Special Report
School & District Management

This State Leads the Pack in Nurturing Most Students. Can It Help the Rest?

Mass. again at top overall in Chance for Success, but aware there’s work that remains
By Arianna Prothero — January 21, 2020 3 min read

While strong academics, well-educated parents, and high levels of postsecondary enrollment have once again helped put Massachusetts to the top of the EdWeek Research Center’s Chance-for-Success Index, the state faces challenges in other areas that make up that yardstick of educational quality, such as the percentage of children whose parents are fluent English-speakers.

“Massachusetts in the past 10 years or so has typically been ranked at or near the top on various metrics,” said Jeffrey C. Riley, the elementary and secondary education commissioner with the state. “But when we look closer at our data, what we see is we’re kind of only number one for some. We see that kids living in poverty, students with special needs, kids learning English, aren’t necessarily having the same success as other students in our state. And so we feel a moral obligation to fix that.”

Riley hopes a new funding formula passed at the closing of 2019 that directs more dollars into school districts with the neediest students will help shore up the state’s weak spots.

Massachusetts has topped Chance for Success for more than a decade. It performs strongly in all three realms of the index, which measures a range of academic and socioeconomic factors from the early years, through school, and into adulthood. It ranks 9th nationally for early foundations, in large part because of family income—in that category the state ranks second—and in parent education, where the state ranks fourth. Both of them help children get a head start in life.

But where Massachusetts really shines is in the school years and in the outcomes for its students when they enter adulthood: The state ranks first on the index for the school years and second for adult outcomes.

Driving that is strong academic performance from students—the state ranks first nationally in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math.

And on either end of the K-12 school years, the state ranks high for preschool enrollment and postsecondary participation.

Massachusetts falls outside the top 10 states on the school-years indicator for graduation rates, where it ranks 12th, and kindergarten enrollment, where it ranks 36th. However, its graduation rate still isn’t that far below the top-performing state. And in terms of adult outcomes, Massachusetts is 2nd for both educational attainment and annual income.

But those bright spots can obscure areas where the state is struggling. In the area of parental fluency in English, Massachusetts ranks near the bottom at 42nd.

Massachusetts schools have seen a substantial increase in the number of second-language students, many whose families are immigrating from Central and South America, said Riley. The state legislature recently increased funding to help students—and in particular adults—learn English through the state’s adult learning centers.

“Whatever we can do to provide supports for the entire family, we feel like we are going to get better educational outcomes for our kids,” said Riley. “I think a parent’s ability to navigate an educational system may be too often dependent on their level of comfort in English.”

Funding Law Rewrite

Massachusetts’ governor, Charlie Baker, a Republican, signed a bill into law late last year that rewrites the state’s funding formula and boosts money for schools by $1.5 billion over the next seven years. The Student Opportunity Act, as it’s called, aims to address funding inequities across districts by funneling more dollars to those with higher percentages of English-language learners and low-income students.

Massachusetts also ranks toward the low end in kindergarten enrollment, as do other New England states New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Massachusetts’ ranking of 36th for kindergarten enrollment is likely because attending kindergarten is not mandatory in the state, said Riley.

“At the same time, we are starting to see a recognition that both kindergarten and prekindergarten are incredibly important to our children’s success, and so you’re starting to see those [enrollments] rise and I think they will continue to rise both in kindergarten and in prekindergarten,” he said.

A couple of other areas where Massachusetts falls short in the Chance for Success rankings are parental employment, where it ranks 28th, and steady employment for graduates, where it ranks 45th.

“We’re always trying to figure out what is next to prepare our kids to enter the world, the new challenging world that they’re going into,” said Riley. "[D]espite some strong academic gains and outputs, and being at the top of the Chance-for-Success Index—that’s all great—but we’re also interested in figuring out what is next.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as Leading State Confronts Soft Spots in Its System

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