City Journal

James Stergios, Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass
The Massachusetts Exception
The state’s knowledge-rich standards have made its schools the best in the country.
Summer 2012

It’s common knowledge that in 1983, a federal report called A Nation at Risk indicted the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American public education and called for a school system that would be among the best in the world. Far less well known is that only one state effectively responded to that challenge: Massachusetts. By passing the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993, which pushed content and high standards above all else, the state became an outpost of success in a landscape of academic failure. Today, however, federal initiatives—especially the push for national education standards, which may have beneficial effects in lower-performing states and which Massachusetts has adopted—threaten to undermine the reforms that made the Bay State the nation’s unquestioned educational leader.

Graph by Robert Pizzo
Graph by Robert Pizzo

Reform wasn’t an overnight success in Massachusetts, despite $1 billion in new state money for education between 1993 and 1996. Some members of the state’s board of education and department of education resisted the reform, and a process-heavy approach—which focused more on achieving consensus than on implementing the law—also slowed progress. For example, a crucial piece of the reform required the state to develop liberal-arts-rich “curriculum frameworks,” which would help schools choose curricula by specifying the academic content that students should be able to master. But the development of those frameworks didn’t proceed smoothly. Initial drafts of the English frameworks even included Ebonics.

In 1996, Governor William Weld jump-started reform by asking Boston University president John Silber—his opponent in the 1990 governor’s race—to head the board of education. Silber accepted the position on condition that the board’s size be reduced—a shake-up that the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature approved, paring the board from 16 members to nine. The period following the change, with leadership from reformers including James Peyser, Abigail Thernstrom, Roberta Schaefer, and Sandra Stotsky, saw a dramatic acceleration in progress on the curriculum frameworks, which covered English, writing, math, science, and U.S. history. Developed after years of public debate, with input from teachers and subject-matter experts, the frameworks were internationally benchmarked, with an eye toward authentic college readiness. High-quality literature made up about 80 to 90 percent of the English content. In math, students were required to start studying algebra in the eighth grade, years before the National Mathematics Advisory Panel made the same recommendation. A wide range of voices—including the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; noted standards expert E. D. Hirsch, Jr.; educational historian Diane Ravitch; Achieve, Inc.; and the American Federation of Teachers—hailed the frameworks as a national model.

Governor Weld’s shake-up also accelerated a second component of the reform law: the development of new state tests based on the frameworks. These tests, called the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), were first administered in 1998 and also earned accolades. The tests applied pressure to school systems to adopt rigorous curricula; if they didn’t, their students’ scores would show it. After a state Board of Higher Education study found a strong correlation between MCAS results and college success, the legislature made MCAS scores the measure by which University of Massachusetts scholarships would be granted. Another test was developed for new teachers, who now had to demonstrate communication and literacy skills and the subject-matter knowledge to teach the material in the frameworks.

The results of the reform were better than even the law’s authors had hoped. Massachusetts’s SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years, beginning in 1993. The state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shot up, too: by 2005, Massachusetts students became the first to score best in the nation in all four major NAEP categories (fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math). When the NAEP tests were administered again in 2007, Massachusetts repeated the feat—and did it again in 2009 and then again in 2011. While American students as a whole lag behind their international peers, the 2008 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study results showed that Massachusetts students were competitive with their counterparts in places like Japan, Korea, and Singapore. The Bay State’s eighth-graders even tied for first place internationally in science.

In addition to the across-the-board improvements, race- and class-based achievement gaps narrowed. Hirsch found that Massachusetts was one of three states that made the most progress at reducing gaps between 1998 and 2005. NAEP results bear him out. Between 2002 and 2009, the scores of African-Americans and Hispanics on both fourth- and eighth-grade reading tests improved more rapidly than those of white students. Low-income students made gains as well. Numerous studies from think tanks across the ideological spectrum confirm that gaps in achievement between rich and poor were far smaller in Massachusetts than they would have been without reform. “If you are a disadvantaged parent with a school-age child,” Hirsch said in 2008, “Massachusetts is . . . the state to move to.”

With this record of success, Massachusetts should be the model for other states to follow. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened, thanks to the development of the Common Core State Standards (see “The Curriculum Reformation”). The push for national education standards dates back to the first Bush administration, when Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander called for voluntary national standards and testing. After the Clinton administration’s attempt failed in the mid-1990s, efforts to implement national standards lay dormant until the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation decided to make them a top priority. Beginning in 2007, the foundation funded the development of national English and math standards. It also supported organizations like Achieve, the National Governors Association (NGA), the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), and the Fordham Institute, all of which advocated for national standards. Ze’ev Wurman—a Silicon Valley high-tech executive and former federal education official who played a central role in developing California’s standards—says that the Gates Foundation’s total investment in the national standards reached $100 million last year.

The federal government got behind the foundation’s national-standards efforts. Bypassing state legislative processes and public transparency, Washington pressured governors and education commissioners to participate in standards development; to sign memoranda of understanding with the NGA and the CCSSO, which were jointly developing the Common Core State Standards; and to adopt those standards well before they were finalized. The Obama administration made its Race to the Top funding available only to states that adopted these standards. It said that waivers from accountability provisions in which states took over failing schools and districts would be granted only to states that adopted the standards, and it even threatened to withhold Title I education aid from states that refused to adopt the standards.

Massachusetts officials had claimed that they wouldn’t accept national standards that weren’t as strong as the ones they already had in place. Unfortunately, the lure of Race to the Top funding overcame their reluctance. The state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced that it would base its recommendation on whether to adopt the standards on three studies, all of them sponsored by the Gates Foundation. After just one study was completed, the department recommended that the state’s board of education adopt the national standards, and the board complied. In August 2010, Massachusetts was awarded a $250 million Race to the Top grant, which will fund new textbooks, teacher tests, and professional development aligned with the national standards.

The Pioneer Institute has published four independent, peer-reviewed studies comparing various drafts of the national standards with Massachusetts’s existing English and math standards. Pioneer’s findings were not kind to the national standards. Though each subsequent draft showed improvement, the studies found them far less rigorous than the previous Massachusetts standards.

In English, the national standards contain less than half as much classic literature as the Massachusetts framework. In math, they delay Algebra I from eighth until ninth grade and use an experimental method of teaching geometry that has not succeeded anywhere. There is no better authority on math than the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, which reviewed 16,000 research studies before issuing its final report in 2008. The NMAP found that algebra was the key to higher math study and that more students should get to Algebra I by eighth grade. In testimony submitted to the Texas state legislature, Stanford University professor emeritus of mathematics R. James Milgram, who conducted one of the Pioneer reviews, described “a number of extremely serious failings” in the national math standards, noting that they reflected “very low expectations.”

The U.S. Department of Education claims that its reforms replicate the Massachusetts model. The truth is that they fall short of the standards established by that model—and are now reversing the very policies that led to the Bay State’s achievements.

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