Preserve ‘Grand Bargain’ in education 

Legislation, Democratic Party platform plank against testing are steps backward

IN 1993, THE Democratic-led Legislature, together with a Republican governor, entered into a “Grand Bargain” in education policy: The state would substantially increase education funding in exchange for schools using high standards and implementing a strong accountability system to measure progress against those standards. The Patrick administration and the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature renewed and strengthened that bargain in 2010 by providing for state intervention in the Commonwealth’s most troubled schools. 

From 2010 to 2012, I sat on the Southeast Regional Student Advisory Council (SERSAC), one of five regional bodies of student delegates created to advise the statewide Student Advisory Council and the student representative on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. My time on SERSAC coincided with the 2010 education reform law’s implementation. Elected by the student body at my high school, I participated in debates around standardized testing, charter school policy, dropout rate reduction, and the 2011 placement of the Lawrence public schools into state receivership. 

Educated in an excellent suburban school district, I was initially unfamiliar with the difficulties that so many of my fellow student representatives faced. Our discussions on dropout rates, academic success, and wraparound services opened my eyes to the vast disparities that exist among public schools, with socioeconomic factors correlating with much of the difference. I already believed that education should open opportunities to all students—and I learned that the Commonwealth has a constitutional obligation to provide all students with an adequate public education.

I also learned why objective measurements of academic performance are critical tools used to protect students’ constitutional rights. Those measurements—whether test scores, graduation rates, or per pupil spending amounts—provide crucial information, without which our conversations about improving educational outcomes would have had no factual grounding. I didn’t enjoy taking MCAS tests as a high school student, but the test’s importance became clear in the context of the Grand Bargain: We need these scores to objectively assess education policies, so we can, as needed, modify or expand those policies and direct funding to the programs that work best, especially for the students who most need assistance. That overarching philosophy provided a progressive framework in which annual testing makes sense. 

The Grand Bargain has borne impressive fruit. In Lawrence, for example, the state’s turnaround efforts have driven graduation rates up from 47 percent in 2010 to 71 percent in 2016. Statewide, the dropout rate has fallen by almost 50 percent since 1993. Proficiency in mathematics and English language arts, as measured by MCAS, has risen substantially across subgroups. Massachusetts remains the top-scoring state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and has seen its scores improve since 1998/2000. While more work remains to close persistent achievement gaps, these are powerful successes. 

Massachusetts Democrats should be proud of this progress—and its underlying policy model. Democrats cannot afford to abandon objective measures of student learning and equity—and thereby renege on the Grand Bargain that has driven our success since 1993. Yet this year’s Massachusetts Democratic Party platform calls for “ending the state’s punitive use of high-stakes testing.” What’s more, the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education heard testimony this week on a bill cosponsored by Democratic lawmakers that would impose a three-year moratorium on the use of high-stakes test as a high school graduation requirement or in teacher evaluations. That would be a big step backwards.

At this year’s Democratic State Convention (which I attended both as a delegate and as a Democrats for Education Reform representative), the delegates approved the new party platform. I made the case to my fellow delegates that the Commonwealth’s accountability system is undergirded by a fundamentally progressive philosophy: All students should attend a school that meets their needs, and both ample funding and strong school quality safeguards are necessary to fulfill this vision. I explained that the Obama administration championed this model of education policy, tying increased funding through Race to the Top grants to the adoption of high standards and accountability systems. And I pointed to the progressive results of Massachusetts’s accountability program, like Lawrence’s soaring graduation rates. 

As a party, we should remember that objective measures like MCAS scores have served as vital tools to advance school improvement and educational equity. We should also keep in mind the Grand Bargain by which substantial increases in funding are tied to meaningful accountability—a model we should be wary of spurning as we seek to pass the Fair Share Amendment. 

The Grand Bargain works in Massachusetts. It is a proven model that brings needed money into public schools in a way that maximizes equitable outcomes. Massachusetts schools need the Fair Share Amendment to counter the rising costs of health care and special education. The Commonwealth could also use the money to expand high quality pre-kindergarten, extend learning time, or improve educators’ professional development. 

As we advocate for increased revenue, we should also ensure that government keeps up its end of the bargain—both with students and with taxpayers. Common assessments, objective measurements, and state intervention in struggling schools all play a role in the progressive framework by which Massachusetts has driven its education successes. Abandoning that framework would be a mistake—both for the Democratic Party and for the children of Massachusetts. 

Meet the Author

John Griffin

Guest Contributor, Democrats for Education Reform
John Griffin is a policy associate at Democrats for Education Reform – Massachusetts.