For a decade, Massachusetts has led the nation in student performance, ranking high internationally, too. What are they doing that we aren’t? Funding their schools, for one thing. But it’s also about how you spend the money.
This is part one of a two-part series. Part two examines the push to help all Massachusetts students succeed.
BOSTON — For more than a decade, fourth-graders in Massachusetts have been, on average, the most literate children in the country. They also compute at higher levels. The same is true for eighth-graders. And for overall K-12 achievement.
Yet the predominant sentiment in school hallways and policy offices around the state is discontent.
This stands in striking contrast to Washington, where students’ scores have hovered at middle-of-the-road status for years, and schools chief Randy Dorn recently trumpeted an uptick in graduation rates, though they lag behind the national average by five points.
Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Horse-race competition between schools or districts is frequently derided as a superficial metric that fails to account for the effects of poverty and other disadvantages. But in this case, the two states are educating comparable populations.
Both are about 80 percent white, with similar rates of home-ownership and non-English speakers. Both boast household incomes well above the national average, yet see their schools filled with increasing numbers of low-income kids.
The Bay State, however, soars in national comparisons, as well as international ones that place its eighth-graders second in science on one exam, behind Singapore, and sixth in math on another.
Washington middle-schoolers — less than half of whom rated proficient in math on our state test last year — don’t even take the international exams.
The differences in performance echo each state’s approach to funding.
Washington’s Supreme Court says our lawmakers are failing their constitutional duty to provide an adequate education — by at least $3 billion. In the four years since that ruling, legislators have squeezed out some more money, but mostly kicked the can down the road.
Meanwhile, since 1993, Massachusetts has more than tripled state aid devoted to education and hiked scores for its least-advantaged students by double digits.
But when Bay State reformers began their work two decades ago, school outcomes in Massachusetts looked a lot like ours — possibly worse. Thirty percent of elementary- and middle-school kids could not do basic math. Some schools had a student-teacher ratio of 50-to-1. Business leaders worried that a growing underclass could cripple the economy. And there was a lawsuit, similar to the McCleary case in Washington.
“The education of all children was seen as a matter, not only of fairness but of economic self-interest,” said Paul Reville, who was the state’s secretary of education during the overhaul and now teaches at Harvard University.
In his opinion, three strategies — all of them costly and most aimed at low-income schools — are making the difference: beefed-up early education; an expanded school day resulting in significant salary increases; and huge boosts to teacher training.
“You can’t say if I put in x more dollars, I’ll get y results,” he added. “It’s how you spend the money that matters. If you do more of the same, you’ll get more of the same.”
Central to bankrolling these interventions was the then-radical notion of calculating a price tag for educating different types of students, acknowledging that disadvantaged kids cost more to teach and determining how much each community could kick in. The state would cover the rest.
In wealthy towns such as Wellesley, that meant homeowners were paying upward of 80 percent of their kids’ education; in poorer areas, such as Lawrence and Fall River, it was the reverse.
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Washington, on the other hand, divvies up money largely based on the number of teachers working in each district.
The philosophical concept behind Massachusetts’ so-called Grand Bargain was equity — that is, leveling the field between rich and poor. But the plan came with strings: substantial funding paired with much higher expectations for achievement and the very real threat of state takeover for failure to meet them, which has happened to three districts.
Halcyon days followed, with great energy, idealism and a windfall for education. Between 1993 and 2003, Massachusetts doubled the total state and local dollars devoted to schools and today spends about $14,900 per pupil, among the highest rates in the nation. (Washington spends about $10,000 per pupil, which is midrange.)
The original Massachusetts equation has not been revisited in decades, nor kept pace with rising costs, squeezing low-income schools again and dulling the shine of those original ideals. Still, the state ranks tops in the country for its ability to set kids up for successful lives.
“We’re sort of the opposite in Washington,” said Stephen Nielsen, a school-finance expert who was among the early architects of this state’s reform efforts. “We talk about how great we are, and have all these aspirations, but we don’t back up what we say. This is really a story of values.”
Tech school’s journey
For all its advances, not everyone sees Massachusetts as a beacon.
Barbara Madeloni, president of that state’s teachers union, says her members are living under “a hyper-accountability system.” Indeed, many educators there acknowledge “teaching to the tests.” And last year’s maiden run with the new Common Core exams left many kids foundering.
Further, yawning gaps persist between students of different ethnicities, often larger than those in Washington, and many of the most highly-touted schools — with their uniforms, pretest tests and principal-driven hiring — would strike many parents as unbearably rigid.
“The premise that Massachusetts is somehow doing so well, based on testing data, is suspect for me,” Madeloni said. “We’re a wealthy white state, relative to others, so lo and behold, we get these scores.”
Nevertheless, when measuring access to early education, high-school graduation rates, college enrollment and adult employment, Massachusetts bests Washington on every metric — to such a degree, in fact, that union delegates traveled 3,000 miles to see what their colleagues across the country are doing so differently.
But those inquiries halted in the face of Washington’s school-funding battles, said Rich Wood, spokesman for the state teachers union.
“Look at our class size, per-pupil spending and teacher pay. Those things make a difference, and in all of them, Massachusetts is doing much better,” he said.
Money, while still a worry, attracts less ire from Massachusetts educators than qualitative matters.
“What’s the quality of the experience?” said Madeloni. “Do students have opportunities to be creative and explore? Or are they in places where the primary focus is getting their test scores up?”
A look at Worcester Technical High School, one-time dumping-ground-turned-academic-powerhouse, suggests the answer to both questions is yes.
In many ways, the journey of Worcester Tech, 40 miles west of Boston, provides a metaphor for understanding the state’s overall change. With millions of new dollars, freedom to innovate and a do-or-die mandate to boost performance, educators there found a path to success they once believed impossible.
Ten years ago, the school of 1,400 had textbooks so old they’d accumulated mold and sat locked in a supply closet. Teachers didn’t have paper to give out unless they bought it themselves. Students derided friends who planned to attend, and the state, rating Worcester Tech among its worst schools, considered closing the century-old program.
But an infusion of money, to the tune of $90 million for a new facility, plus a new high-rigor curriculum have made the school a showplace. Some refer to the state of-the-art facility — with its 16-bay garage, full-service hair salon, restaurant, veterinary clinic, bakery, credit union and print shop — as the Taj Mahal. But in 2014, President Obama was impressed enough to ask if he could be the graduation speaker.
Part of Worcester Tech’s rebuild involved controversial exemptions from traditional teacher-hiring practices and schedules. Students now spend their weeks alternating between hands-on trade instruction and intensive academics.
Last month in Richard Petty’s calculus class, bakers, welders and engineers-to-be were learning fractional exponents by determining the precise angle of a basketball’s trajectory into a hoop.
“I ended up taking school much more seriously,” said Daniel Soto, 18, who plans to open an auto shop after completing his apprenticeship with Mercedes-Benz.
“There’s less busywork because there’s much less time for us to cover the same material. It forces the teachers to speed up, which I really like because there’s no fluff.”
At Worcester Tech, kids of color, like Soto, comprise more than half the population, and last year, not one failed the high-stakes Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (popularly known as the MCAS) in English or science. Five percent failed in math.
However, not every kid can walk through the door. Like the charter schools that have inspired many of Massachusetts’ changes, Worcester Tech requires an application and reports a 50 percent acceptance rate.
This does not necessarily mean a building full of academic stars, but it does attract kids with strong backing from home. Still, the school’s racial mix has not changed dramatically since 2005 — other than growing less white — while its success rate has surged.
Jai Chavis, 16, who is African-American and lives with his mother, a home-care aide, is studying biotechnology with hopes of attending Brown University. Tyler daSilva, who hasn’t seen or spoken to his father in a dozen years, is being recruited by Columbia University and plans to be a surgeon.
There is no performance gap between the school’s minority and white students, and 98 percent graduate. None are allowed to walk across the stage without presenting a college acceptance letter or job offer on company letterhead.
Tom Mortenson, a policy analyst at the national Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, worked briefly in Olympia, and has watched Washington’s reform efforts sprout, then sputter. When he compares this to Massachusetts, the words come fast and bitter.
“I’ve always praised Massachusetts for their work on education, but they never want to be praised. They want to know where they’re weak,” he said. “K-12 education is supposed to prepare people to go to college, and a 78 percent graduation rate in Washington state — even though you thump your chest and feel good about your quality of life — means 22 percent of kids are immediately going to the very tail end of the labor-market queue, to the jobs no one else wants — if they get jobs at all.”
That was precisely the fate of 21 percent of students at Worcester Tech when Sheila Harrity, who had never set foot in a vocational school, took the reins when the new building opened in 2006.
Task No. 1: Double the number of honors courses and open them to all.
“What are you doing to our school?” her teachers shrieked. “These are not academic kids!”
A former college basketball star with a straight-shooting style, Harrity next took a hard look at test results. Forty percent of Worcester Tech students were scoring zeros on the written portion of the MCAS, she said. So Harrity imported teacher-trainers to address this. In every classroom, from home construction to hair-coloring, kids were taught to write essays in response to exam questions.
It is an irony teachers often bemoan: In education, failure — rather than success — tends to bring extra money, special frills and the freedom to innovate. The once-dismal status of Worcester Tech led to exemptions from hiring rules that allow senior educators to bump newer teachers at will.
“We wanted to opt out of the dance of the lemons,” said Assistant Principal Michelle Phenix.
But Worcester Tech’s educators are union members, and they had to vote in favor of the provision, too.
“I think, actually, people do know what works,” said Kevin O’Connor, who teaches 12th-grade English at Worcester Tech. “People know there shouldn’t be more than 22 kids in a class. People know you shouldn’t hire unqualified teachers. People know vocational and technical education is important — they just don’t want to spend the money.”
First-year Principal Kyle Brenner, who has taken over for Harrity, says it costs about $4,000 more per student to run the school, a fact that keeps relations tense between Tech and its home district.
To address this, the former business teacher spends much of his time scouring Massachusetts for grants and corporate partnerships — with Toyota, L’Oréal, the New England Patriots and others.
He recalled touring his class through the glittering new building shortly before it opened, stopping suddenly when he noticed several students were crying.
“They’d never seen anything like it,” Brenner said. “We’d been a dumping ground for so long. But now the message was ‘We see you. We believe in you. We’re going to invest in you.’ It was almost like they didn’t believe they deserved it.”
Many of Massachusetts’ 37 technical and vocational high schools have followed a similar trajectory, outperforming traditional-curriculum peers.
“When we first did reform, all of those schools came to us and said, ‘You can’t hold us to these standards. We get the low-performing kids.’ We denied their request,” said Reville, the former education secretary. “We said, ‘You absolutely can do this. Figure it out.’”
Key Washington failure
As Massachusetts’ original funding surge has slowed, a divide between middle-class and low-income students lingers. Yet as an object lesson, its success exasperates longtime education-watchers in Washington, who pushed for similar reforms and have watched grand promises fade, shift and morph over time.
“I’m not foolish enough to say money doesn’t matter, but how it’s spent matters a great deal,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a think tank made up of business leaders like those who issued the clarion call for change in Massachusetts 23 years ago.
The key difference between the two states, he said, was determination to see their plan through.
“Massachusetts developed its reform agenda the same year as Washington and stuck to it faithfully. We didn’t. We watered everything down, including funding, and changed our assessments time and time again. We just kept moving the goal posts.”
Yet despite Massachusetts’ comparative success, a week spent visiting schools there turned up few educators who displayed satisfaction. Quite the contrary.
“That’s the story of Massachusetts,” said Jennifer Davis, a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education, who now consults with the state. “We don’t rest on our laurels.”