Twenty-five years ago Massachusetts launched its own education revolution and emerged as a national public education leader. Now it’s time to reassess our achievements and find a fresh approach to build on that success.
The impressive results that came from the Education Reform Act, a remarkable alignment of educators, key legislators, and business leaders 25 years ago, are now often taken for granted. The “grand bargain” of reform—more money tethered to rigorous standards and assessment—has been a national model of school reform and the main reason Massachusetts has maintained the number one rank as the top public education system in the country.
But it’s clear this standards-based formula can only take us so far. And because there’s no clear direction, various camps in the state’s education community have retreated into their respective corners. The only consensus is there is no consensus on how to move forward.
One nagging reason for this policy stagnation is the profoundly uneven education landscape—the achievement gap in Massachusetts as elsewhere across the country, has remained unacceptably wide. Testing in an educational vacuum too often only exposes, but doesn’t fix, problems. It’s one thing to establish standards, but another thing altogether to create a way to get there. As a result, ed reform helped set in motion a culture of blame and vilification of teachers to achieve standards they often didn’t have the support to meet.
How We Move Forward
Bringing about ed reform was hard work, but if we’re going to make significant progress going forward, even harder work, more complicated work is ahead. That’s because it involves working intensively on the grassroots level to find strengths within schools and build on them. We need to innovate, take chances and leave the cookie-cutter approach to education behind, while still expecting that rigorous standards be achieved so that students are ready for college and careers.
Innovation, local goal-setting, teacher engagement and rigorous standards can all work together. I call it meeting in the middle; others call it the “radical center”—a sensible blend of standards and local collaboration. It isn’t a simple solution. It’s a process, invariably time-consuming, of bringing together the stakeholders—teachers, administrators, parents, students, and the broader community—to create the best conditions for learning. When you get the conditions right at individual schools, academic rigor and improvement follow.
The key is catalyzing the collective will, commitment, and capacity needed to enlist all adults involved with our children to do their utmost to support student success. It’s doing the hard work of finding common ground on the local level and then empowering the educators to get the job done.
There’s an important ingredient involved in meeting in the middle: It’s an approach that involves building on strengths, not harping on weaknesses, real or imagined. The most successful school districts find ways to engage and harness the talents of their teachers.
Too long beaten down by sometimes arbitrary requirements, teachers crave approaches that honor their expertise and the particular students they teach. Teachers are charged with the difficult task of teaching challenging material to students who have widely varying knowledge and skill. They need collaborative time to look at their teaching and how students respond to it, and to talk about how to continuously innovate and improve with the goal of getting all students to the standards.
Ed reform got us far down the road, and Massachusetts should be proud. Now we need to take a turn that brings us to the next important chapter in public education, one that deeply values the process of building collective responsibility and stimulating learning from the ground up.