A 1983 federal survey on the state of America’s secondary education, called A Nation at Risk, is now considered to have been a wake-up call for the country’s education stakeholders. The report showed that most school districts in the U.S, instead of striving for excellence, were instead mired in the “rising tide of mediocrity.” Although nearly every state made a commitment to reverse the trend, 20 years on, it seems only one had carried through on this commitment: Massachusetts.
In 1993 Massachusetts passed the Education Reform Act that significantly toughened up its academic standards and reaped the rewards of becoming home to the best-performing public education system in the country.
The path to academic excellence was not smooth. Even when the commitment to change was universal, progress was littered with missteps such as an early draft English framework that included a unit in Ebonics.
In 1996, Governor William Weld jump-started reform by asking Boston University president John Silber—his opponent in the 1990 governor’s race—to head the board of education. Silber accepted the position on condition that the board’s size be reduced—a shake-up that the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature approved, paring the board from 16 members to nine. The period following the change, with leadership from reformers including James Peyser, Abigail Thernstrom, Roberta Schaefer, and Sandra Stotsky, saw a dramatic acceleration in progress on the curriculum frameworks, which covered English, writing, math, science, and U.S. History.
Among the changes adopted are some that might seem familiar to anyone who’s taken a look at the recently released Common Core Standards in English and mathematics — such as beginning Algebra I in 8th rather than 9th grade, and making sure that the English curriculum is overwhelmingly high-quality literature. The final form of the new standards took a year to hammer out, but once they were in place even those who pioneered their adoption were astonished by their success. Beginning in 1993, the state’s average SAT scores went up every year straight for more than a decade, and the state’s showing on the National Assessment of Education Progress shot up too, culminating with a best-in-nation showing in all four subject areas in 2005. And 2007. And 2009 and 2011. When people talk about American students lagging behind their international peers in science and mathematics, they are not talking about students from Massachusetts.
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.
But the cruel irony is that now that the rest of the country has taken notice of the Massachusetts Miracle, the state has become a victim of its own success. As the federal government is hoping to emulate this success in other areas of the the U.S, the state that started it all is threatened with taking a step back with weaker Common Core Standards. The adoption of Common Core is a prerequisite for any state that wishes to receive a chunk of federal Race to the Top funding.
Massachusetts officials had claimed that they wouldn’t accept national standards that weren’t as strong as the ones they already had in place. Unfortunately, the lure of Race to the Top funding overcame their reluctance…After just one study was completed, the State’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommended that the state’s board of education adopt the national standards, and the board complied. In August 2010, Massachusetts was awarded a $250 million Race to the Top grant, which will fund new textbooks, teacher tests, and professional development aligned with the national standards.