School & District Management

Mass. Chief Steers Steady Course Through Conflicts

By John Gehring — March 05, 2003 8 min read
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David Driscoll changes lanes and hits the gas pedal. He balances a map on his lap as he drives, and every few minutes a cellphone that sits mounted near him rings.

Massachusetts’ commissioner of education is running late.

For the man with the white hair, ruddy face, and dry wit who oversees the commonwealth’s 1,903 schools—and notes his pay raises are based on the success of its 980,000 K-12 students—it’s a typical morning in a busy year.

“I have a pretty hectic schedule,” Mr. Driscoll says as he angles his blue Ford Taurus in and out of traffic on his way to a meeting. “But I thrive on it.”

At 60, Mr. Driscoll is, as the paperweight on his desk reads, “where the buck stops” on education in Massachusetts. So whether you’re thrilled with the state’s improvement on high-stakes tests, or want to vent about how they are killing the heart and soul of classroom learning, he is the man at the center of the storm. Upset about charter schools? He’s your guy.

David P. Driscoll

Position: Commissioner of Education, Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Age: 60
Education: Boston College, bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Salem State College, master’s degree in education administration. Boston College, Ed.D in education administration.
Career: Assistant superintendent, Melrose Public Schools, 1972-1984. Superintendent, Melrose Public Schools, 1984-1993. Deputy commissioner of education for Massachusetts, 1993-1999. Interim commissioner, 1998-1999. Commissioner, 1999-present.
Other Past Service: President, Harvard Superintendents Roundtable. President, Merrimac Valley Superintendents Roundtable. Vice president, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
Personal: Born in Melrose, Mass. Married to Kathleen Driscoll, a reading teacher at North Shore Vocational High School. They have four children.

The job is pragmatic and political, thankless and rewarding. It takes the commissioner from stately offices on Beacon Hill to boisterous 3rd grade classrooms and crowded public hearings. And in the media hothouse that is Boston, where public officials are grilled from the high-toned editorial pages of The Boston Globe to the blunt forum of talk radio, he is closely watched.

“It’s obviously a balancing act,” Mr. Driscoll said recently. “But I think it helps that I’ve been very steady and clear on what I think ought to be done.”

Whether in private meetings with his senior staff or at public forums, Mr. Driscoll comes across as a straight talker.

He breaks down complicated matters into digestible pieces like the math teacher he was years ago. He shows little patience for theoretical tangents. His colleagues describe him as hands- on, practical, passionate about education and children, politically nimble, and ready to make the tough decisions.

When he arrives this afternoon at a hotel to speak on a panel about the new federal education law, Mr. Driscoll works the room of nearly 400 educators and lawmakers. He greets people by name, usually with a pat on the back or a quick joke. “We’re having fun,” he says—and he seems to mean it.

Critical Time

Mr. Driscoll holds his job at a critical time in Massachusetts’ education history.

This year is the first time seniors must pass Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, tests in mathematics and language arts to graduate.

The commissioner also steers the state’s effort to comply with the ambitious demands of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001. Meanwhile, state voters passed an English-immersion program last fall to replace bilingual education—a measure Mr. Driscoll opposed, though he acknowledged some changes in the bilingual program were needed.

Many school district leaders are angry at Mr. Driscoll and the state board of education for supporting the opening of new charter schools, arguing that the independent public schools drain money from their local schools. Public hearings on the issue have gotten ugly. (“Charter Laws Are Targeted in Budget,” this issue.)

This comes as first-year Gov. Mitt Romney faces an estimated $3.2 billion deficit in the state’s $22 billion fiscal 2004 budget.

But under Mr. Driscoll’s tenure, Massachusetts also has emerged as an education leader. The state’s system of standards and assessments provides a model for state education policy, according to a 2001 report by Achieve, a national organization based in Washington, that pushes for a standards-driven approach to improving education.

In January, he attended a White House ceremony in which Massachusetts was recognized as one of the first five states to have No Child Left Behind accountability plans approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

There are many people, though, who are not so pleased with the direction the state has taken under Mr. Driscoll, who was selected schools chief in 1999 by the state board of education

Some educators have joined the teachers’ unions in decrying the high-stakes MCAS exams, and have sparred with Mr. Driscoll and the state board for favoring charter schools.

Jonthan King, a parent of two students in the 7,000-student Cambridge schools and a professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says Mr. Driscoll’s affability belies a rigid conservatism

“Despite his diplomatic manner, he travels around blithely misrepresenting test results and discounting classroom experiences,” asserted Mr. King, who belongs to a statewide group called the Coalition for Authentic Reform in Education, which opposes the MCAS. Mr. King views the commissioner’s policies as part of a rightward drift in state policy.

To date, 83 percent of the students in the class of 2003 have passed the math portion of the MCAS, and 88 percent have passed English. Mr. Driscoll says that steady improvement on the exams shows that the expectations set for students, who have five chances to pass, are realistic.

Last year, the state board instituted an appeals process for students who have not passed the MCAS, but who have met local graduation requirements and have completed schoolwork at MCAS-equivalent levels.

The critics are not satisfied.

“Driscoll has abandoned the interest of public school teachers and schools,” Mr. King contended. "[The MCAS] has driven the best teachers out of schools, and led to thousands of students dropping out who have been demonized in the name of high standards.”

Worthy Opponent

The son of Irish immigrants, David Driscoll is Massachusetts born and raised.

He grew up the youngest in a family of 10 in Melrose, a small city a few miles north of Boston where he still lives. Home is just minutes from the state education department’s offices here in Malden. Mr. Driscoll is usually at his desk by 7 a.m.

“No one around here is a morning person,” the commissioner teased his staff on a recent day.

According to Mark McQuillan, the deputy commissioner of education, Mr. Driscoll combines a down-to-earth style with a relentless focus. “He’s a lot of fun, but he’s very serious about what he does,” Mr. McQuillan said. “He works around the clock.”

The state board of education rewarded Mr. Driscoll, who makes $150,000 a year, with outstanding marks on his annual review in January and said that a raise would be considered later.

Mr. Driscoll has provided strong leadership during a time of high expectations, tight budgets, and fractious ideological disputes about the future of Massachusetts education, said S. Paul Reville, who helped write the state’s 1993 education reform law and directs the Center for Education Research and Policy at the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth.

“He has had a very challenging tenure because he has worked with a board of education that has strong ideologies that have often been at odds with the field,” said Mr. Reville, who is also a lecturer at Harvard University’s graduate school of education.

The commissioner’s unwavering commitment to an often-unpopular position has won him both respect as a leader and criticism. Perhaps the best example is his steadfast support of the MCAS graduation requirement.

Many in Massachusetts believe a single test should not determine whether a student graduates, and they are fighting back.

A handful of local school boards have taken largely symbolic votes in defiance of state law, electing to give students diplomas for meeting local graduation requirements, even if they do not pass the MCAS.

A lawsuit is pending in state court that claims Massachusetts has not adequately prepared students for the assessment, and that the test has a disproportionate impact on minority students.

But even his policy foes say Mr. Driscoll is a committed leader.

“While we have become adversaries in many ways, we respect him as a very worthy ideological opponent,” said Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which represents local school boards.

State teachers’ union officials at odds with the commissioner over testing and other issues declined comment for this article.

While Mr. Driscoll says he understands the concerns expressed by opponents of high-stakes testing, he’s not wavering.

“Our achievement is up across the board,” he said. “Obviously, a lot of that has to do with the pressure of the test.”

The father of four uses a family analogy to describe the state’s tough love. “You can’t love anyone more than your own children,” he said. “But there are times when you have to say no, and kids get angry. You have to say no because it’s the right thing to do.

“The bottom line is a high school diploma has to mean something.”

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including governance, management, and labor relations—is supported by the Broad Foundation.

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