I’ve been pointing out that Massachusetts took a turn away from the success of its education reform in the mid-2000s. As in Rhode Island, reforms that sought to fix the education system in cooperation with the interests that had helped to undermine it produced political pressure to end the reforms, even though they were working. This creates an educational ceiling. Massachusetts started earlier and hit its ceiling in 2007, while Rhode Island’s slower and less-enthusiastic move hit its ceiling in 2011, as aggregated scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test show:
People in Massachusetts are starting to notice, too, as evidenced by Thomas Birmingham and William Weld’s op-ed in the Boston Globe:
In 2010, the Commonwealth replaced its best-in-the-nation English and math standards with national versions that cut the amount of classic literature and poetry that students learn by more than half and extends the time it takes to reach Algebra I, which is the key to higher math study.
Today Massachusetts has essentially the same English and math standards as Arkansas and Louisiana. Students in those states can’t possibly match Massachusetts’ performance, so the political reality is that the bar gets lowered so more can clear it.
The results of this change in education policy have been swift. After years of improvement, our progress has come to a halt. Massachusetts is among a minority of states whose NAEP scores have fallen since 2011 and others are catching up.
Backsliding isn’t the result of any one policy change, but a change in attitude that leads to multiple, related changes: Accountability measures, charter schools, broader school choice, and higher standards all interact. More importantly, all of them have opposing incentives for families/students and the entrenched interests like teachers unions.
As in this morning’s post on patriotism, the solutions all build on each other. Reforming union policy to reduce the power of special interests will make accountability measures more plausible, while giving families high standards and alternatives will increase the resilience of the reform in the face of political pressure.