Here in Massachusetts, we are at a time of reflection and desired inflection as we move ahead on how to get the education system we want — one that is excellent and equitable. Easy to have such a motto — very hard to achieve. We are both proud of our national and global leadership position and brand in education, and humbled by how hard it has proven to be to reach all of our aspirations and how far we still have to go.
Massachusetts has been the top state in the country in both fourth and eighth grades, in both literacy and math for the last 12 years on “The Nation’s Report Card” — the Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Massachusetts has not always led the results so the gains of the 1990s that vaulted us into a lead we have not relinquished makes us proud.
What’s more, recent results on the leading global benchmark, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that assesses skill levels among 15-year-olds in 72 developed nations, shows that if our state was a nation, we would be tied for the lead in the world in reading and second in the world in science, and twelfth in math — all way above where the US as a whole places.
Finally, Massachusetts just became the first state in the nation to reach the benchmark of having more than half of our workforce holding a four-year college degree. No wonder our economy is thriving, unemployment is low and GE picked Boston for its global headquarters.
While some of our success is our birthright — after all, Harvard was founded in 1636 — in K-12 education our recent surge ties to our landmark 1993 Education Reform Act. That bipartisan (ah, the good old days) legislation was simple and powerful. It ensured that every district in the state receives the full funding reasonably needed, with the state making up the shortfall in communities with low property tax yields. It put in the highest standards in the country and a rigorous state assessment. It moved principals out of unions, empowered superintendents and created the most successful high-quality charter system in the country. And we stuck with it for 25 years across economic and political swings.
Here’s what it did not do. It did not eliminate or even greatly reduce our racial and economic achievement gaps. In fact, Massachusetts has very significant challenges which have become more problematic as our net population growth has been entirely driven by new, chiefly Latino, immigrants who have fared especially poorly. Nor have we been especially successful at raising the level of college and career success for our most challenged students.
We are at a crossroads — after 25 years of one approach and with new freedoms from federal constraints, we have to chart our future. And our legacy of unity has frayed. A very divisive state ballot initiative last year proposed to raise the cap on charters and was widely and soundly defeated.
The best news we have about taking on our biggest challenge is the success of recent innovative approaches to accelerating school improvement where it is most needed. After the state accepted the mayor’s invitation to step into in our poorest city, Lawrence, which had our lowest performing school system, we have seen unprecedented gains for students and a community renewal.
Building on that, the state and district partnered in Springfield, Mass., to jointly take on the second-most challenging district’s hardest problem schools, and initial progress includes both gains for students and a rare harmony among all stakeholders. In both cases, the approach has focused on radical empowerment of educators — teachers and principals — where each school gets to decide on the key parameters such as new hires, schedule, curriculum, culture and budget without top-down fiats from central office or constraints from over-negotiated contracts.
Unionized district educators are thus given “charter-like” autonomy to make and refine the choices needed for student success and are held accountable for those outcomes. Local and state officials, unions and management, longstanding educators, and new colleagues and partners are all rowing in sync. No wonder people from across the country are coming to take a look. This just might be a third way to help meet our aspiration for true opportunity through education for all.
Chris Gabrieli is chairman of the Mass. Board of Education and chairman and CEO of Empower Schools.