Bay State Governor Presses Education Plan

By Dakarai I. Aarons — September 02, 2008 5 min read
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With his own new education chief in place, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts is moving forward with an ambitious education agenda for the state’s students that would include free access to community college for all state residents, a statewide teacher contract, and an aggressive dropout-prevention program.

The first-term Democrat, a rising political star in the national party, used his turn in the spotlight at last week’s Democratic National Convention in part to emphasize education and its importance for the nation’s economic future.

Those same themes are reflected in the governor’s Commonwealth Readiness Project, a 55-point plan that stretches into 2020 and is intended to address students’ educational needs from prekindergarten through college graduation.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick spoke Aug. 26 at the Democratic National Convention, in Denver.

“We wanted to have a seamless system where kids don’t fall in between the cracks,” said S. Paul Reville, the state’s new secretary of education, who reports to Gov. Patrick. A separate chief, Mitchell D. Chester, is commissioner of the department of elementary and secondary education and has day-to-day authority over K-12 education.

While the ideas have been met with a positive reception from lawmakers and educators, that goodwill has yet to translate into the political and fiscal capital needed to make the Readiness Project a reality.

Work on some initiatives is under way, but many others are still being shaped, with a goal of bringing several items forward in the next state legislative session, which starts in January.

Finding money for the project, which some have estimated to cost upwards of $1 billion annually, will require strategic thinking. The Bay State has a $4.5 billion K-12 budget for fiscal 2009, a healthy slice of the state’s $28.1 billion budget. The state has 962,000 students in K-12.

“It is going to be a challenge to develop the ideas he has into concrete proposals,” said Anne Wass, the president of the 100,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, which is an affiliate of the National Education Association and supports many of the proposals.

“The other big challenge will be finding the resources to pay,” said Ms. Wass, a member of a commission set up to identify funding sources. “I understand people will say it won’t have to be all new resources. I don’t think just reshuffling and replacing with new programs is even going to approach the level of resources needed.”

State Rep. Patricia Haddad, a Democrat who co-chairs the legislature’s joint committee on education, said there’s a long road ahead to get buy-in not only from legislators, but also from communities that will have to give up some of their autonomy.

“A big part of my job is to try to convince people that change, although inevitable, is a good thing,” she said. “I disagree with the fact we are doing [education] very well. We may be the top in the United States, but we are not where we need to be globally.”

New Structures

Gov. Patrick received legislative approval in March to create the executive office of education, and tapped Mr. Reville, a noted education policy researcher from Harvard University, to lead it.

The new structure gives the governor increased authority over the state’s education system. Mr. Reville sits on the separate boards that set education policy for the commonwealth, and he has veto power on the selection of the state’s three education commissioners, who oversee early-childhood, K-12, and higher education.

Long-Range Strategy

Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Readiness Project aims to create a seamless system from prekindergarten through college. Gov. Deval Patrick hopes to have the 55-point project fully implemented by 2020.

Among the initiatives: Universal pre-K and full-day kindergarten Master teacher contract for entire state “Readiness schools” run on contract with more flexibility than traditional schools Early dropout-prevention program Free community college for all state residents

SOURCE: Massachusetts Executive Office of Education

Work on the Commonwealth Readiness Project has been under way for more than a year by a team of prominent individuals from across Massachusetts, including union heads, professors, legislators, superintendents, and teachers.

Gov. Patrick’s interest in education was reflected in his Aug. 26 speech to Democratic convention delegates in Denver, in which he referred to the importance of “a first-rate education,” and emphasized presidential nominee Barack Obama’s commitment to early education and funding for the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

A focus on preparing students to compete in a new world is at the heart of the governor’s education agenda, said Mr. Reville. Massachusetts has a high school graduation rate of 88 percent and leads the nation in scoring on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

“We are doing very well by almost any indicator nationally, but we have a deep and abiding sense that doing well isn’t good enough,” Mr. Reville said. “We need to move forward with some urgency.”

Details Emerging

One of the first initiatives is a push for universal pre-K and full-day kindergarten across the state. This year’s education budget increased funding to convert more half-day programs into full-day programs.

Some of the project’s other key components focus on the transition between high school and postsecondary education. They seek to boost the early-college and dual-enrollment programs offered to high schoolers.

Such programs could help efforts to close the state’s achievement gaps, which often are masked by the high performance of its white and wealthy residents, said Nancy Hoffman, the vice president of youth transitions and director of the Early College High School Initiative for the group Jobs For the Future, based in Boston.

Among adults ages 25 to 64 in Massachusetts, 42 percent of white residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 22 percent of black residents and 17 percent of Hispanics, Ms. Hoffman said.

“We’ve seen giving young people the option of free college courses motivates them to work hard and takes away the still-persistent belief in the low-income community that even with Pell Grants, college is not affordable,” she said.

Gov. Patrick’s proposals are not without controversy, however.

Ms. Wass of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, for example, said she’s opposed to a measure that would pay some teachers more for teaching harder-to-staff subjects such as math and science.

“I think it would be very divisive. And I think it would certainly put a strain on collegiality within the working of the building,” the former 6th grade teacher said.

Another proposal to be developed in coming months is that of “readiness schools,” which would be expected to raise student performance in return for being given greater flexibility. They would report to local school boards but be run by private contractors.

“We really as a concept support them,” Ms.Wass said. “However, one of our strong beliefs is that the most successful, innovative programs are based on collaboration on the ground floor.”

She said lessons can be learned from the state’s 19 extended-day schools, which have longer days and greater administrative flexibility over staffing. Such schools were more successful when parents and teachers got involved early in the process. (“Mass. Initiative: Does More Time Equal More Learning?,” Dec. 12, 2007.)

A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Bay State Governor Presses Education Plan


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