A Visit With David Driscoll
The first day of September was looking pretty good for Education Commissioner David Driscoll. As he sat that afternoon in the conference room adjoining his office, he could see something more than the usual view from the fifth floor of the state Department of Education headquarters in Malden–he could see education reform in Massachusetts beginning to work. The front page of The Boston Globe that morning had carried the news that SAT scores for Massachusetts students went up to a 10-year high, while the national average had declined. Driscoll was quoted prominently in the story, saying the increases of three points on the math test and three points on the verbal test were significant indicators that public schools are making progress here.
But there was more to it than that. Driscoll was picking up on a willingness of teachers and students to take up the challenge of improving academic standards. That very morning, he recounted in an interview with CommonWealth magazine, he had been speaking with public school teachers in Winthrop. He told them that, as a former teacher, he understood how hard they work. He said he knew what a difficult job it is to teach. But he urged them to focus on the need to raise standards. “I got a standing ovation this morning at the end of my 10-minute talk,” he said.
If there was a slight sense of vindication in Driscoll’s voice that afternoon, one could understand it. The road to education reform in Massachusetts has been littered with doubters–and still is. There are those who are angry about the state’s heavy emphasis on standardized testing. Some deplore the way it affects students; others object to the new policy of testing incoming teachers. Driscoll’s mission these days is to spread the word to all corners of the state that the tests are here to stay. There is no turning back. And the teachers in Winthrop cheered his message.
The case that Driscoll and his supporters had made was that he would be a reassuring choice to the state’s teachers. He was a known commodity, having served as deputy commissioner for five years and as interim commissioner for nine months before the final selection. And he had started his career as a teacher in Somerville and Melrose. Peyser, by contrast, was identified with the conservative views he has promoted as director of the Pioneer Institute, a market- oriented think tank based in Boston. As the Massachusetts Teachers Association had said in a letter to Cellucci in January, the commissioner of education should “have respect for–and be respected by–public school teachers.” Peyser, the MTA implied, would not meet that standard due to his support for public aid to private schools, as well as his push for more charter schools.
Driscoll fits the bill as a commissioner who wants the respect of teachers. He believes his classroom experience is one of the reasons he was chosen by the Board of Education. “When I applied for commissioner, I didn’t expect that I would be the only candidate that had K-12 experience,” he said. “That would have been the furthest thing from my mind. But that’s what it turned out to be. And so, I’m the one.”
And yet at the same time, Driscoll has been quietly carving out a set of public positions that are more independent-minded than one might expect from someone who has spent his career as part of the education establishment. He has borrowed from the Silber agenda in taking tough stances against policies he believes allow too many students in special education programs and in bilingual programs. He has joined Peyser in pushing for more charter schools. And he even came out in favor of a bill proposed earlier this year by former Rep. Harold Lane–bitterly opposed by the teachers’ unions–that would have weakened teachers’ collective bargaining rights.
On issues that directly affect teachers, Driscoll’s language is cautious. His unstated stance seems to be that education reform requires diplomacy, not harsh rhetoric that blames teachers and education schools for the system’s failures. Asked about the resistance to change among teachers, Driscoll gave this assessment: “To some extent, the issues that are raised by the unions have some validity. Too often we see quick answers given, or soundbites given, that are negative and sweeping…. I do understand some of their concerns. Some of them I don’t agree with. I think there are times when people in public education have to understand that the public is demanding change. So I see both sides of it, frankly. And it’s my job to try to get a critical mass of people in the middle who can agree.” No “Silber shockers” there.
As Education Commissioner, Driscoll’s job is to carry out education policy set by the Board of Education and the Legislature. He is in charge of running the 450-person Department of Education. But he is also, more than any other state leader, the one who must be on the frontlines of the state’s campaign to upgrade its public schools–an effort that was revved up with passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993. Now, with the law’s seven-year plan for spending increases almost accomplished, the state is moving into what Driscoll calls “Ed Reform II.”
Driscoll has been traveling extensively, attempting to rally teachers, students, and community leaders to the cause. The message is that with nearly $2 billion in new money having been spent by the state the schools must begin to show that they are improving. “We’re at a point where the tools have been given, the ground has been laid, the plow has been plowed…all of that. That’s where we are. And now the public is looking for results,” he said. “Even with the $2 billion in new monies there are districts that are still spending a lot less per pupil than other districts,” he acknowledged. “But I think we are at that point where we have to produce. It’s almost as if the pre-season is over, the exhibition games are over, and now we’re starting the regular season.”
In November, results are due from the second round of state-administered student tests–the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. In January, the Legislature will begin a new session and will have to decide what kind of financial commitment it will make to “Ed Reform II.” As the state moves closer to “high-stakes testing,” in which high-schoolers will have to pass a 10th-grade test before graduating, some political leaders are already speculating about whether too many students will be harmed by failing to pass the test. In the interview with CommonWealth, Driscoll addressed the widespread concerns about the MCAS test, as well as concerns about how education dollars are being spent around the state. He also said he believes some school districts are failing to remove incompetent teachers and that he favors new methods to do so. But he disagrees with Gov. Cellucci’s oft-stated desire to administer tests to all teachers.
Unlike some states, Massachusetts releases the questions used on the previous round of state tests. Test results will also be available to the public (on the Internet at www.doe.mass. edu/mcas) and parents will be able to see how their children performed. Driscoll cites one example of how the test shows current weakness in students’ mathematical knowledge. A question on the 8th-grade math test asked students to compare 597,000 to 6 million. Is the smaller number 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, or 40 percent of the larger number? Driscoll said 72 percent of the students got it wrong. “If the choices were 8, 9, 10, and 11 percent, I could see it,” he said. “So we’ve got some work to do.”
Though Driscoll has met with students and parents who are talking about boycotting the test, the Commissioner is hearing nothing of it. The assessment program is designed to do two things, he said. It is meant to take students who are getting by and spur them to do better. And it is meant to pull those who are failing up to a passing level.
“I do expect results in the next three years,” he reiterated. “We’ve got to start seeing improvement. We have to. We owe it to the kids. It’s not right for kids to graduate without skills.”
On the matter of testing teachers, Driscoll takes a different stance. “I take an interesting view on that,” he said. “Of course, I oppose the testing of veteran teachers across the board as the governor proposed it in legislation. It certainly didn’t endear me to a lot of people who support the governor at the time I was applying for commissioner. My argument is qualified. I believe the governor’s goal is the correct one. And that is to try to find a way to take the incompetent teachers–which he himself has defined as just a few percent–to find a way to weed out, if you will, that small percentage of incompetent teachers.” But it doesn’t take a blanket approach of testing all teachers, he said. “It’s almost like keeping everybody after school for the sake of a few.”
Testing all teachers is “like keeping everybody after school for the sake of a few.”
Driscoll said he worries about hurting “someone who is in their 50s, they’ve been teaching for 25 years and they haven’t had to take tests…. I’ve had a number of teachers come up to me and say, ‘I really do know my stuff, I’m an excellent teacher, but I’m not sure I’d want to subject myself at this point [to a test]. That wasn’t the rules of the game.'”
And yet he said he often hears about problems schools have in getting rid of bad teachers. He acknowledged that changes made in the teacher tenure law have not resulted in a “weeding out” of bad teachers. In meetings he’s held with the statewide Student Advisory Council, “This issue last year and this year continues to surface as the number-one issue from the kids’ perspective.” He said he hears complaints along the lines of, “‘Look, we know in our school of a teacher who’s not good. And everybody knows that teacher is not good. And we’ve brought it to the school council’s attention, the principal knows it, presumably the School Committee, but somehow that person continues to be able to teach.’ And I hear it from parents a lot.”
“We need a lot more training for our administrators,” Driscoll said. “We need people to take the courageous stand. I think they do so in private industry more than they do in public schools. Most administrators had been teachers, so they tend to be supportive people and don’t like to pull the trigger, they’re not used to making these distasteful decisions.” Driscoll favors an approach that would allow administrators to identify teachers who have “a deficiency in basic literacy or subject matter” and then to give that teacher a test, “the results of which don’t necessarily mean they get fired.” It could mean being transferred into another subject area or being required to attend professional training courses. Driscoll said a new partnership has recently been formed, consisting of the teachers’ unions, the principals’ association, the superintendents association, and the school committee association to work with the Board of Education on a number of issues. He has pressed the group to address the issue of removing bad teachers.
A lingering question about the state’s commitment to schools has to do with how well the new money has been used. When newspapers reported in 1997 that the Lawrence school system had been spending money on ice-skating courses and bagpipes, it conjured visions of schools squandering the extra dollars. Driscoll said that has proved to be a false impression.
“While Lawrence had some peculiar expenditures,” he said, “it really wasn’t a huge amount of money compared to the number of dollars they were spending on teachers and for reinstating programs. By and large, the money has gone to the right places. The issue is, where is the educational leadership? If the priority turns out to be recreational programs–in the case of Lawrence, ice-skating, canoe programs, and this idea that our students in Lawrence deserve the same recreational programs as suburban schools have made–I think we’ve lost our educational focus.” But most of the money, he said, has gone “for the hiring of staff, which is so needed in these areas…. I also would argue that in a number of districts, they really don’t have enough money,” he said.
But what about the high-profile investigations that were announced after the headlines about Lawrence? “When the Lawrence case occurred there was what I like to call dueling SWAT teams. Gov. Weld announced he was going to have these auditors move in, and former Chairman of the Board John Silber said the board should take care of that with their SWAT team.” As it played out, the auditing job was handed to the state Department of Revenue, which has been conducting investigations, overseen by an Educational Management Accountability Board. Driscoll said the DOR has filed reports on about 20 districts so far. Out of this process, he said, the state is developing a new school and district accountability system, in which every school district will be examined every five years. The inspection process will look not only at finances but at what the schools are doing to improve educational programs.
Driscoll said he seldom addresses such financial concerns in his public appearances. “I don’t think where money is being spent is the big mystery,” he said. Nor does he think the public is concerned about it. “I don’t think it’s a story,” he said. “The issue is…can we at least get scores up? Can we at least get results for kids, so that we’re not having kids who are failing the tests we’re giving? …That’s what the public is waiting to see. Not, ‘Yeah, the money seems to be O.K.’ It’s ‘Are we getting results?'”
As for the next round of education funding, Driscoll favors making some adjustments to the state’s funding formulas, but not a radically new approach. Now that all school districts are presumed to be at the state-set “foundation budget” level, it will still take about $140 million in additional state money per year “just to keep everybody going,” he said, due to ordinary inflation and enrollment increases.
The financial issue he is most adamant about is special education funding. “I think the cost of special education is a major financial problem that in some instances, in some particular communities, is really bankrupting the whole community. Sometimes it’s in the smaller districts, where a couple of very costly tuitions can make a significant impact on the total budget of the town.” Furthermore, it may get worse before it gets better, he said, citing a recent report by the school superintendents’ association that projects a higher number of severely handicapped children coming into the schools.
Driscoll, in fact, raised alarms earlier this year when he recommended new regulations to the Board of Education that would specifically define which disabilities would qualify children for special education. Legislative leaders insisted that was a decision that should be left to them–and they are waiting for a special panel to make its recommendations this fall. The Board postponed action until next March. If the Legislature doesn’t move by then, the Board may try again to move ahead. Driscoll urges tighter restrictions to bring down the number of children going into special ed. and at the same time a new state commitment to help local districts when their costs become excessive. He favors a “circuit breaker” that would kick in when a district faces expenses above a certain set limit per pupil. That may not require “a huge amount for the state overall, but it would be very important as it’s dispensed into these pockets of problem areas.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Is the Department of Education up to the job as the state seeks dramatic improvement in schools? Is Driscoll up to leading the department? There continue to be doubters on Beacon Hill–people who see the department as a sleepy bureaucratic backwater that never seems to be able to produce relevant information about what is happening in the state’s school system.
Asked how he sees the core mission of his department, Driscoll discussed the long tradition of local control that is part of the education picture in Massachusetts. Until 1993, he noted, “locals decided. They decided the curriculum; they decided whether kids needed two years of science or three years of science to graduate from high school… It was clearly their ballgame. The education reform act shifted that by making a lot more state-imposed standards.” During the time the law was being debated, then-Gov. Weld regularly insisted that local districts should have plenty of leeway, Driscoll recalled. “Well that changed with Lawrence. All of a sudden that same governor wants SWAT teams.”“The whole tenor of the public has changed,” he said. “It’s happened nationally, not just here in Massachusetts. The Legislature is expecting us to take a more proactive role than we have in the past.” Along with that has come new funds to create a system to track students’ test performance and to conduct school and district inspections. “We can’t be in the position to be the Super School District,” Driscoll said. “That’s not our role. Our role is to see to it that we establish the standards. Frankly, our role is to establish the conditions by which schools and districts can serve kids. That’s our job.”
As Driscoll sees his own job, it’s one that involves equal amounts of prodding and understanding. “Hopefully now I’m suited for it now in 1999,” he said. “I might not have been 10 years ago, and I might not be five years from now.” But as he rides the education circuit these days, his message is unwavering: “This is the point of no return. This is the point where we have to show sustained improvement.”