Effort to move education to the top of state's policy and political agenda

Proposals to raise the cap on charter schools and give more underperforming schools the authority to make hiring and curriculum decisions
Growth is stagnant despite being ranked first in Nation

Experts angling to push education to top of policy and political agenda

Stagnant growth despite being ranked first in Nation

Despite new test scores showing Massachusetts students atop the nation in reading and math for the fifth straight time, some education experts say the consistently high grades have masked a less flattering trend of stagnant growth, and in some cases declining achievement.

Students in the fourth and eighth grades once again ranked first among their peers on the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exam, known as "The Nation's report Card." But while the Patrick administration cheered the results, some education advocates said the scores should be a wake-up call for Beacon Hill.

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The Education Committee, co-chaired by Rep. Alice Peisch of Wellesley and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz of Boston, has been quietly working on a bill that may combine proposals to adjust the cap on charter schools and give more underperforming schools the authority to make hiring and curriculum decisions currently reserved for the worst schools in the state.

"There are several bills before the committee on that, and we're taking a very serious look at them. I cannot say definitively because I don't know what the will of members of the committee is yet, but we are looking very seriously at where those bills overlap, moving tiles around," Chang-Diaz told the News Service.

Though some outside interests have suggested the bill may surface after Thanksgiving during the legislative winter recess, Chang-Diaz would not put a timetable on the committee's work. "If we're going to do something, we want to do something good. There's not a hard date on it," Chang-Diaz said.

To mark the 25-year anniversary of the organization, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education announced Thursday that it has hired an outside group Brightlines, led by international expert Sir Michael Barber, to bring together a team of international education leaders to assess the Massachusetts education system and make recommendations on how to speed student improvement.

"The NAEP results do provide further evidence that progress has stalled and it's time to look at the new initiatives that will bring about the change we need," said Tricia Lederer, of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Report may be ready in 2014, influence Governor's race

Linda Noonan, executive director of MBAE, said she hopes the report will be completed in early 2014 in time to influence the direction of the 2014 gubernatorial campaign and shape a major push for 2015 to refashion the education system in a way that does more than tinker around the edges.

"We're looking to provide a lot of input and hoping the candidates will use it in developing their education platforms," Noonan said. "In the last session, the focus was on health care. This year it's been about transportation. Next year the election will eat up time. Our feeling is in 2015 they're not going to be able to ignore education."

Noonan hesitated to speculate on what the experts will recommend, but said there's a need for a debate over how schools are using classroom time, how to attract qualified professionals into teaching, and how best to deploy state financial resources.

"I think the world is moving toward a much more outcome-oriented distribution formula where you're able to see the impact," Noonan said.

The Boston mayoral race between Mayor-elect Rep. Marty Walsh and City Councilor John Connolly put education on the front-burner of the city's agenda, but in the Legislature the issue has largely taken a back seat to health care, transportation and building momentum behind efforts to raise the minimum wage and reform the welfare system.

When the House and Senate raised taxes this summer, most lawmakers were reluctant to go all-in on new revenue to support spending on transportation infrastructure and Gov. Deval Patrick's call for substantial new investments in early education. The fiscal 2014 budget did include $15 million in new funding to reduce the waitlist for early education subsidies by 3,200 children.

The last significant education reform initiative came in 2010 when the Legislature passed a bill intended to help close the achievement gap by adjusting the charter school cap, creating so-called "Innovation Schools," and giving the worst-performing schools new tools to implement turnaround plans that include longer school days.

Though many believe the law has been effective, the achievement gap between minority and white students in district across the state persists.

"That was an incremental change, not a transformative change. It tinkered with the cap and tinkered with turnaround schools. It was not something that looked at the system as a whole," Noonan said.

House and Senate bills already filed

Rep. Russell Holmes and Sen. Barry Finegold have filed bills (H 425/S235) this session that would give intervention powers to a subset of poorly performing Level 3 schools, extend turnaround plans that have worked in failing schools, and lift the cap on in-district and new charter schools in the lowest 10 percent performing schools.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has also thrown his weight behind efforts to lift the cap on in-district charter schools, but opposes the push by the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, business leaders and others to lift the cap on so-called Commonwealth Charter schools. The mayor argues that in-district Horace Mann charter schools are less disruptive to students and families by allowing outside operators to take over existing schools.

Walsh, who will be sworn in a mayor on Jan. 6, also testified in support this session of legislation this year to lift the cap on in-district charter schools and Rep. Peisch's bill (H 464) that would allow superintendents to bring teachers, parents and other stakeholders together to develop turnaround plans in Level 3 schools.

Peisch did not return a call seeking comment on the committee's activities, but Senate President Therese Murray said she believe Chang-Diaz and the committee were working on a "comprehensive bill," deferring questions of timing and substance to the chairwoman.

Chang-Diaz said talks within the committee are ongoing. She said she believed any effort to raise the minimum school dropout age to 18 would be separated from the bill addressing charter schools and turnaround plans.

"I don't feel like this is bill that's been neglected, or anything like that," Chang-Diaz said, despite the lack of attention Democratic leaders have given publicly to education reform this session.

Gov. Patrick on Thursday touted the state's scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exam, which showed 4th and 8th graders again earning top national scores in reading and math for 2013.

"Education is the Commonwealth's signature calling card around the world," Patrick said in a statement. "I couldn't be more proud of our students, teachers, and school administrators whose dedication and hard work made this remarkable achievement possible for the fifth time in a row."

While eighth graders sat alone at the top in math scores, Massachusetts students tied for first place in the three other testing categories with states like New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maryland. The scores were stagnant from 2011 in Grade 8 reading and Grade 4 reading and math scores, while Grade 4 reading scores declined five points, making the state one of just three to see a statistically significant decline in Grade 4 reading.

"Our performance in mathematics and in middle grade reading affirms the good progress we are seeing in classrooms across the Commonwealth," Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said. "But whether we look at NAEP or MCAS, our lower grade reading scores are a cause for concern. To address this, we are upgrading the state's curriculum, providing schools with tools and resources to support the shift to new college and career ready standards, and giving educators better feedback than ever before to improve their practice."

Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been lowering standards for students by moving away from literature and poetry in early grades, which research has shown to be effective in helping students develop a "deeper broader vocabulary more quickly."

"It's just one more piece of evidence that we're going in the wrong direction. Those are related to the key predictors of college and career readiness, so no I'm not at all impressed," Stergios said. "I think this will be a real wake-up call."

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