Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

School Standards in the Bay State

Commitment and Common Sense: Leading Education Reform in Massachusetts, by David P. Driscoll (Harvard Education Press, 216 pp., $30)

David Driscoll was a math teacher in a suburban Massachusetts community from 1964 to 1972, a central-office administrator in that community from 1972 to 1993, and deputy commissioner and then commissioner of education for the commonwealth from 1993 to 2007. This is his account of his career in these essentially closed worlds, anecdotal and with periodic reflections on lessons learned.

Driscoll comes across as a dutiful and genial apparatchik whose most notable contribution to the remarkable achievements of public schooling in Massachusetts was in carrying out the intentions of the Massachusetts legislature in adopting the Education Reform Act of 1993. As a recent report issued by Pioneer Institute points out, the academic standards under this historic legislation were developed “with an eye toward authentic college readiness. High-quality literature made up about 80 to 90 percent of the English content. In math, students were required to start studying algebra in the eighth grade, years before the National Mathematics Advisory Panel made the same recommendation.” And the result was success in the classroom, as noted by the same report:

Measurable improvements in academic performance began to take hold: Massachusetts’s SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years, beginning in 1993. The state’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shot up, too: By 2005, Massachusetts students became the first to score best in the nation in all four major NAEP categories (fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math). When the NAEP tests were administered again in 2007, Massachusetts repeated the feat — and did it again in 2009 and then again in 2011. While American students as a whole lag behind their international peers, the 2008 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study results showed that Massachusetts students were competitive with their counterparts in places like Japan, Korea, and Singapore. The Bay State’s eighth-graders even tied for first place internationally in science.

Setting high standards for K–12 instructional outcomes is one thing, of course, and enforcing them with real consequences for students, teachers, and schools is quite another. Driscoll’s decades as a member of the public-school establishment made him especially sensitive to the reality that the public tends to support the adoption of high standards but not their enforcement in the form of testing with high-stakes consequences. Thus, while students were required to pass the tenth-grade state tests to receive high-school diplomas, these tests were “calibrated at about an eighth-grade standard.” Driscoll says — and this is hardly surprising, given this low expectation — that “it would take only a few years for over 90 percent of tenth graders to pass” the math and English tests. In addition, students who, after repeated attempts, did not pass even these tests were still allowed to graduate, after a fashion (without receiving a regular diploma).

In schools nationwide, testing is too often unrelated to instructional improvement and resented by teachers and parents alike. One of the strengths of the Massachusetts reform is that test items from the previous state tests were released each year, with correct answers and an explanation of the standard associated with each question. This enabled teachers and principals to analyze where their students were encountering difficulties and adjust instruction accordingly. Driscoll gives an example from his own field of math education: “Two-thirds of fourth-grade students were not getting a pretty straightforward division problem correct.” Teachers had been placing so much emphasis on such trendy topics as “place value and the properties of whole numbers” that students were not learning the basic mechanics of arithmetic. The feedback from the state tests promoted continual improvement.

How much of the marked improvement of academic outcomes in Massachusetts was the result of Driscoll’s implementation, and how much should be credited to the wisdom of those — state senator Tom Birmingham and state representative Mark Roosevelt, among others — who designed the 1993 Education Reform Act? The boldness of their legislation went well beyond anything that the public-school establishment, including Driscoll, was calling for. The reader will not expect his account to provide an unbiased judgment of how the commonwealth’s business and legislative leadership forced that establishment out of its complacent rut, nor of the contributions of Board of Education chairmen John Silber and Jim Peyser and many other strong reformers. As someone on the margins of these developments — I was responsible for urban education and equity issues in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1970 to 1991, and then taught education policy at Boston University from 1991 to 2016 — I found Driscoll’s account informative and entertaining but did not get a good sense of how to apportion the credit.

What is most striking about this account is how many of the turbulent developments in education policy over his time in district and state leadership seem to have passed Driscoll by. The adamant opposition of the teachers’ unions to accountability for student results does not seem to have troubled him, either as superintendent or as commissioner. Efforts to promote school-level autonomy and decision-making are not mentioned. The development of charter schools, in which Massachusetts became a quality leader, is “seen as the answer by some and the enemy by others” but apparently leaves Driscoll himself indifferent. A strange indifference, given that independent researchers have concluded repeatedly that Boston’s charter schools are the best public schools in the country at closing the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools.

Nor does he mention that, in the early 2000s, the legislature — dissatisfied with the performance of the Department of Education (DOE) headed by Driscoll — approved a proposal to shift the evaluation of school-district performance to an independent state agency, the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. In 2003, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, released a report on ten years of implementation of the Education Reform Act, and thus of David Driscoll’s statewide leadership over that period, and noted that “a majority of local educators indicated that they do not believe DOE makes good use of the data it collects or feeds useful information back to districts and schools.” Over time, “local school committees, administrators, and teachers lost their desire to cooperate with the education-reform process. In the absence of voluntary cooperation, the DOE lacks the capacity to make education reform happen.”

Perhaps the most striking omission from Driscoll’s account involves the leading equity issue of his period in state leadership: the repeal in 2002 of the state’s first-in-the-country transitional bilingual-education requirement, by popular referendum amid great controversy. I was on the governor’s Bilingual Education Advisory Committee at the time, and we had just obtained enactment of alternative legislation to make bilingual education an option rather than a requirement, and to institute strong accountability for results. This legislation was voided by the referendum. We were then convened by Driscoll’s staff to discuss what should be done. Only once: After that, there was silence and neglect at the state level and in many local districts, while a rapidly growing number of English-language learners were denied effective schooling, until finally the U.S. Department of Justice intervened.

For a broader sense of what is missing in Driscoll’s book, read Chester Finn’s autobiographical Troublemaker: A Personal History of School Reform since Sputnik (2008). Finn evokes the tumult of new ideas, hopes, initiatives, controversies, failures, and successes that have made education policy so exciting and often so frustrating over recent decades — a story that makes very little appearance in Driscoll’s account of bureaucratic maneuvering within an almost unchanging institutional complex.

Driscoll’s memoir, with its narrow focus on top-down management of the most obvious forms of accountability without upsetting any existing arrangements, illustrates why public schooling in the United States cannot be expected to reform itself. The recent weakening of educational standards in Massachusetts, as the commonwealth, under pressure from the Obama administration, aligned its expectations with those of the nationwide Common Core program, illustrates the almost infinite ability of that system to absorb reform initiatives and then return to its comfortable status quo.

Common sense is an essential, and often missing, ingredient in education reform, but so is vision; it is not enough to continually lay new expectations on a worn-out organizational model. That model has changed remarkably little over the past hundred years, while other sectors of society have responded inventively to new challenges. Commitment and Common Sense provides a personal tour of that closed world, and a reminder of its inadequacy.

– Mr. Glenn is professor emeritus of educational leadership and policy at Boston University.

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