The Hancock Case: Remedy lies in new goals new strategies

We are really just beginning to understand that schools are indeed our most important social institutions. And only recently have we faced up to the reality that, rather than being the great equalizers that mythmakers proclaim, schools have been reflective of the enormous inequalities in American life. The good news is that for the past two decades or so we have been working very hard—state by state—to extend educational opportunity to children who have heretofore been left out.

In Massachusetts, we are attempting to accomplish this through a far more equitable distribution of state education dollars, as well as through newly established guidelines for what all children need to know at every grade level and as high school graduates. “Standards-based education reform” is an unfortunately bland, bureaucratic description for what is in truth the great progressive undertaking of our time.

Partly because we do not use grand rhetoric to describe this work, we tremendously underestimate the magnitude of the task before us. We have yet to fully comprehend the extraordinary changes in state budgets, school management, and educational practice that will be required. Indeed, if our goal is to educate all students to a reasonable standard, to literally “leave no child behind,” then we are just at the beginning of what will be a long, arduous, intellectually challenging, and, yes, expensive struggle.

Judge Margot Botsford’s lengthy and well-considered report to the Supreme Judicial Court in the Hancock case confirms how large and complex an undertaking we are really pursuing and how much work is still to be done. She fully acknowledges the enormous financial commitments made in the 1993 Education Reform Act and the considerable achievement represented by an over 96 percent pass rate on the MCAS graduation exam. Yet she still finds that the Commonwealth has failed to meet the constitutional standard laid out in the 1993 McDuffy decision—to adequately “educate all its children.”

And how could she have decided otherwise? After even a cursory analysis of student achievement in many of our urban centers, would anyone in good faith seriously argue that children in all the state’s districts and schools are now receiving an “adequate” education, much less a fair opportunity to learn to the rather high if vague standard of the “seven capabilities” laid out in McDuffy? Certainly, no one should.

As we—and the state’s highest court—consider what needs to be done, we should keep in mind that the great achievement of these past 10 years has been that we have finally stopped the process of systematically writing off a great many of our children—poor kids, urban kids, rural kids, kids of color, English language learners, and kids with disabilities. Prior to 1993 and the imposition of state graduation standards, many, if not most, of these kids did not take algebra in high school, to take just one example; at the end of 12th grade they were awarded diplomas more for attendance than for any ascertainable accumulation of knowledge. Now every Massachusetts school must educate all their students to be able to pass the 10th-grade MCAS, and as we have seen in the 2004 results they are doing that in higher numbers than anyone predicted just a few years ago.

In 1993, we set some goals. First, that all school districts should be spending at their “foundation budget” level by 2000, and they are. Second, that all students should be required to pass the math and English portions of the MCAS exam, and over 96 percent of our kids have done so. What are our goals today? And what are we willing to do to reach them?

Although it represents significant progress, having all students pass the 10th-grade MCAS is only the first step toward educational fairness. As Achieve Inc. detailed in its report Do Graduation Tests Measure Up?, the passing score of 220 on the MCAS only means that a student has absorbed eighth-grade material.

Nonetheless, there may well be a problem reaching consensus that it is time to make major new commitments to K-12 education. As Commissioner David Driscoll often notes, there is no sense of urgency on this issue right now.

Today, there is no great public outcry, as schools do not appear to be in crisis. Educators may feel hamstrung by recent cuts, but no community has anything like the 73 kids in a classroom that the town of Wales had back in 1992. And legislators and the public are aware, as Judge Botsford noted, that despite recent cuts, we are still spending more than twice as much today on K-12 education as we did in 1993. And depending on which numbers you prefer, the spending gap between rich and poor communities has either been greatly reduced or eliminated entirely.

No, 2004 is not 1993. It is doubtful there’s the energy in the public sector to go through the kind of tumultuous political battle necessary to produce another major reform bill. So, we who are committed to this enterprise of educational equity should be grateful for the SJC’s ongoing involvement. The Hancock case represents a great opportunity for an honest assessment of the first decade of reform, a look at what worked, what didn’t, what we can do better in the years ahead—a chance to make adjustments, improvements, and additions that will quicken the pace of reform.

In that process, Judge Botsford’s report to the SJC represents an important contribution. In a trial that lasted more than seven months and included 114 witnesses and more than 1,000 exhibits, Judge Botsford got a good taste for the intricacies of education politics. She heard a great deal from those who want large sums of additional money to be sent to local districts to spend as they will, as well as from folks who argue that such expenditures are unlikely to make a bit of difference in the educational achievement of students. In her report, she sorts it all out in a fairly reasonable manner, concluding that some critical new expenditures need to be made, as well as some critical management changes.

In her recommendations to the SJC, Judge Botsford touches on a long list of what “should” or “must” be done. There is a great deal in the judge’s list that can—and should—be debated, in terms of deciding what is worth investing in to improve student outcomes in districts where achievement is lagging, and in the emphasis between additional funds and management reforms. She concludes that “capacity problems are a cause of the inadequate educations being provided to the plaintiffs,” but that “inadequate financial resources are a very important and independent cause.” The order she recommends to the SJC addresses both resources and capacity, calling on the state to determine the “actual cost” of providing an adequate education and of “provid[ing] meaningful improvement in the capacity of these local districts” to deliver it.

But in her detailed listing of “musts” and “shoulds,” the emphasis is on funding for services, not on management reforms. The judge does not require a plan to improve the management and leadership skills of school and district administrators, nor does she direct attention to what it will take to expand state capacity to get failing schools to change. Finally, she does not direct the state toward an investigation into whether administrators currently have the power and flexibility to evaluate, train, and remove professional staff so as to make effective use of available resources. Yet without such tools, additional resources sent directly to local districts might be inefficient or simply wasteful.

For either the SJC or our elected officials to decide what new expenditures or reforms are most urgent, they need much more research into the years since the 1993 Act was passed. Where has the money gone? What has been effective? What has not? And what are the most important missing pieces?

The Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) and the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy at MassINC are currently engaged in a research project in this area, but even while the research is going on, there are some things that are already abundantly clear.

We need to rally around the goal of proficiency.

First, we need to rally educators, parents, and the community as a whole around a new goal. That goal should be proficiency—technically, a score of 240 on the MCAS. Proficiency represents a reasonable standard for high school students, an achievement level more likely to equate with McDuffy‘s seven capabilities. We should consider whether and how to ramp up the passing score to that level, and we should charge the Department of Education and all of our school districts with developing realistic plans for getting our students to proficiency over the next 10 years. (This is already required by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation.)

Second, we need to understand that the responsibility for effective schooling and attainment of proficiency by all of our students will continue to shift from local governments to the state. As McDuffy established and Judge Botsford reiterated, “This duty lies squarely on the executive (magistrates) and legislative branches of the Commonwealth. That local control and fiscal support has been placed in greater or lesser measure through our history on local governments does not dilute the validity of this conclusion. While it is clearly within the power of the Commonwealth to delegate some of the implementation of the duty to local governments, such power does not include a right to abdicate the obligation imposed on magistrates and Legislatures placed on them by the Constitution.”

Schooling will continue to shift to the state.

To a considerable degree, the idea behind the 1993 Act was that if the state sends out significantly more money to school districts on an equalizing basis and establishes curriculum frameworks and a testing system to measure results, then the local districts will figure out what needs to be done to raise student achievement. Judge Botsford’s examination of the four focus districts and the district audits performed by the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability show that this is often not the case. Many districts have not implemented even the most basic elements of standards-based reform, including aligning their curriculum to state standards and using student achievement data to inform personnel reviews and professional development plans.

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The current lack of state capacity to assist districts with essential reform and to intervene with districts that cannot make progress towards raising student achievement appears to be a clear abdication of the Commonwealth’s constitutional duty, and a critical flaw in the implementation of education reform. Figuring out how best to build that capacity is a critical next step if we are to continue to make progress toward our goal.

Finally, the changes that we make in state law and funding, whether expanding early childhood education, extending time on learning through a longer school day, or establishing a more rigorous value-added system of adult accountability, must be made after consideration of how they will contribute to the attainment of our goal. More money may well be needed. Tough reforms in the way we operate our schools may be needed as well.

Former state representative Mark Roosevelt, co-author of the Education Reform Act of 1993, is managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.