EDITORIAL: Boston Globe, September 16, 2004
(This article is not available online from the Boston Globe)

Greater Expectations

Despite looming court action on a finding that state funding for education is constitutionally inadequate and the announcement yesterday of schools that will require intervention by the state, money isn't the biggest factor in the next round of education reform at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Massachusetts students made impressive gains from 2001 to 2004 in spite of tight school budgets. Four out of five high school sophomores passed the most recent MCAS exams on their first attempt, for example, up from 68 percent three years ago.

The MCAS success is rooted in a covenant struck in 1993 by leaders in state government, local school districts, and businesses. Clear standards, reliable assessment tests, and outside pressure combined to create the extreme emphasis on public education that had been sadly absent. But the next round of reform will be more challenging still as schools set the goal at proficiency rather than just passing on standardized tests and pressure grows to raise the academic achievement of minority and low-income youngsters.

In the K-12 grades, concerns and strategies for reform will differ significantly by grade and district. But there are broad areas that educators statewide must address if Massachusetts is to retain its place of prominence in education reform and educate each class better than the last.

Underperforming Schools
MCAS pass rates for minority students are on the rise. But only 31 percent of black 10th-graders scored in the higher categories—proficient and advanced—on the most recent math exam. White students scored in the higher ranges at twice that rate. And urban schools with high percentages of minorities badly lag their suburban counterparts.

James Peyser, chairman of the state Board of Education, says the quest to eliminate those differences is "the Holy Grail of education reform." The search for answers will intensify this year, especially with federal pressure from the No Child Left Behind Act.

The federal law mandates that schools not only show yearly progress toward proficiency on a school-wide level but also within subgroups, including minority students. Yesterday, state education officials announced that 384 of the state's 1,860 public schools have failed to meet their progress targets. Chronic low performance at 51 schools in Boston, Springfield, Lawrence, and other urban centers now requires emergency action by state officials, including administrative restructuring at 26 schools.

State officials must maintain their focus on helping all students achieve proficiency in math and English by 2014, as mandated by federal law. The Board of Education appears tempted to tinker with the scoring system on the MCAS exam, making it tougher to achieve the passing grade of 220. But the focus belongs on propelling students into the higher categories of achievement, the best indicator of a successful high school experience.

Obstacles to Reform
The No Child Left Behind Act fails in some cases to recognize the peaks and plateaus common in educational advancement. The law will need fine-tuning in Congress next year regardless of who is in the White House.

The 2002 federal law also has fallen short of its funding promises. But its core value—equity in education—is the right focus in the next round of education reform. Local school districts still require the federal prod to eliminate or narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students and between regular and special-education students.

Parents can't be passive. No Child Left Behind makes provisions for moving children out of chronically underperforming schools. But the process is lengthy, and there is no guarantee that nearby schools will be any better. Supplemental services such as tutoring are already available in struggling schools. But in Boston and elsewhere, many such programs are poorly attended despite strong recruitment efforts by teachers.

Labor Relations
Few fast friendships developed between labor and management during the first decade of education reform. Each side has come to view the other through hardened images: the teacher obsessed with work rules versus the despotic administrator. The standoff is hindering further reform.

"We won't get to proficiency unless adults find better and more efficient ways of working together," says Paul Reville, executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy in Boston. This year the center will bring together union and management representatives from larger school districts on a quarterly schedule to design a workplace that minimizes labor tensions and maximizes student achievement. The initiative comes none too soon, especially in Boston, where union representatives and principals are already starting to cross swords.

New Funding Pressures
Next month the state Supreme Judicial Court will review the findings of a Superior Court judge who ruled in May that state funding for education is inadequate in poor districts despite the billions of dollar spent since 1993 on bringing struggling school districts up to a reasonable foundation budget.

There are clearly areas where more state funds are needed. Last year's $40 million cut in MCAS remedial classes ranks among the poorest budget decisions of recent memory. But overall, the spending gaps between rich and poor districts have diminished while performance gaps remain wide.

Adjustments to foundation budgets will be needed once educators know why some low-income students outperform their socioeconomic peers and how to replicate such programs. But state officials cannot be counted on to fuel the next round of education reform with the 12 percent annual injections common in the 1990s. Reform must be targeted to precise student needs, not collective bargaining contracts.

The court is examining funding impacts on low-income districts. But glaring inequities can be found in some middle-class school districts where quirks in the funding formula cause communities with similar needs to receive widely different levels of aid. Such inequities will undermine public support for the next round of education reform and must be addressed in the next legislative session.

Teaching Math
Student gains in math lag those in literacy at both the local and national levels. Most school districts in Massachusetts would benefit from an action plan aimed at improving math skills. MassInsight Education, a nonprofit research group, is on the right track in its current effort to build a network of math coaches in five midsized urban districts.

The coaches offer ill-prepared K-8 teachers an intensive training program that helps them to "speak math as a second language." Follow-up sessions ensure that improved teaching practices are applied in the classrooms. Businesses, especially those that depend on degree-holders in science and engineering, should be encouraged to form a support network for local districts.

Charter School Choices
The next round of reform deserves to go forward without tiresome attacks on charter schools, which have ranged from efforts by the Legislature to impose a moratorium on new charter schools to questionable union-sponsored studies suggesting that the movement is a failure. Charter schools, which emphasize flexibility in schedules and longer school days, are not the last word in education reform. But a new, comprehensive Harvard University study makes clear that charter students outperform those in the nearest district school.

The supplemental budget passed last week by the Legislature shortchanged charter schools by $12 million in per-pupil funding. Governor Romney should offset these cuts by providing some capital funding to the charter schools, which now receive none.

The addition of charter schools in high-performing suburbs often creates more instability than reform. But the movement has much to offer in underperforming districts, both urban and rural.

It will be demoralizing in early October to see the list of Massachusetts schools that fail to meet the federal standards. But it was demoralizing in 1998 when half the state's 10th-grade students failed the math portion of the MCAS exam, many quite miserably. After six years of hard work, that failure rate, including retests, has fallen below 5 percent.

With few exceptions, the culture of high stakes and high expectations is embraced across the state. Schoolteachers and administrators, once benumbed by the new demands, now take for granted the likelihood of improvement. Education reform in Massachusetts should continue to grow and renew.

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