Mass. Conference Examines Schools In 'Vanguard'

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School leaders from across Massachusetts gathered last week in Boston to learn from schools and districts that have been highlighted as leaders in using standards-based programs to improve teacher effectiveness, curriculum development, and data to drive higher learning standards for all students.

The June 1 "Building on Success" conference in Boston brought together some 500 leaders in education, business, and government to discuss the lessons learned from 10 schools and districts identified as in the "vanguard" for their success in outperforming other schools with comparable demographics.

Organized by Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that works to improve student achievement in the state's public schools, the conference represents part of the ongoing Building Blocks Initiative for Standards-Based Reform.

The effort, a partnership between Mass Insight, the state education department, and an advisory committee of state and national leaders in standards-based reform, identifies effective practices in Massachusetts schools and helps other schools and districts implement those successful models.

Begun last November, the initiative used a seven-month application-and-review process that included site visits to schools that applied for the "vanguard" designation. A nine-member panel of educators and school improvement experts asked schools and districts to explain how they had developed high-standards curricula, strengthened teaching standards, strategically used data to improve learning, and intervened to help students who lagged academically.

"Documenting organizational change in school systems simply hasn't happened," said William Guenther, Mass Insight's president. "Our goal was to drill down into successful schools and districts and document in a very practical way what schools and districts have done."

Mass Insight also coordinates programs of standards-based leadership training in regional institutes around the state. "The goal is to create a common language and a set of standards-based goals with the leadership teams," Mr. Guenther said.

Vanguard schools and districts selected included those that have demonstrated a range of successful programs—from a charter school that created an intensive program to serve former dropouts to a districtwide whole-school-improvement model in the 63,000-student Boston school system that uses research-based practices to improve instruction and leadership development.

Beyond Testing

The controversial centerpiece of the Massachusetts standards movement has been the state's testing program, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS. For the first time, this year's sophomores must pass the tests in English and mathematics in order to graduate.

Forty-nine percent of all 10th graders failed the math or the English portion of the 2000 test—or both portions—compared with 55 percent who failed at least one of those sections in 1999.

Many teachers, parents, students, and others have been critical of the high-stakes nature of the exams, which have been the subjects of protests and boycotts across the state. Massachusetts' largest teachers' union ran a $600,000 advertising campaign attacking the accountability tests as "flawed and unfair."

Currently, 40 bills calling for changes in the MCASincluding several that would eliminate the exams' graduation requirement—are pending in the state legislature.

S. Paul Reville, who leads the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform at Harvard University and serves an adviser to the Building Blocks initiative, said the MCAS should not be seen as the sole engine of reform in the state. "We run the risk here that the MCAS becomes mistaken for reform as a whole," said Mr. Reville, a former state school board member.

While he defends the MCAS as a strong assessment tool, he said other issues—such as developing greater teacher accountability—are critical to create incentives for systemwide improvements. The Building Blocks initiative, he said, will help provide improvement models for schools and districts.

"We always put the spotlight on schools that are not doing well," he said, "but there is a need to find out what works."

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Page 3

Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as Mass. Conference Examines Schools In 'Vanguard'
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