By S. Paul Reville
S. Paul Reville is Executive Director of the Center for Education Research and Policy at MassInc and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is the former Executive Director of the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, a national education think tank. He chairs the Massachusetts Education Reform Review Commission and is active with the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.
With the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts launched a historic and dramatically ambitious initiative to improve the state's system of public education.
In Massachusetts, the reform movement was driven initially by the business community, through the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, whose 1991 policy report, Every Child a Winner!, became the cornerstone of the education reform law. The movement was supported by educators who had been financially starved by a variety of circumstances during the 1980s, and by higher education leaders who were faced with high school graduates lacking the basic skills necessary to succeed in college.
The theory behind the Massachusetts reforms embraced a commonsense strategy called standards-based reform: the idea that the state should set clear, high standards for schools and students to attain, track students' progress, provide data to guide improvement efforts, and introduce true accountability for performance. This reform strategy could succeed only if students were provided with the appropriate opportunity to learn: the teachers, curricula, time, and attention necessary to attain the standards. Building this capacity would require an enormous, sustained investment of effort and funding. With high expectations for all students, and the proper opportunities to learn, reformers envisioned the realization of the long-held but elusive dream that all children, regardless of socioeconomic status or race, could achieve at high levels.
This theory was put into practice in the Education Reform Act of 1993. The Act fell into three broad categories: Standards, Assessments, and Accountability. These were the basic provisions for a system of standards-based school reform.
The new law altered the structure of public education by changing many aspects of the educational delivery system including tenure laws, teacher recertification requirements, and allowing charter schools.
The law created a new system of school finance that combined local spending with new state support in order to achieve adequacy of financial resources in every district, greater equity for students and taxpayers, and stability after the fiscal ravages of the 1980s.
In June of 2003, we celebrated ten years of education reform in Massachusetts. Many changes have occurred. More than $10 billion of new funding has been invested. At this juncture, we must ask how successful our reform efforts have been. What has been successful? What have we learned? What are the big challenges? How will we meet them?
The Act has, indeed, produced many significant accomplishments:
Vigorous Public Discussion
The reform process begun by the 1993 Education Reform Act has stimulated the most vital, serious, and urgent conversation about public education in decades. This is a healthy development for public education and for the civic life of Massachusetts.
More Funding and Greater Equity
The state has honored its commitment to fulfilling the substantial financial obligations under the Act. Adequacy, greater equity, and stability have all been achieved. The Commonwealth has more than doubled its annual spending on local schools, from $1.3 billion in fiscal 1993 to more than $3.2 billion in 2003, including a huge infusion of funding to the states' most impoverished districts.
Clear and High Educational Expectations
We have articulated what students should know and be able to do at various stages of their education. Our standards for student performance have been recognized as some of the best and most rigorous in the country, and are an integral part of strengthening an educational culture where learning matters and results count.
An Assessment System That Applies to All
Assessment is a tool with which to measure progress. Though highly controversial, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) is a good start toward the truly comprehensive system of assessment envisioned by the Act.
New Curricula and More Professional Development
New learning standards and statewide assessments have spawned an outpouring of new curriculum materials and professional development designed to guide teachers in helping students. So far, there may be more quantity than quality, in both areas, but the renaissance in curriculum development and teacher education is welcome.
New Opportunities for Participation
School councils, mandated by the Act, have become a vehicle for increased parent, teacher, community, and student participation in school planning and policy development in every school in the state.
In the 2003-2004 school year, there will be 52 charter schools, enrolling more than 19,000 students. Parental and student satisfaction with charter schools is high, and waiting lists at many of the charters indicate they are becoming welcome options for many families.
All these changes in standards and school structure are aimed at improvements in students’ educational achievement. Critics, however well intentioned, had raised doubts that many children, particularly low-income children, could meet the standards challenge and achieve minimum competency on MCAS. The facts indicate that the critics seriously underestimated the capacity of class of 2003, the first cohort for which MCAS was a graduation requirement above and beyond local graduation requirements.
Ninety-two percent of the class of 2003 achieved the necessary MCAS competency determination for graduation. Of the remaining students, many not only failed to pass MCAS English and math requirements after four attempts, but they also failed to meet other local graduation requirements and therefore would have been unable to graduate even if they had passed MCAS. Although there are significant gaps in MCAS achievement by racial and other special group status, it is heartening to note that there have been substantial improvements in performance between groups over the past several years and the gap is closing. Substantial majorities in every group have now passed the MCAS requirement proving that the standard is reasonable and attainable for all who can be provided the appropriate opportunity to learn.
While Massachusetts has made substantial progress in realizing the reform vision embodied in the Education Reform Act, we still have a long way to go. Many pieces of reform work are still undone or need renewed attention. Here are some of the major challenges ahead:
Closing the Learning Gap
Although we have made significant progress towards the incredibly ambitious goal of educating all students to high standards, we still have large numbers of students who have not yet attained the rigorous standards set by the Board of Education. To close the learning gap, we must redouble our efforts in a number of key areas:
To achieve the quantum leap in the quality of teaching that will be necessary to help all students meet the standards, it will take more than professional development in the usual sense. We will need to make teaching a true profession, giving it the compensation, status, and prerogatives to compete for the most talented, best educated people in our society. Most importantly, teachers will need more time and support to work with data on student achievement in order to improve strategies for accelerating student learning.
The improvements necessary to close the learning gap are too great for schools and districts to handle on their own. The Commonwealth must invest in making the expertise necessary to transform teaching and learning available to those who need it.
The traditional one-size-fits all model of schooling has shown itself to be inadequate to the task of ensuring that all students meet the standards. Extended school days and longer school years must become options for students who need them.
Early Childhood Education
We will never close the learning gap until all children come into school ready to learn. This will require delivering more early childhood education at earlier ages to many more of our children, particularly those from low-income families.
Supports for Children in Poverty
The Commonwealth needs a more comprehensive set of supports for children who live in poverty. Without social services that are closely linked to schools, poor children will remain at a serious disadvantage.
We must attend to the challenge of making learning a meaningful, hopeful, personal experience for each student. If we do not, then we will continue to have significant numbers of students unwilling to reach for, let alone attain, the new, higher standards.
Getting Accountability Right
The theory underlying standards-based reform holds that before students can be held accountable for learning, adults must be held accountable for providing the opportunity to learn. The Commonwealth has made substantial progress in addressing the supports and mechanisms necessary to systemically measuring district and school performance. More needs to be done on measuring the “value added” of schools and districts as they work with particular children over time rather than basing accountability on a series of cohort “snapshots” of performance.
Additionally, the state needs to continue to refine its accountability system for students. Assessments must be developed to supplement the MCAS, bearing in mind that these assessments must be valid, reliable, and feasible. The state must continue to develop policies that allow limited English proficient students and special needs students to be assessed fairly and rigorously. Finally, a more robust remediation program must be intensified for students who consistently fail to meet the standards, especially for those students who have failed to graduate because of their MCAS performance.
Refining the Finance System
The Education Reform Act established the "foundation budget," a minimum amount of spending per pupil necessary to deliver an adequate education. As we learn what it takes to provide this kind of education, we must continue to adjust the finance system to ensure that the reforms are adequately funded.
Filling the Leadership Gap
Leadership, especially at the school and district level, is essential to the success of education reform. There is an urgent need to redefine the role of the principal with new incentives and prerogatives, so that principals can truly lead instructional change. The redefinition of the principalship will be essential to attracting the next generation of school leaders.
Transforming Labor-Management Relations
Until teachers and school managers find less adversarial, more constructive ways to work together to achieve the new higher standards for all students, then we have no hope of achieving the ultimate learning goals of education reform. The labor-management contract needs to be transformed, placing student achievement at the center, so that we can be successful with students and prove that public education can, in fact, reform itself.
Assessing Education Reform
We have spent billions trying to improve our schools, but almost nothing on finding out whether those expenditures have been effective. Our policy and practice need to be informed by data, which will require some state commitment to fund research. To do anything less would be not only fiscally irresponsible, but educationally negligent.
Attitude and Spirit
For the past six years, many educators have felt that reform has been a top-down, state-directed enterprise administered with a mix of distrust and contempt for the educators who have to carry out the reforms. This needs to change. The history of education is littered with the corpses of reforms killed off by the arrogance of those who imposed them. A climate characterized by listening, responsiveness, respect, and collaboration would dramatically improve the chances of success. We need a civil discourse on educational policy and school reform.
Education reform is a work very much in progress. It is the most important work of our time, the most vital work for the future of the Commonwealth. Our massive investment in reform has yielded some promising results, yet there is much work still to be done. The process is painfully slow, especially for parents and students caught in underperforming systems. If we are to succeed in closing the achievement gap and thereby fulfill our obligation to the next generation, we must be relentlessly persistent, firm on our principles, flexible in developing strategies.
We will face some particular challenges in the coming year. Foremost among them is the state budget crisis which has led to significant cuts in most local school budgets. Virtually all of the work required to meet the challenges described above will require funding. The budget crisis should not be an excuse to abandon accountability, but rather a challenge to spend more wisely and, if necessary, to adjust expectations in accordance with fiscal realities.
Another challenge will be the massive new federal, “No Child Left Behind” legislation which is consistent, in principle, with the Massachusetts reforms, but presents a number of implementation problems which need to be addressed in order to have federal and state initiatives be complementary.
We will not achieve a perfect system of education in our lifetimes, but the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. The strategies embodied in the Education Reform Act of 1993, enriched by nine years of experience, hold greater promise of achieving greater good for a greater number of children than any other reform strategy currently available. Our initial successes are not cause for euphoria, but they should be enough to inspire growing confidence and renewed commitment to the ideal of making every child in Massachusetts a winner.