Assessment Opinion

How Massachusetts Built a World-Class School System

By Marc Tucker — December 22, 2016 10 min read
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Many people know that the United States has for years performed very poorly on the OECD’s PISA comparative survey of national student performance of 15-year-olds. However, Massachusetts has participated in the last two surveys, and, in this last one, emerged as a star performer, scoring in the top ranks worldwide. In this blog, I analyze that performance, offering some explanations for Massachusetts’ success, suggesting some opportunities the state might have to do even better and explaining why I think that other states need to look hard at Massachusetts but also other top performing countries as well.

With a raw score of 529, Massachusetts would have had the sixth highest raw score in the world in science if it were a country and no other sub-jurisdictions were on the list. Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec in Canada did better, so it would be ninth on a list that included the sub-jurisdictions. But, when looking at these results in terms of the statistical significance of the differences between scores, only Singapore did better.

Massachusetts scored 527 in reading, the second highest after Singapore if the state was a country, fifth highest if the sub-jurisdictions taking PISA are included. No jurisdiction’s scores exceeded Massachusetts if the standard is statistical significance. Eight were similar.

Mathematics was a different story. Its average score was 500, the twenty-first highest in the world if it were a country and no other sub-jurisdictions were on the list. If other sub-jurisdictions were included, it would rank thirty-fourth. If statistical significance is the standard, though, only eleven national systems scored higher, while 19 systems were not significantly different.

One of the most interesting aspects of the data is what they say about Massachusetts’ drive to close the achievement gap. Between the 2012 PISA assessment and the 2015 assessment, schools with 50 to 75 percent of their enrollment eligible for free and reduced price lunch went from average scores of 481 to 505 in science, 488 to 506 in reading and 465 to 478 in mathematics. Schools enrolling even higher proportions of disadvantaged students did not improve much, but this record is nonetheless very impressive.

So what has enabled Massachusetts to reach the top of the world’s education league tables? Our analysis of the strategies used by the top performers for years is summed up here. We called Mitch Chester, Massachusetts Commissioner of Education, to see whether that analysis captures the distinguishing features of that state’s successful reforms. It turns out that it does. So, let’s review the bidding.

Governance and vision

According to our analysis, successful reforms are coherent, supported by a wide and deep coalition, grounded in a broad commitment to build a high-wage, high value-added economy, pursued over the long haul by changing administrations and implemented by government agencies working together and not at cross-purposes. All those things are true in the Massachusetts case. The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 provided the economic and educational vision and the broad-based political coalition needed to get there. That coalition kept the vision alive even as the governor’s office changed parties. The Deval Patrick administration made basic changes in the governance structure for education, creating a unified structure to replace a highly fractionated one.

Support for young children and their families

Massachusetts was the first in the nation to bring early childhood services under one roof, in 2005, with the creation of the Department of Early Education and Care to better coordinate services and expand access. The state committed itself to working toward universal preschool, free community college for early childhood educators and new curriculum and standards for birth to age three programs. It established an Early Childhood Educator Scholarship program, built strong professional development programs for early childhood educators and created a career ladder for early childhood workers. Commissioner Chester told us that the fiscal challenges that came with the Great Recession made it impossible to achieve the levels of access that the state had aimed for on the schedule originally envisioned, but did not dent the commitment it made to focus on improving the quality of services and personnel in this key arena.

More resources for disadvantaged students who need them the most, so that all students can reach high standards

Massachusetts spent $13,546 in 2013 per pupil, adjusted for regional cost differences, the 12th highest in the nation. More important, it uses a pupil-weighted funding formula that adds substantial sums to the base for specific characteristics of students such as English language learners, low-income and special education. This additional funding for disadvantaged students is among the highest in the country. That’s what makes the system both fair and effective. Overall, Massachusetts spends 7.3 percent more state and local dollars on each student in a low-income district than in a high-income district. That figure is 14.8 percent when federal funding is included, eighth highest among the states. We have also observed that the world’s top performers work hard to assign more and better teachers to schools serving high proportions of disadvantaged students. Here, too, Massachusetts does what the top-performing education systems do.

Powerful, coherent instructional systems coupled with clear gateways

This, of course, is what Massachusetts is best known for. Back in the 1990’s, as the standards movement got underway, many states set low standards, hoping to strengthen them over time. Wrong strategy. Massachusetts benchmarked the standards used by the world’s top-performing countries, set its own standards there, assumed that Massachusetts students could meet them, and then gave their educators the time and support they needed. They developed assessments that matched the standards not only by setting high passing marks, but, much more important, in their demands for mastery of the underlying conceptual structure of the subject matter. Most other states set lower standards, required much shallower mastery, provided much less support to teachers, gave them less time to figure out how to teach to the new standards and backed off in the face of widespread belief that poor and minority students would not be able to perform at the required levels (which, of course, did not prove to be the case in Massachusetts). This is not what the top-performing countries do, nor is it what Massachusetts did. By 2014, 88 percent of the state’s tenth graders were passing their demanding high school assessment, required for graduation, one of the most rigorous in the country. A new version of that exam is now being constructed, intended to incorporate the best features of the old MCAS exam and the more technologically advanced PARCC exam.

High-quality teachers and leaders

All of the top performers have built their systems on the assumption that top performance requires highly capable teachers who are treated as professionals. Massachusetts ditched the undemanding Praxis tests used by many states to assess beginning teachers’ mastery of subject matter and built their own tests set to a much higher standard, using them to ratchet up significantly their standard for teacher licensure. That set of tests is widely regarded as the most challenging in the country. The pass rate for the required special subject tests was only 64 percent in the most recent administration. Among private institutions that prepare teachers in Massachusetts, Lesley University prepares the most. Lesley requires students to declare education as a double major with the other major being the subject the candidate plans to teach. Lesley’s Master’s program requires teachers to complete 75 hours in the field under a trained mentor, followed by a full semester in the classroom, assuming progressively greater responsibility. The state requires that newly hired teachers be mentored for one year following certification. From the beginning, the state has recognized that good teachers who are poorly led do not stay in teaching very long. It is with some pride that I note that Dave Driscoll, state commissioner of education when the Massachusetts Education Reform Act was being implemented, turned to our National Institute for School Leadership’s Executive Development Program to train principals all over the state, giving them the skills they needed to support their faculties properly as the whole complex program of reforms was rolled out statewide. The NISL leadership development curriculum is designed to help leaders at all levels of the system implement comprehensive school improvement agendas of the kind that Massachusetts had embraced.

Teacher leadership and professional work environments

This may be the arena in which Massachusetts is farthest behind the top performers. However, the state seems to have set the stage for important progress in this area. State law requires the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to take over districts that are performing below acceptable levels and gives the department considerable powers in those districts, above and beyond those typically enjoyed by the local school boards. In the case of Lawrence, the historic mill town on the Merrimack River, the state chose to use those powers to implement a form of teacher career ladder which, while less aggressive than those in some of the most advanced countries and even some other states, still lays down a marker for one of the most important features of school organization and management in the top-performing countries, well-developed career ladders for teachers and school leaders. Initially opposed by the local teachers’ union, it was, Commissioner Chester told us, later embraced as they came to understand how such career ladder systems can be used to create schools in which teachers are treated as high-status professionals.

A high-quality career and technical education system

Though Massachusetts is most widely known for ratcheting up academic standards, it should also be known for creating one of the strongest systems of secondary career and technical education in the nation. But it is now reaching beyond that achievement to partner with the Pathways to Prosperity Project, run by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Jobs for the Future, intended to bring to the United States many of the key features of the best career and technical education systems in the world, including opportunities for students to serve as paid apprentices for employers offering state of the art equipment, processes and technical staff. Like all the top-performing countries that are strong in this arena, Massachusetts sees career and technical education not as a home for students who do not do well on academics, but as an opportunity for students who do well on academics to learn in an applied setting. Academic achievement in Massachusetts is not an option. It is the goal for all students.

Here is the really interesting thing about Massachusetts: Consider first the state’s advantages. It is one of the wealthiest states in the union. Its parents are among the best-educated in the nation and the world. It is home to a remarkable collection of first-rate universities and research and development organizations. This does not explain its achievements. After all, other states are in the same class in each of these dimensions and are far behind Massachusetts in measured student achievement. Massachusetts got way out front because of the specific policy measures it adopted and the way implementation of those measures was managed, as I have shown.

But other countries have gotten to the same plateau without those advantages, some starting their journey in deep poverty amid great conflict. States that look at the Massachusetts example as unattainable need to look at other places that have done just as well without its advantages and then go back to Massachusetts to look again through new glasses.

But the other—no less interesting—thing about Massachusetts is how much room it has to grow, to get even better, by adapting features of other top systems that it has not yet implemented or implemented widely. These include but are by no means limited to requiring elementary school teachers to specialize in either mathematics and science or English and social studies (which I believe could all by itself substantially close the gap with other nations in mathematics performance), limiting enrollments in teacher education programs to research universities, implementing advanced forms of career ladders for teachers and principals statewide, creating a statewide apprenticeship system and fully implementing the early childhood programs it envisioned years ago. The aim should be to get better and better. It is what Singapore has done year after year. One gets the sense talking to Commissioner Chester that this is exactly where he wants to go.

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.