Hard-charging and longtime Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who led the state through contentious battles over the common core and a raucous testing opt-out movement, and who implemented some of the most ambitious school improvement efforts in the country, died Monday night, according to a department spokeswoman
The Boston Globe and other news outlets reported that he had been battling cancer. He was 65.
The death was announced at a state board meeting Tuesday morning where board chair Paul Sagan gave a moving speech about Chester’s contributions to the state, according to those in attendance.
“We were obviously stunned by his death and deeply saddened,” Sagan told the Globe.
He was one of the country’s longest-serving state education chiefs, having been appointed by the state board in 2008. Over the next decade, he led the state, one of the highest-performing in the nation, through a number of changes, including implementation of its waiver from elements of the No Child Left Behind Act.
That included the state’s controversial adoption of Common Core State Standards and its aligned standardized test, PARCC. In November 2015, it designed its own standardized test.
The state also implemented a school improvement process for its lowest-performing schools that involved state and local officials, a model now being replicated across the country.
“We will miss his leadership and voice,” said Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “Mitchell was incredibly passionate about children, and he would always bring the discussion back to whether we were helping kids, especially those children who need the most support. We have lost an incredible leader today, and I have lost a friend.”
Chester often went toe-to-toe with the state’s teacher’s union over testing and school turnaround efforts.
Chester, the grandson of immigrants, and the son of a gas station owner and teacher, began his career as an elementary school teacher and worked in Connecticut and Ohio departments of education before being plucked to lead Massachusetts’ department. He also worked for Philadelphia schools.
Earlier this month, Chester had cut back his schedule because of medical reasons, according to the Globe.
The state board appointed Jeff Wulfson as acting commissioner.
“There is no doubt Mitchell’s unwavering focus on serving the needs of children, even when it caused discomfort to adults, will be his legacy,” said Linda Noonan, the executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “His courageous and steady leadership will have a long and lasting impact on our state’s students.”
Photo: Mitchell Chester in a 2008 file photo.-- Lisa Poole/AP-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.