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Is top-ranked Massachusetts messing with education success?

Massachusetts public schools produce students who are top in the nation in reading and math. Here's what the state did to get there, and here's why its shift to the new Common Core standards worries some experts.

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Many parents in the state have high education levels and good incomes, making it easier to support their children's education. In addition, Mr. Toner says, school districts are relatively small, allowing for teachers to know the community better; any student can enroll in an AP course; and all students are encouraged to take college-entrance exams such as the SAT.

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With high-stakes testing, some students do have to drill basic skills rather than enjoy a well-rounded curriculum as they approach 12th grade, Toner says, but "you'd have to admit that by having a graduation requirement ... it got kids' and families' attention and you could see the proficiency numbers on the exams [going] up."

Stevens says she has seen over time how the MCAS pressures teachers and presents a rather rigid structure for some learners. But her sons received a well-rounded education, including early opportunities to play musical instruments, which weren't available in California at the time. Older brother Nicholas O'Connor is now studying engineering at Boston University, and Benjamin O'Connor is a high school junior hoping to study marine biology.

"We understand the value of an education," Stevens says. "It's the one thing you can give your child that will last their whole life.

Because of Massachusetts' success story, education policies here are watched and sometimes "emulated by other states," Wilhoit says.

Texas, for example, adopted new math standards this year after a democratic process – starting with a draft based in part on standards from high-performing states, including Massachusetts, says Todd Webster, chief deputy commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. Texas is sticking with those standards rather than adopting the Common Core.

But Massachusetts' future doesn't look as rosy to observers such as Jamie Gass, director of the Center for School Reform at the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative-leaning group in Boston.

"Massachusetts made historic gains ... but in the last four or five years, a lot of those policy gains have been rolled back," he says. "There are other states that are nipping at our heels ... [and] Massachusetts has kind of plateaued."

Particularly problematic, he says, is the state's decision to jump on the Common Core bandwagon. Massachusetts' standards were a model, he says, and the Common Core standards are of lower quality. For instance, standards for English-language arts used to be based largely on classic literature and poetry, which have a rich vocabulary, but the Common Core emphasizes more informational text, Mr. Gass says. To him it's part of a "trendy fad" focusing on workforce-development goals and "softer" 21st-century skills.

Commissioner Chester defends the state's decision to adopt the Common Core, saying it "advanced what we already had on the table."

Collaboration is increasing among states as more leaders look at the bigger picture of the global economy, Chester says: "When [there are] 50 different sets of standards [and testing] ... you're not necessarily giving children and parents honest and accurate information about how they measure up in a world where state boundaries are less and less relevant to your economic opportunities."

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