School & District Management Opinion

David Driscoll’s Lessons From Massachusetts

By Marc Tucker — January 10, 2018 13 min read
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It is not often that I describe a book I have read as a treasure, but David Driscoll’s Commitment and Common Sense: Leading Education Reform in Massachusetts is exactly that. The book, written in the form of a memoir, is mainly the story of the implementation of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, a comprehensive redesign of the Massachusetts education system that enabled the state, alone among all the states in the United States, to enter the ranks of the world’s top-performing education systems.

The book tells it like it is. It is an authentic, at times funny, always compelling account of how this landmark comprehensive policy reform was shaped and implemented. It won’t surprise you that I strongly recommend that you buy this book and read it.

But, at the same time, I would urge some caution. I have known David Driscoll for many years and, like so many others, come to love him. He is such a decent, caring human being, overflowing with that most uncommon quality: common sense as well as a vast horde of carefully considered experience. The very antithesis of an ideologue, he can see merit in each of two opposing views. He can hold his own, but he does not seem to hold a grudge. ‘Politician’ seems now to be a swear word, but Driscoll is an education politician of the highest order, if by ‘politician’ you mean a person who has the personal gifts needed to bring people from every station in life and point of view and narrow interest together to forge a new way of doing things at scale. He was exactly the right person to lead the implementation of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act.

It is also true, as Driscoll points out in his book, that Massachusetts was extremely lucky in its leadership when it most needed it. Driscoll was not alone. Were it not for an extraordinary business leader, a gifted advisor to that business leader, several governors in succession of both parties, key legislative leaders and Driscoll’s predecessor as Commissioner of Education, all of whom were deeply committed to what became their common agenda, the “Massachusetts Miracle” would almost certainly have died aborning. If just one of those people had opposed the effort or simply dragged his or her feet, the whole thing might easily have come apart.

Commitment and Common Sense, more than anything else, reads like a study in leadership. And that is the problem. Yes, it is unquestionably true that the stars lined up for Massachusetts, enabling the state to create a comprehensive agenda for education that not only gained enough support for passage as legislation, but went on to be deeply and widely implemented over a period of many years. And, yes, it took courage, commitment and persistence of a kind rarely seen in American politics at either the state or national levels.

So it is not surprising that most of the reaction to Driscoll’s book has come in the form of praise for Driscoll and the other people who can reasonably share the credit for leading Massachusetts to a level of success at a scale that no other state in the United States has managed to come close to. The praise is well deserved and the qualities of leadership and commitment that were displayed are justly celebrated.

But that very fact can make it seem that it was the remarkable alignment among an unusual constellation of leaders, and not the agenda they embraced, that accounted for their success. What this account of the Massachusetts Miracle leaves in the background are the specific policies and practices that the state implemented to achieve the student performance it now enjoys. Those policies and practices are very important. It is highly likely that if another set of policies and practices had been pursued with the same persistence and courage, the results would have been nowhere near as impressive.

How do I know that? Because our organization, NCEE, has been studying the countries with the most successful education systems for almost 30 years and has been able to identify nine common components of those high-performance education systems. The program of reform that Massachusetts enacted, it turns out, is largely addressed to those components. This is not to say that Massachusetts was influenced by the other countries. I have no evidence that they did any such thing. But it is evidence that these components need to be present in any design for an education system to produce high performance at scale. Further, as Driscoll points out in the book, you need them all. This is not a collection of separate policies. They collectively constitute a new system.

Our organization has distilled what we have learned about what it takes to create high performance education systems into a document titled 9 Building Blocks for a World-Class Education System. What follows is the heading for each building block, with a very brief commentary on the way in which Massachusetts has addressed each of them:

1. Provide strong supports for children and their families before students come to school

Here we refer to high-quality early childhood education, quality affordable day care, child allowances, health care, paid family leave, wrap around social services and other services for families with young children. This is the one building block for highly successful education systems that Massachusetts did not address. As Driscoll put it to me in a conversation, “We punted on this one.” Paul Reville, one of the key figures involved in designing the Massachusetts Education Reform Act, after later serving as Secretary of Education in the state, stepped down to devote himself to addressing this oversight by leading a wide-ranging research program at Harvard University designed to help the state identify and implement the policies needed, especially by low-income and racial and ethnic minorities, to send their children to school with the health, confidence, vocabularies, cultural experiences, levels of cognitive development and social skills they would need to succeed in school. I am of the view, a view I think is shared by Reville, that if Massachusetts were to create a powerful set of well-designed and well-aligned programs in this area, it could substantially close the gaps in performance between low-income and minority children in the state and the high flyers.

2. Provide more resources for at-risk students than for others

The Massachusetts education reform act had been preceded by a school finance case charging that the state had failed to provide adequate funds to districts serving mainly poor children. This set the stage for a bill that would include revising the school finance formulas to provide more equity in school finance. But Governor Weld had come to office pledging no new taxes. He was widely viewed as a classic budget hawk and it was widely assumed that he would be opposed to any large increase in school funding, without which an increase for schools serving low-income and minority students would have been very difficult. But he was totally on board with the reform program and offered to increase the education budget by two billion dollars if the educators agreed to raise the standards for student performance and agreed to be held accountable for getting their students to the standards. And he followed through, while keeping his promise not to raise taxes. The formula for distributing the funds was much more equitable than the one it replaced.

3. Develop world-class, highly coherent instructional systems

This is one of the great success stories of the Massachusetts design. Massachusetts still leads the nation in the quality and integrity of its state instructional system, which continues to have important features not yet adopted—to my knowledge—by any other state. By ‘instructional system” I mean a highly-aligned system of standards for student performance, curriculum frameworks and assessments, with course requirements well enough specified so that the observer can be sure that expectations for all students are everywhere the same. Further, that teachers colleges are expected to teach prospective teachers how to teach the courses that students are expected to take. And, finally, that the questions asked in state examinations are released along with an explanation of how each question relates to the standards. This last piece costs real money, because test items have to be developed and field tested to replace the ones released. But Driscoll evidently understood that the purpose of a good assessment system is not just to measure but to help improve student performance, in this case by giving both teachers and students a clear idea of what kinds of work students need to do to reach the published standards. Without that, teachers and students are shooting in the dark. The United States as a whole continues to be way behind the international leaders in this crucial arena, but, while Massachusetts could still take some lessons from some of the global top performers, it is way ahead of the U.S. pack.

4. Create clear gateways for students through the system, set to global standards, with no dead ends

Here again, Massachusetts is way out front in the United States. As Driscoll tells the tale, there was a battle royal over where the cut points would be set for the new state exams. Many wanted to do what Texas had done and set them low and then try to inch them up. In the shootout, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Board Chair lined up against the then-Commissioner of Education, who lost his job over the issue. The decision was made to set the standards for graduation at a level comparable to the Proficient level on NAEP. Many predicted that a large proportion would fail to graduate and chaos would ensue. But, when the educators, parents and students stopped resisting, they buckled down to work, and student performance ended up much higher than most had predicted.

5. Assure an abundant supply of highly qualified teachers

The nations in the world’s top ranks put a lot of emphasis on this strategy and most do it mainly by limiting the right to offer teacher education to top universities with tough entrance standards, thereby assuring the country of a steady supply of teachers who did very well in high school. But it is very, very hard to do this in the United States. So, Massachusetts did the next best thing. It greatly raised its standards for licensing teachers, and created a new set of licensing exams for this purpose, abandoning the very weak PRAXIS tests used by most states.

6. Redesign schools to be places in which teachers will be treated as professionals, with incentives and support to continuously improve their professional practice and the performance of their students

One of the least understood (in the United States) but most important factors in the success of the countries with the highest-performing education systems is their approach to school organization and management. It is a fundamental change from an early 20th century form of industrial organization in which teachers are treated like blue collar workers to a modern form of professional work organization in which teachers are treated as real professionals. More and more in these countries, one finds that teachers are teaching only 40 or 45 percent of their time. The rest of their time, they are working in teams to create highly effective lessons which they then all use, combing the world’s research literature to find ways to improve their collective practice, sharing their findings with their colleagues, assembling all the teachers of a student who is falling behind to pool their knowledge of what is going on with that student and agreeing on what is to be done to get the student back on track. It feels much more like a modern law firm or engineering firm than like an old assembly line. It turns out that Massachusetts set out to move their schools toward these new forms of work organization, too. They do not seem to be as far along this track as some high performers, but they appear to be well ahead of any other state I know of.

7. Create an effective system of career and technical education and training

Most states have been talking for years about getting their students college and career ready, but have been doing very little about the career part. When they have addressed the career part, it has often come in the context of assuming that career and technical education is for the kids who are not very good at academics. That is not what the top performers have done. They assume that, whether a student is going on to college or to a career after high school, that student needs to meet high academic standards. That is what Massachusetts did. Because it did that, it could build a career and technical education system on the assumption that the students coming into that system had a solid command of the basic skills. Their regional vocational high school system is among the most admired in the country. While I think it has a way to go to match the achievements of Singapore or Switzerland in this arena, its recognition that a good high school vocational program has to be built on the assumption that the students entering that program have a strong mastery of the basic skills coming in enabled the state to create a strong base on which they can now build to create a world-class career and technical education program.

8. Create a leadership development system that develops leaders at all levels to manage such systems effectively

It is with some pride that I can say that, when Driscoll and his colleagues went looking for a highly effective, highly efficient way to give their principals the leadership training they would need to implement the new reforms with energy, commitment and understanding, they came to our National Institute for School Leadership‘s Executive Development program. Over a period of many years, we ended up training almost all of Massachusetts’ principals and many of their successors. One of the things that distinguish the top-performing nations from most American states is that they put as much energy and capital into implementing their reforms as they do into the design of their reforms and the passage of the enabling legislation. Many of them have said to me, in so many words, “Implementation is policy.” That is, the only policy that matters is the policy that is implemented. Training is the key to good implementation and a good part of that training is providing a compelling rationale for the reforms as well as the skills needed to carry them out effectively. Driscoll makes it clear over and over again that, in the last analysis, reforms do not succeed because practitioners are made to do them but because they think they are the right thing to do. That is how the top performers do it and it is how we approach our training.

9. Institute a governance system that has the authority and legitimacy to develop coherent, powerful policies and is capable of implementing them at scale

Effective systems reform requires the kind of coordinated actions that are needed to build highly aligned systems. That function is typically provided by a ministry of education. But the states in the United States usually have highly fragmented systems of governance that make it almost impossible to create coherent, powerful education systems. Massachusetts has worked hard to fix this over the years, at the school level, the district level and the state level. At the school level, for instance, it made it clear that the principal chooses his or her subordinates. At the district level, it removed the authority of school boards to play any role whatsoever in personnel decisions except for the hiring and firing of the superintendent. At the state level, it created a new cabinet level position of Secretary of Education reporting to the Governor, responsible for coordinating all of the previously separate entities in the education arena at all levels. These actions have not yet given the state the equivalent of a ministry of education, but, step by step, the fragmentation of education governance in Massachusetts has been reduced and the coherence of its education policy has been increased.

The Massachusetts Miracle owes its success to great leadership, sound design and good implementation. The design is not perfect. There are other countries, provinces and states elsewhere in the world that do parts of this design better than Massachusetts, just as there are parts that Massachusetts does better than some of them. If your state is interested in going down this path, give us a call. If you have the leadership, we will help you come up with the design and we will help you implement it. That’s what we do.

The opinions expressed in Top Performers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.