As Mass. celebrates 25th anniversary of 1993 reform law, we're squandering our gains
AS MASSACHUSETTS MARKS the 25th anniversary of a landmark Education Reform Act that propelled us to the head of the national class in public education, the Commonwealth’s latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are mildly encouraging. But they alone cannot erase what has been nearly a decade of troubling news on the K-12 front.
If you had told me on the stifling day when Gov. Weld signed the Education Reform Act into law at the un-air conditioned Holmes School in Malden that more than 90 percent of our students would pass MCAS; that we would have 13 consecutive years of rising SAT scores; or that our students would rank first in the nation in every category and in every grade tested on NAEP between 2005 and 2013, then again in 2017; and that they would place at or near the top on gold-standard international math and science tests, I would have thought you were unrealistically optimistic.
Before 1993, some Massachusetts school districts were spending more than $10,000 per child per annum and others we were spending $3,000 – a system of blatantly unequal opportunity.
The academic quality of education was materially different in virtually every school district across the Commonwealth. Partly as a result of those disparities in spending, the state did precious little to insist on uniform standards. Pre-1993 there were but two state-imposed requirements to get a high school diploma: one year of American history and four years of gym.
But the Education Reform Act strove to change the state funding mechanism and the academic expectations for all our students. We imposed an academic subject matter test for prospective teachers, removed school committees from the hiring process with the exception of the hiring of the superintendent, and enacted one of the nation’s most progressive K-12 funding formulas. The law also created charter public schools, which have become the best public schools in America at closing achievement gaps.
The Education Reform Act can essentially be reduced to two core principles: We make a massive infusion of state dollars into our public schools and in return we expect high standards and accountability from all education stakeholders. Because our faithfulness to adequate funding and academic standards explains so much about our educational success, I can’t understand why the Commonwealth seems to be veering away from those two core principles.
With respect to funding, when adjusted for inflation, our current education appropriation is about the same as it was in 2002. The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center has concluded that almost all low-income school districts now lack the resources needed to provide the caliber of education envisioned in the foundation budget.
Indeed, the Boston Globe recently reported that Brockton spends $14,000 per student, while Weston spends $24,000. Brockton class size averages in the 30s whereas in Weston the student-to-teacher ratio is 12 to 1. Brockton and Weston are representative of the differing educational conditions in poor school districts and wealthier ones. While Brockton, Fall River, New Bedford, and Lynn all spend under $15,000 per student, Weston, Lincoln-Sudbury, Concord-Carlisle, and Dover-Sherborn spend more than $20,000.
In terms of academic rigor and accountability, we have jettisoned our standards and MCAS for tests known as PARCC that are aligned with inferior Common Core standards. Massachusetts now settles for having similar standards and tests to Arkansas or Louisiana, whose students could not possibly meet Massachusetts’ performance levels.
I fear the implementation of Common Core and PARCC/MCAS 2.0 has contributed to Massachusetts being a negative-to-flat growth state on NAEP reading and math since 2011.
After 25 years, I think there’s a great deal to be proud of about education reform. But unless we return to the core principles that have been responsible for so much of our success, I’m afraid we could squander our hard-won gains.
Tom Birmingham, a former president of the state Senate, is the Distinguished Senior Fellow in Education at Pioneer Institute and co-author of the landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.