Report Urges Massachusetts, a Top Academic Performer, to Aim Higher

Senior Editor

By reputation, and by test-score rankings, Massachusetts is one the nation’s highest-flying states academically. But a report released Monday, authored by a prominent adviser on education issues, argues that the state needs to push ahead with a series of ambitious changes to its education system to avoid slipping into complacency.

The report was commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, an organization that was a lead player in the state’s efforts to establish strong academic standards and other policies in the early 1990s, an effort that some argue helped pave the way for years of academic gains.

One of the report’s authors is Sir Michael Barber, a former top adviser to the British government on education issues and a champion for the sharing of ideas on school policy across nations, including the United States.

The report, “The New Opportunity to Lead: A Vision for Education in Massachusetts in the Next 20 Years,”  argues that the state can learn from top-performing foreign jurisdictions, like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Shanghai, as well as from the lessons of individual schools and districts in the United States.

Massachusetts has consistently ranked at or near the top of state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and it has fared well as an individual state taking part in international tests, including the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

Yet the alliance sees recent evidence of stagnation in Massachusetts’ school performance. “We have grown complacent about public education and have failed to recognize the risk that without significant changes our schools will increasingly fall behind those of our global competitors,” warns Henry Dinger, chairman of the board at the alliance, in a statement accompanying the report. As evidence, the alliance notes that despite Massachusetts’ sterling status on the NAEP, its performance in 4th grade reading slipped over the most recent two-year period, and that its gains over the past decade on the test placed it in the middle of the country, not at the top.

The alliance also points to a new survey, released to coincide with the report, that found that 69 percent of business leaders in the state said it was somewhat or very difficult to find people with the skills needed to fill jobs. Just 20 percent of respondents gave the state’s education system an “A” or a “B” grade in preparing young people for jobs.

The authors of the report aren’t trying to suggest that Massachusetts’ schools are on the verge of decline, Barber said in an interview. Academically, “this is the best state in America,” he said. The goal, he said, is to ask “what would it be like for Massachusetts to be the best state in the world?”

Massachusetts was one of 46 states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, and Barber believes that if those academic guidelines are implemented well the state will benefit. But a central argument in the report is that the state needs to move beyond that work and press to make ambitious changes in how schools are run and funded, teacher preparation, and other areas.

Barber described the challenge for the state as, “you can mandate adequacy, but you can’t mandate greatness.” To create greatness in the education system, “the state’s role has to change” and its policymakers have to become more daring.

The report calls for Massachusetts to make changes that touch many areas of state education policy, including:

  • Giving more autonomy to different types of individual schools, regardless of academic-performance level. Massachusetts currently allows this primarily in schools required to make academic turnarounds, where school leaders can override pieces of collective-bargaining agreements to make changes in curriculum, budgets, and staffing, in exchange for setting goals for improvement. That kind of flexibility should be extended to all schools in the state, the authors contend;
  • Overhauling the state’s school funding system to make it more transparent, and to ensure that money is “weighted” to provide the greatest resources to schools with the greatest need, such as those with large numbers of impoverished students or English-language learners. While state funding is weighted in this way, and some districts direct more money to schools with greater need, there are few guarantees that this is consistently occurring on a school-by-school basis;
  • Changing teacher licensure, such as by raising the bar for what it takes for teachers to obtain a credential—but only after evaluating their performance in the classroom for a few years. The state should also take steps to create professional ladders that recognize “master” and “advanced” teachers, and create more opportunities for school districts to take a much stronger role in partnering with teacher colleges in preparing teachers for the profession;
  • Creating new opportunities for schools to innovate through the use of technology, such as blended learning, social media, adaptive platforms, gaming, and other tools, including with resources available for free. The authors also say Massachusetts could create an “accelerated learning challenge” grant competition for schools to promote innovation in districts.

Barber, a former top adviser to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, now works for Pearson, a major, worldwide commercial provider of school resources, many of which are technology-based. The alliance says Barber was working in his  “personal capacity” in writing the report, and Barber told Education Week that his work was “totally independent” of Pearson. The ideas in the report are very broad, and drew from a broad array of stakeholders, he added, and not connected with the company, which made no attempt to influence the document’s content.

Massachusetts’ commissioner of education, Mitchell Chester, said in an interview that he welcomed the report, and agreed that there is a risk of the state living in the past, academically.

“We absolutely run the risk of becoming victims of our own success,” Chester said.

Chester said the report’s call for greater school autonomy was on point. While the state grants that freedom to struggling school systems, as is now the case in the Lawrence, Mass., district, it’s “the exception, not the rule,” he said. The report rightly calls for more transparency in Massachusetts’ funding system, he added, so that it is clearer how much state money is flowing to schools with the greatest needs.

“It’s not always clear those dollars are reaching those students,” he said.

While it would be wrong that the academic policies created in other countries, and highlighted in the report, can be easily retrofitted in the United States, it’s also important for American officials to become more aware of them, he said. “It’s important to look outside our borders,” Chester said, adding that one sign of complacency is instinctively “being dismissive of what others are doing.”

Other recommendations in the report seem unlikely to end up getting put into policy anytime soon. For instance, the authors call for a “grand bargain” between the state and teachers’ unions covering a range of salary and workforce issues across all districts. The state would guarantee funding commitments for schools, salaries benchmarked to other professions, and other carrots, in exchange for various assurances, including the ability to reward teachers for improving student performance, working in low-income communities, or working longer days.

Chester described a statewide bargaining agreement as a “very intriguing notion,” but probably a “longshot.”

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