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Has Massachusetts lost its leadership position in education?

Posted by Jim Stergios  April 28, 2011 08:00 AM

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It used to be that Massachusetts was the state that everybody talked about in education. Experts studied it from around the country. And business and political leaders came a-calling: I know you guys have high business costs, but we have to learn how you improved your educational system so quickly. We're not a yawn yet, but other states are much more influential in state education debates across the country.

Trip Gabriel in today's New York Times highlights the work of Jeb Bush in a number of states.

Mr. Bush, for example, has been closely involved in new education bills and laws in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah.

And Gabriel further notes the energy in states across the country calling 2011 "one of the most consequential years in memory for changes in the way schools are run." Governor Bush's policies in Florida have taken the Sunshine State's children from near the bottom nationally to well above mid-range on national assessments. The reforms parallel those undertaken in Massachusetts (until recently), advancing strong school accountability, student testing, and charter schools. What Florida did that Massachusetts did not was innovate in the area of digital learning and put into place a serious barrier to social promotion in the third grade in order to ensure that all kids enter the fourth grade with a baseline of reading skills.

What we did that Florida did not was to set the highest academic standards in the country (theirs were mediocre before they adopted the somewhat better than mediocre national standards). And we implemented the best teacher licensure tests in the country--tests that were unique in ensuring subject-matter mastery. Importantly, the Bay State aligned its academic standards and teacher testing with high-stakes MCAS testing to measure student achievement.

Some states are still moving ahead with Massachusetts' proven reforms. First, Texas takes a page from Massachusetts and advances best-in-nation national standards. Now Ohio takes a page from the Commonwealth in seeking to establish a teacher licensure test that is focused on subject-matter competency (rather than the easier PRAXIS licensure tests). As Stephen Sawchuck of EdWeek's Teacher Beat puts it:

What's NOT gotten a lot less press, however, is that Ohio Gov. Kasich, a Republican, is also proposing that teachers who work in the state's lowest-performing schools take tests of subject-matter competency, as one of several proposed reform measures. The idea is to make sure that teachers in the lowest-performing schools know their content.

The proposal is in Kasich's budget proposal. It's not clear who's supposed to foot the bill for these tests; the budget doesn't specify that part.

States have mixed records on licensing tests. Most of them, save Massachusetts, set the passing bar at a pretty low level. On the other hand, it's interesting to note that this proposal would re-test teachers once they've already gotten into classrooms.

It's great to see the push from both states to draw the real lessons from our historic improvement in educational attainment from 1993 to 2009, rather than the milquetoast, rehashed Marc Tucker theories being passed off by DC insiders as real reform. The national standards, the top-down teacher evaluations, and all the rest are not what got Massachusetts strong gains on the NAEP, TIMSS or SATs.

Florida is winning the race to brand itself as the leader in education reform quite simply because its reforms have worked and they have remained in tact. Its improvement in Hispanic student performance is slightly better than Massachusetts' own record (it started out with higher Hispanic performance in the early 1990s in great part because of a highly educated Cuban population). Massachusetts could have played a more robust role as the model for other state reformers, but the fact is that, while a belated supporter of charter schools, the Patrick Administration has turned its back on aspects of our 1993 education reform, most notably our accountability system and our nation-leading academic standards, that were crucial to our students' unprecedented rise in achievement.

Had Governor Patrick pushed forward with our proven blueprint, the nation's leader in student achievement -- Massachusetts -- would have been the obvious point of reference for other states. Instead, the administration cast its lot with an untested regimen of federal reforms and given up policy decision-making to interstate consortia and the federal government.

Just one more reason to conclude that the states, not the Gucci Gulchers in DC are where the action is. How is it possible that we have moved from our focus on academic quality to workforce development so quickly?

For anyone who thinks that people in DC are smarter than state leaders in education such as Jeb Bush or the Birmingham-Roosevelt-Weld bipartisan team that crafted Massachusetts' reforms (or really have any idea what they are doing), I have one simple question: Why doesn't the DC school system, which is under the jurisdiction of the federal government, look any better than it does?

Crossposted at Pioneer's blog.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Jim Stergios is executive director of the Pioneer Institute. Before joining Pioneer, he was Chief of Staff and Undersecretary for Policy in the Commonwealth's Executive Office of Environmental Affairs, where More »

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