operating deficit despite a state economy that benefits from a very low unemployment rate, high real estate prices, and historic stock market gains. This suggests the broad mix of revenue generating measures (yes, taxes!) needs to be modernized and updated immediately. Addressing this revenue problem while implementing the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission can not be delayed any longer. The gap between our state’s poorest and wealthiest districts is unconscionable. Many of the state’s most rural communities as well as some of our urban gateway cities are caught in a downward funding spiral that demoralizes teaching staff and our school communities. The state needs to step up and recognize that our most challenged school districts require significantly more funding.

3. Great teachers make all the difference

When comparing Massachusetts’s system of public education to those of other leading nations the most glaring difference is in how we educate and professionally develop our teachers. Over the next 20 years, the only way the Commonwealth is going to maintain a world class public education system is to ensure we develop our own pipeline of world class teachers. This needs to be the top priority in any vision for Education 2.0. We need to push hard on the schools of education to update their curriculum, confirm their faculty are proactive practitioners, and only graduate students with world class teaching skill sets.

Increasingly, this means we need classroom teachers who have the capacity to differentiate their teaching style to meet a wider range of student challenges. Creating a competitive grand bargain to cover the undergraduate or graduate school costs of a highly select group of 2,000 new teachers each year to meet the pent up demand for top notch educators across the state would impact our school districts in a dramatic, long term way.

4. Fix what is broken

The voters overwhelming rejection of the charter school ballot initiative should have humbled and muted any of those in state office who believe that simply uttering the words “choice” allows one to avoid actually doing the hard work to build a thoughtful vision for the future of education policy across the Commonwealth.

Gov. Baker, who prides himself on fixing what is broken, has been poorly served by the folks who run his education policy efforts with their dreamy reliance on charter schools as the educational policy equivalent of a unicorn. The voters recognized the state’s current charter school legislation is fundamentally broken. The state’s charter school legislation and funding formula need to be fixed and existing charter schools need to start serving the most challenged students before any additional charter school seats are ever granted in Massachusetts. The people have spoken on this front.

5. Commit to Equity

 In a recent farewell column, outgoing US education secretary John King observed, “education is a ladder. Rung by rung, it helps people reach places that would otherwise be impossible to climb.” In Massachusetts, despite, our “first in the nation” status on many national and international achievement tests, we continue to grapple with substantial gaps in student outcomes— gaps that are often rooted in the stubborn barriers of poverty, race, disability, and language.

We need to take that difficult step, pull away from the table, and enact deliberate, thoughtful comprehensive legislation. We know what needs to be done: we need all our young students ready to learn; we need effective teachers in the classroom who can deliver challenging curriculum to a diverse student population; we need to collaborate with our community and statewide agencies for resources and programs that provide a safety net of services, and we need to guarantee equitable funding to ensure and sustain these efforts. We need legislative commitment, vision, and leadership to begin the process.

No one says it’s going to be easy or without controversy or struggle. But everyone knows it’s the only guarantee of success for all of our students—and our future as a state. The reality is that school committee members know that Massachusetts public schools range from good to world class. The handful of schools that are really struggling would benefit from a combination of experienced educational leadership, fewer regulatory mandates, and more funding.

Meet the Author

Patrick Murphy

President, Massachusetts Association of School Committees
Every year the state’s standardized testing system simply demonstrates what is already known. Our schools that serve lots of children with challenges and are poorly funded do not perform as well as other schools. We spend too much money on testing to allow this to be the same answer over the next 20 years.  The Massachusetts Association of School Committees welcomes our state’s executive and legislative leaders to build a new vision for Education 2.0.

Patrick Murphy is a member of the Barnstable School Committee and president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.

  • Amy Sherwood

    A very thoughtful piece. We need to think bigger in MA if we are really going to grapple with what education is faced with — mounting compliance obligations and shrinking funding.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Clearly, the author’s effort is to promote an informed discussion on public education but in doing so, the funding issue gets somewhat lost. The Foundation Budget…the mechanism distributing state aid to local public schools… is underfunded. No less than two reports found a massive shortfall in funding in the Foundation Budget. In 2010 the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education released a report, “School Funding Reality: A Bargain Not Kept How is the Foundation Budget Working?” finding “Over the 17 years since the Education Reform Act passed, there has been virtually no equalization in spending or state aid between rich districts and poor.” Then in 2015, the “Foundation Budget Review Commission Final Report” was released finding the Foundation Budget is underfunded by more than one billion dollars in areas including English language learning, low income, and special education students as well as health insurance costs. What’s been done to fix this well-known state failure to fully fund public education? NOTHING! Absolutely nothing.

  • Linda

    Mr Murphy mentions the standardized tests and the Charter School subject, but no mention of Common Core? No mention that we are spending 6 million dollars on the new, untested, MCAS 2.0 which is really going to be 70-90% PARCC, so it should be called PARCC 2.0?!

    • Mhmjjj2012

      According to a DESE press release “Massachusetts Signs Contract with Measured Progress for Next-Generation MCAS” dated August 16, 2016, “The total five-year contract cost is $150.8 million, which will be covered using both state and federal funds. The annual contract costs of the Next-Generation MCAS tests are consistent with prior state assessments at about $30 million.”

      • Linda

        Wouldn’t the cost to improve the existing MCAS be cheaper than creating the brand new one, and even if it is the same amount of money and no matter how much money the Feds give us, what will the quality be? And yes, PARCC was heavily funded by the Feds, as RTTT bribe money was dangled as a carrot for states to adopt Common Core and its test, PARCC. I’m not sure if the exact numbers, but about 25 states signed onto PARCC, but only about 7 remain, I guess you could call that a failure?

        My children will be opting out of this experiment that seems to be pushed on us by beaucrats and publishing companies!

        Mhmjjj2012, you spoke about funding, have you read any of the federal study that was released right before Obama left office that basically says all of the federal money dumped into the schools since, I believe Bush, through Obama has had essentially no affect on student achievement? I believe Common Core has been a big waste of recourses and has only benefited companies like Pearson.

        • Linda
          • Mhmjjj2012

            Thanks. I read about that report but not the report itself. I’ll put it on my reading list.

          • Linda

            It’s a long one, I look forward to your comment!

          • Mhmjjj2012

            I know. I took a brief look at it. It’s basically an autopsy on failed policies. I did a quick “find” for how many times “early education,” “pre-school” and “pre-kindergarten” were mentioned. Not once. “Bandwidth” showed up 193 times. So it will be at the bottom of my reading list.

        • Mhmjjj2012

          I’m coming at the testing from a different angle though. Did you know Boston Latin School…among the top public schools in the country…does not offer an 8th grade science class but its 8th grade students are required to take the MCAS science test? The results are predictable: 68% of BLS 8th grade students ended up in the “Needs Improvement” or the “Warning/Failing” categories. How many other Massachusetts public schools don’t offer 8th grade science but administer the MCAS 8th grade science test to their students? Where’s the logic in that? Testing a subject that’s not taught to students? How much does that cost taxpayers?

          • Linda

            I did not know that, and yes it’s quite a waste of money and time, not to mention the stress put on those kids and teachers!

            I believe standardized tests are not helping education. The results of the tests usually go right along with the income of the parent and or the median income of the schools. Out of our level 4 and 5 level schools, all but two are in the lowest 20 median income of MA.

            I believe we have to stop treating education and our kids like a product that comes off an assembly line, and more like the complicated, inquisitive and creative human beings that they are or should be. My two cents.

          • Mhmjjj2012

            I never gave a thought to the stress those kids must have been under…taking a test on a subject they never took in school…then knowing they failed! I remember my son’s stomach would be in knots on test days. He wouldn’t want to go to school. On some tests he would do all right but others he would not come close to doing all right. He could handle quizzes because they were quick, maybe ten questions/two minutes. But tests were something else. His teachers knew he was intelligent, did his homework and knew his stuff but many times instead of an A he’d get B or even a C+. By the time he got to college my son could easily handle tests. There has to be a better way to assess how well students are learning.

  • Marcus Quintilain

    Why does Massachusetts promote third-graders who are unable to read? According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, at risk fourth-graders in Florida outperform their Massachusetts counterparts in reading. Florida, now the national leader, was the first of twenty-two states to make it essentially illegal to put a student into a fourth-grade classroom unless that student has demonstrated minimal reading proficiency. We spent a great deal to identify children who cannot read only to exacerbate the problem by sweeping it under the rug and claiming to give them extra help. Overall, Massachusetts does very well, but it could conceivably do even better without social promotion of third graders.

    • Mhmjjj2012

      Research shows students held back are more likely to drop out in high school. The effort should be on providing sufficient supports so students succeed…period. Florida’s law has “good cause” exemptions…so it may be “essentially illegal” to put a student into a fourth-grade classroom unless that student demonstrates minimal reading proficiency but it certainly isn’t impossible.