Several readers sent me copies of a recent article in City Journal, entitled “The Massachusetts Exception.” They wanted me to share the article’s central conclusion (see especially the portion of the quotation in bold):
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.
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.
I’m happy to share this excellent article with readers. But I may disappoint some common core opponents, because I drew some other lessons from the article. Yes, Massachusetts is almost certainly worse off for succumbing to the combined bribery and bullying that led most states to adopt the common core. What’s far more interesting to me, however, is how and why Massachusetts achieved such strong educational results in the first place.
The answer seems to be a combination of strong standards and even stronger tests.
Some further quotes from the article:
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. . .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.
In other words, Massachusetts beefed up its standards, and these standards focused on content – actually identifying what the students were expected to know.
And then Massachusetts students had to demonstrate that they’d really learned this demanding content.
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.
So better standards and better tests produced the Massachusetts “exception”. I especially like the requirement that TEACHERS also needed to pass tests demonstrating that they had indeed mastered what their students were expected to learn.
What are the lessons for Utah, if we want to move beyond states’ rights arguments (however valid) and think about what it would take to see “The Utah Exception” in The City Journal a few years from now?
More on that in my next post.