Even the Top State in the Nation Needs to Up Its Game

Even the Top State in the Nation Needs to Up Its Game
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Sullivan Elementary School third graders get a chemistry demonstration and lesson from Jeremy Smith at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, in North Adams, Mass. on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/The Berkshire Eagle, Gillian Jones)

RCEd Commentary

Here in my home state of Massachusetts, much hay was made of the recent Nation’s Report Card results, where our state once again ranked first in the country in student performance and Boston scored near the top for large cities.

Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held up Massachusetts as a national example, pointing to our two decades of hard-won efforts to raise the bar and improve Bay State schools.

But here’s the thing about our “Massachusetts Miracle:” We may still be on top, but we won’t be for long, as other states invest in a coordinated long-term strategy to improve teaching, standards and instruction.

And that’s a very good thing.

I couldn’t be happier that other states are catching up with us on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. We are No. 1 in three categories but lost by one point on eighth-grade reading to our New England neighbor. I want other states to expect more of their students and make the kind of investment Massachusetts did when it signed onto the “Grand Bargain” that was the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.

Two decades ago, politicians, educators and business leaders worked to create a system that would offer a quality education and level playing field for all Massachusetts students. The state and business community agreed to invest billions of new dollars, most of which flowed to the most impoverished schools, but that new money was tied to additional accountability -- new qualifications for teacher certification, aligned standards in the classroom, the MCAS assessment with a high school exit exam to ensure our graduates had at least mastered high school-level work. The law also opened the door to charters, and there are now more than 100 charters or charter networks statewide.

But as Duncan recently mentioned, this was anything but a miracle. Our path here was long, arduous work on the part of educators, parents and students and fraught with political challenges. 

We have a school funding formula that was designed to provide a foundation budget for the lowest income communities with an adequate level of funding to keep class sizes reasonable and provide instructional services-- about $10,000 per-pupil for suburban and rural schools, and more than $11,000 for urban schools this year. But we also know that disparities continue to grow, with wealthier districts spending more than twice the per-pupil allocation. Our funding formula has also not kept pace with inflation or the technology demands of the 21st Century.

This is not the time to become complacent anywhere in America. The United States as a whole is not keeping pace, especially at the high school level. Even in Massachusetts, only about half of students are scoring at the proficient level or above on NAEP, and this drops to about a third for our nation’s eighth graders, and a fifth of students in our lowest scoring states. The achievement gap, especially among low-income and students of color, is unacceptably high across the board.

Our state test, MCAS, is considered one of the best assessments in the country, but it has not kept up with rising expectations and standards for college and career readiness. While more than 90 percent of our high school students pass at proficient or advanced, far too many arrive at college needing remedial courses -- where students earn no college credit, squander precious financial aid dollars and, often, fail to complete their degree. That’s why we are making the transition to a newer generation of assessments aligned to our updated state standards, which are aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

Some pundits are happy to use the recent NAEP results as evidence that the new Common Core standards are not working. But our experience in Massachusetts has taught us that we need to be patient as we transition to higher standards. Massachusetts went through a period of flat scores before we saw steady gains in achievement.

We live in a highly mobile country and a globalized economy. It makes sense for students to be learning subjects in the same sequence so they aren’t repeating some topics – or missing others -- if they move to another state.  We need to prepare them for college and careers of the 21st Century, no matter where they live.  

We also must recognize that while high standards and good assessments are essential to academic success, schools and educators cannot raise the bar and close achievement gaps on their own. It will take increased and stable funding in many states, good school leadership, time for teachers to adapt to new standards, enrichment opportunities for students, and coordination of community partnerships and resources to support families in order to meet our goal of providing all students with a high quality education and equal opportunities in life.

Even in Massachusetts, we still have work a lot of work to do.

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