Can Massachusetts Show Us the Way?

by theschoolprincipal on December 6, 2010

Good news about Massachusetts schools. While the rest of us are drilling and killing our kids so they’ll pass the meaningless state assessment tests, the governor of Massachusetts is focusing on creativity. In this day of No Child Left Behind, can you believe it? Teachers and principals of Massachusetts,what say you? I want to hear from those of you in the trenches.  In this week’s Huffington, John M. Eger from San Diego State sends a shout-out to Massachusetts because someone there is paying attention to the importance of creativity and thinks it needs to be included in the curriculum. Hooray!

In my October 1 post I congratulated the staff and students of Brockton High School (Update: see this Feb. 11, 2011 PBS special about the school) in Massachusetts for the remarkable improvement in students’ test scores, as reported by Harvard University’s Achievement Gap Initiative. The AGI, whose slogan is “Toward Excellence with Equity,” focuses on students who come from economically deprived areas. I e-mailed the Achievement Gap Initiative and posed a few questions about the validity of the scores. I pointed out that in most states the tests are meaningless because the passing scores, called the “cut scores,” have been lowered time and again in order to ensure that more and more students are able to pass the tests.(See several of my posts about testing in Arizona.)

I asked AGI in my e-mail  if Massachusetts had joined the Lowering the Bar Club along with many other states.

On October 26, I received a nice e-mail from Rob Hanna, faculty assistant to the project. Here is his reply:

Thanks for your interest in our work. You have raised some important issues about testing. I am not sure how to respond. Massachusetts tests are considered to be particularly strong among other state tests, and many of the highest performing schools in our state teach effectively and well beyond the test.

The very week that I received the reply from Rob Hanna, published a report from the American Institutes for Research about this very topic. I sent Rob Hanna the link to the report, which is about the differences in various states’ tests and how they arrive at their proficiency ratings. If you haven’t seen it, here is the link to the news release, which is entitled, “Student Learnng Expectations Gap Can Be Twice the Size of National Black White Achievement Gap, New Report Details.” Here is a quote from the news release. You may be shocked, but I wasn’t because several of my posts are about this very issue:

“To illustrate the differences, the report compared what is expected in Massachusetts to what is expected in the states with the lowest standards. The difference between the standards in Massachusetts and those of the states with the lowest standards was comparable to as much as four grade levels. In other words, the 8th grade performance standards in the states with the lowest standards were comparable in difficulty to the 4th grade performance standards in Massachusetts.”

The  October 25 report is entitled “International Benchmarking: State Education Performance Standards.” In the blue box below the title of the report, click on the PDF file so that you can see how your state compares. Before you do, make sure you’re sitting down — unless you’re from Massachusetts.

The report stands as a tribute to Massachusetts, which appears to stand apart from other states. I have known for years that Massachusetts is a leader in education. After all, Massachusetts had Horace Mann, Elizabeth Peabody and the Peabody sisters,  and Bronson Alcott, who led a school reform movement in Massachusetts in the early decades of the 19th century. No wonder they are ahead of the rest of us. (If you click on the link to Horace Mann, you’ll see that the issues he addressed in Massachusetts are the very ones we continue to address today in the rest of the country.)

Massachusetts does extremely well compared with other states, but not as well when compared with other countries. In EducationNext’s winter publication, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and two colleagues tell us that only 6% of American 8th graders are proficient in advanced math while 26% of Taiwanese students are proficient.  As for  Massachusetts,  where over 11% of its students are proficient, if it were a country, it would have ranked 17th. That other states rank much lower than Massachusetts is disturbing. (Minnesota, at 20th, ranks closest to Massachusetts.) The December 2010 edition of  The Atlantic, in the article, “Your Child Left Behind,” by Amanda Ripley of the New America Foundation discusses Hanushek’s research.

Do you recall President George H.W. Bush’s 1989 inaugural address where he presented his vision of “a thousand points of light” across the country which could illuminate  our thinking and present different ways to solve problems? In other words, bottom up problem solving?

Sounds to me as if we should be looking to Massachusetts for leadership. Let’s take a look at Massachusetts and then begin to look for all of the other points of lights across our nation. These highly functioning schools — both rural and urban —  are out there in every state.

We’ve spent enough years now with No Child Left Behind, and we know that a national, across-the-board, top-down approach to solving the problems of American education is not the answer. We now have only more problems. No Child Left Behind must not be reauthorized.

If you know of a school that, like Brockton High School in Massachusetts,  is another point of light, go to the Home page, find your state, and tell us about it.

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