A Cheer and a Half for Education Reform in Massachusetts

There are a few important things that people must recall about the Education Reform law and its federal compendium, “No Child Left Behind,” that came a decade later.  The 20th anniversary of education reform should consider the impact of one upon the other.  We certainly celebrate the continued best-in-the-nation performance of our students.   We welcome the infusion of funding that helped sustain the state law during unprecedented prosperity of the late 1990s. Finally, the quality of teaching has markedly improved as it became harder to obtain teaching credentials and even more difficult to remain a teacher under standards that represent the nation’s highest bar.   But these must be considered in context.

A literary reference notes that “Pleasant news will come and go; unpleasant news will refuse to leave.”  So we have to recognize the unpleasant fact that an achievement gap persists between the academic achievement of socially privileged students and the economically disadvantaged children and families.

Forgotten fact #1:  the Education Reform Act was passed a few days prior to the Supreme Judicial Court’s decision that our school financing system was unconstitutional.  That was fortuitous timing, because public policy makers took advantage of the anticipated court decision to enact some major changes not only to funding, but also to the way education is delivered.

Forgotten fact #2:  the bill’s advocates never anticipated the federal No Child Left Behind Act a statute so poorly conceived and carelessly written that that few will speak up for it today.  NCLB came with a testing mandate and a system that required students and schools to make “adequate yearly progress” toward proficiency or be labeled as failures.  Many states gamed the system with very low proficiency scores (Mississippi’s proficiency score was less than half of ours), but in the hands of an anti-teacher, pro-privatization state board of education, Massachusetts chose a mathematically unreachable bar – an abuse of public policy that allowed state regulators to hide behind a federal statute and claim it was all in the name of student achievement.

Forgotten fact #3:  Both statutes empowered state and federal bureaucracies to create huge volumes of regulatory paperwork and a system of sanctions that resulted in the labeling of schools and students based on standards that varied widely from state to state.  Each state was allowed to set its own proficiency standard, and Massachusetts set the highest bar in the country.

The system that it created brought a strict, and now widely acknowledged unreasonable system for using state test data (MCAS) that was created for one purpose (to measure learning based on state standards) to be used for another purpose (to measure progress towards a target).  This allowed bureaucrats to brand schools that failed to meet goals that were mathematically unattainable.  At one point we had not only the highest performing students in the country, but also the highest percentage of schools labeled with some form of sanction. Some of our “underperforming” schools would be doing quite well in many other states.  Even our disadvantaged students outperform their counterparts in other states.  That’s not an acceptable excuse, but it does argue for giving credit where it is due – to the people who actually teach children in schools and the people who back them up locally, advocating and supporting them. They are the people who created the Massachusetts Education Phenomenon.

So, let’s be grateful for the new school financing system that, however complicated it is, helped communities at risk provide more support to their children.

We must also recognize that empowering school administrators to oversee the operations of schools helped ensure that standards of accountability could be pursued without unnecessary interference.  Underperforming educators have been coached out of the profession, and curriculum is more appropriately prescribed to help students succeed.  Coupled with higher standards for entering the teaching profession and the virtual elimination of political patronage, we have the most outstanding achievement of the Education Reform Act.

Let’s also recognize some of the disappointments.  Our students are being overtested at several levels adding a measure of stress and tension that young people don’t need.  Young children actually fear that their test scores could impact their teacher’s jobs.  Adults fear that test results will be used inappropriately.  Composite scores of schools and districts have been covered in newspapers like the stats on the sports page.  The merits of the standards and the value of testing continues to be a focus of controversy.

Introducing “choice” into the system gave us a charter school program that has mixed results – helpful to some, neutral for others, and detrimental for some.  Charters were allowed to resegregate students by race and socioeconomic class and exclude certain high risk students, counsel-out others, or simply expel underperforming students back to their home districts.  More work needs to be done here, including continuing to repair the confiscatory funding system that punishes sending districts when they lose children to charters.

In fact, if there are big winners – and there are very big winners – it’s the “education reform” industry that profiteered while cheerleading for stronger standards, more testing, required professional development programming, and privatization of schools and distracted attention from themselves by demonizing teachers unions who, unfortunately, made themselves easy targets.

Finally, there are some dreams of education reformers that never came true but are worth reviving: The quality of instruction continues to improve, but we have still not yet attracted some of the best potential teachers because our liberal arts and technical colleges and universities do not always include teacher preparation training in the undergraduate curricula.

And, probably the most significant shortcoming, we have failed to mobilize the network of agencies and professionals who can provide the health, social, economic, and environmental support to overcome the effects of poverty, probably our most longstanding adversary helping every child to become successful.

So, one and a half cheers for education reform.