State can help public schools achieve excellence, not just passing grade

Equality of opportunity is discussed more than it is practiced in Massachusetts - and nowhere is this more apparent than in the public schools. From community to community - or even from classroom to classroom - any similarity between the level of education is more often a matter of coincidence than design. But help is within sight.

The situation is a matter of increasing concern to many state legislators as well as to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, himself a graduate of one of the commonwealth's reputedly better school systems.

Governor Dukakis, in his annual State of the State message Tuesday, made it clear that stronger public schools are a top priority of his administration when he pledged to increase state funding for education at the elementary and secondary levels.

More dollars from Beacon Hill, however, will not necessarily provide a higher caliber of instruction, especially in some of the poorer cities and towns where many children have been denied a good education .

What is needed - even more than increased funding - is accountability. The state needs a system for ensuring that every nickel of financial aid is used for the purpose intended, and is not being siphoned for noneducational programs.

A report by the Joint Legislative Committee on Education, recently completed after six months of study, concludes that the state needs to exert stronger controls on the public schools. It recommends state accreditation of all school districts every five years, statewide pupil testing, expanded curriculum, more stringent performance standards for teachers, and increased state funding.

But the report, and the proposed legislation to implement its recommendations , do not spell out what the standards would be and how they would be enforced. Much is left to the discretion of the state education commissioner and the State Board of Education. Under such an arrangement, accreditation standards and educational requirements could vary from time to time, depending on the political pressures being exerted on these people.

The commonwealth has a responsibility to ensure teacher competency by conducting some type of periodic evaluation. It is not clear from the proposed legislation, however, how the evaluations would be administered or even how often.

Governor Dukakis favors teacher evaluations every two years. Opponents of teacher evaluation contend it is impossible to devise an accurate measurement of competency. Yet without such an arrangement, many children may be deprived of the level of instruction to which they are entitled.

Conspicuous by its absence from the pending legislation is merit pay, a way of rewarding outstanding teachers or administrators. Neither the joint committee nor Dukakis aides appear to favor such an approach, arguing there is no fair way to determine who should receive the extra pay.

A more accurate explanation might be that special-interest groups, like the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), are opposed to merit pay - and have made their sentiments known in less than hushed tones.

Whether the politically influential MTA decides to back the legislation, especially some of its more controversial elements, should be apparent by month's end. At a Jan. 28 convention, members are expected to devote much of their time to the proposal.

Overall, Mr. Dukakis is in accord with the pending legislation. But he wants no part of two of committee-endorsed proposals: new incentives for early retirement for teachers, and a longer school day (or longer school year).

Encouraging teachers to retire early, Dukakis says, may rob the school system of some of its most able instructors - those with the experience that could help improve educational programs.

And before endorsing a longer school day or year, the governor wants to know exactly how the extra time would be used and why it is either desirable or necessary.

In a few days, the governor will submit to the legislature the proposed fiscal 1985 state budget. It is said to include an increase in the state's share of public-school operations from 37 percent to 41 percent. Gubernatorial aides are optimistic that his goal of 50 percent state aid can be achieved in four years.

Theoretically, the additional money would be used by local school boards for programs that would turn out students who were better prepared for college as well as the job market.

One of the major strengths of the pending legislation is mandatory testing of all pupils in the fourth and eighth grades. In this way, local school administrators can determine what curriculum changes are needed.

There is always the possibility that some of the additional state dollars for public schools will be diverted for nonacademic purposes, including a bit of that all-too-familiar patronage. For this reason, local school officials must be made more fully accountable, not merely to their local constituents but to the commonwealth - an objective that might be realized if the state attaches strings to the funding.

So far there is no indication that state lawmakers or Dukakis are prepared to take this step, lest in the process they displease local officials and some special-interest groups. Indeed, some of the latter already may be smacking their lips over the prospects of a bigger piece of the state fiscal pie for schools.

The legislation drafted by the education committee, despite some of its more glaring shortcomings, is an important and long overdue move in the right direction. It could be one of the most significant and far-reaching measures of the decade, especially if lawmakers keep the best interests of the children of Massachusetts foremost.

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