A Dedicated Reform Agenda for All Massachusetts Students
IN 1993, REPUBLICAN GOVERNOR WILLIAM WELD SIGNED THE MASSACHUSETTS EDUCATION REFORM ACT (MERA).i This law would bring sweeping changes to the entire educational landscape in Massachusetts, elevating the Commonwealth to one of the top performing states both nationally and globally. Today, if Massachusetts were a country, its eight-graders would rank 2nd in the world in science and 6th in the world in math, trailing only places like Singapore or Hong Kong.
MERA represented a “grand bargain” between the K-12 community, business groups, and educational advocacy groups statewide. In return for standards-based reforms – including greater educator and school accountability – state leaders dramatically increased the level of public dollars devoted to high-needs schools. The Education Trust-Midwest highlights these reforms in-depth in the 2014 State of Michigan Education Report, Stalled to Soaring: Michigan’s Path to Educational Recovery.ii
But Massachusetts’ reform agenda did not simply end after the passage of this landmark legislation. In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to create an agency dedicated to early education and after-school services. The Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) consolidated former offices to provide a much more streamlined system for early education, moving away from the “silo” approach in years past. The primary role of the department includes providing financial assistance for low-income families to participate in child care or afterschool programs, overseeing preschool special education funds, providing professional development and support for early education professionals, and others.iii
A few years later, Governor Deval Patrick initiated the “Commonwealth Readiness Project.”iv The Readiness Project represented an ambitious set of goals that by 2020 would provide a high-quality education for all Massachusetts students, beginning from birth. This project also represented a continuation of the original reforms first set out in 1993. Although like many of Massachusetts’ reforms the project provided a comprehensive set of initiatives for all ages, we highlight some of the early childhood initiatives below:
- Incremental increases in annual funding to achieve universal pre-K access.
- Expansion of full-day kindergarten programs for high-needs districts.
- The creation of a statewide birth-to-school-age taskforce, intended to ensure an all-encompassing set of strategies in child development, specifically for low-income families.v
- Creation of a statewide child and youth data reporting system, helping to ease the transition for children moving between schools and communities. Known as the “Readiness Passport,” this tool would provide every child’s family access to their educational experiences and provide a comprehensiverecord of services, interventions and supports.
Massachusetts’ continued commitment to high quality educational outcomes for all kids, beginning from birth, should serve as a model for our state. A model that continually seeks to improve in order to provide the best possible educational opportunities for all Michigan children.
i. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “Chapter 71: An Act Establishing the Education Reform Act of 1993,” 1993. http://archives.lib.state.ma.us/actsResolves/1993/1993acts0071.pdf
ii. Sarah W. Lenhoff and Amber Arellano, “Stalled to Soaring: Michigan’s Path to Educational Recovery,” (Royal Oak, MI: The Education Trust-Midwest, April 2014). http://midwest.edtrust.org/resource/stalledto-soaring-michigans-path-to-educational-recovery/
iii. Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, “Department of Early Education and Care Strategic Plan: Putting Children and Families First,” (Boston, MA: Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, 2009). http://www.mass.gov/edu/docs/eec/research-planning/state-planning/eec-strategic-plan.pdf
iv. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, “Ready for 21st Century Success: The Promise of Public Education,” 2008.http://www.mass.gov/edu/docs/ma-edplan-finalrev1.pdf
v. Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, The Birth to School Age Task Force, “From the Day they are Born: Putting Science and the System to Work for Infants and Toddlers,” (Boston, MA: Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, 2010). http://www.eec.state.ma.us/docs1/board_materials/20101202_from_birth.pdf.
Tennessee’s Path Toward the Top: Higher Standards and Support for All Teachers
FOR YEARS, TENNESSEE WAS NOT REGARDED AS A GREAT STATE FOR EDUCATION. In fact, it ranked lower than Michigan in 2003 for fourth-grade math on the national assessment. Ten years later, Tennessee now outranks Michigan. Indeed, in recent years, Tennessee posted some of the largest gains on the national assessment. On the 2013 national eighth-grade reading assessment, Tennessee’s average score was about six points higher than it was in 2011, for students overall and for low-income students. The average score for African American eighth-graders was 10 points higher in reading in 2013 than 2011. That’s the equivalent of about an extra year of learning for African American eighth-graders in Tennessee.
These big gains didn’t happen overnight, but through strong leadership, a strategic focus on teaching quality, and sustained investment. This led to major reforms in effective teaching and school leadership along with support for all teachers in higher standards.
EFFECTIVE TEACHING AND SCHOOL LEADERSHIP
Tennessee has put a laser-like focus on effective teaching, making educator evaluation and improvement a priority. The Volunteer State was one of the first in the nation to create a value-added data system, which helps educators analyze data to inform instruction and target professional development. Tennessee also requires that all teachers, regardless of experience level, receive annual evaluations that consider student achievement data, student growth data, and classroom observations. vi
SUPPORT FOR ALL TEACHERS IN HIGHER STANDARDS
After taking a close look at its own students, Tennessee found that a very small percentage actually had the skills necessary to enter college or the workforce. vii. State leaders saw this need, and in turn, adopted new and more rigorous college and-career ready standards in all grades. Instead of leaving training of new standards to local districts, Tennessee spearheaded state-led efforts to ensure that teachers were prepared to teach the new and more rigorous standards. Tennessee led a statewide effort to train nearly all of their teachers in college- and career-ready standards in math and reading. As the largest effort to provide professional development to teachers in the state’s history, a rigorous study of the effort found “consistent and significant” impacts on both instruction and classroom practice in just a few years. viii.
Support was also provided through consultation from the Institute of Learning out of the University of Pittsburgh and Voyager Sopris, which provided guidance on reading intervention curriculums in grades K-3. And in 2014, the Tennessee state board of education adopted new higher standards for children from birth to age five, through the Tennessee Early Childhood Education Early Learning Developmental Standards. ix.
vi. SCORE, “Supporting Effective Teaching in Tennessee: Listening and Gathering Feedback on Tennessee’s Teacher Evaluations,” (Tennessee: SCORE, 2012). http://www.joomag.com/magazine/score-evaluationfull-report/0179201001389027567?short.
vii. SCORE, “Common Core State Standards: Better Preparing Tennessee’s Students for College and Career,” (Tennessee: SCORE, 2012). http://www.joomag.com/magazine/common-core-state-standardsbetter-preparing-tennessees-students-for-college-and-career/0818193001389652515?short.
viii. Tennessee Department of Education, “The Impact of the 2012 TNCore Math Training on Teaching Practices and Effectiveness,” policy brief (Nashville, Tenn.: Tennessee Department of Education, 2013), http://www.tn.gov/education/data/doc/impact_of_TNCore_Training.pdf
ix. Tennessee Department of Education, “Revised Tennessee Early Learning Developmental Standards for Four-Year-Olds,” (Nashville, Tenn.: Tennessee Department of Education, 2012). http://www.tn.gov/education/standards/early_learning.shtml
Florida’s Upward Trajectory: Comprehensive Early Literacy Strategies
IN 2002, THE STATE OF FLORIDA EMBARKED ON A COMPREHENSIVE STRATEGY AIMED AT BOOSTING EARLY LITERACY. Many experts agree that third grade is the pivotal point where a child goes from “learning to read” towards “reading to learn.” Students unable to read by this point are more likely to continue falling further behind in middle and high school.
Florida took a multi-tiered approach to address early literacy, which included early diagnostic tools for identifying students with reading problems, intensive reading plans for struggling readers, and additional instructional support for teachers. The state also required students not proficient on the third grade state reading assessment to repeat 3rd grade. The requirement did, however, allow for “good cause” exemptions. This primarily gave exemptions for students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and other exemptions.
Among the services provided to students who did end up being held back were: 90-minute reading instructional blocks, summer literacy camps, placement with a “high-performing teacher” in the subsequent year, parental reading plans, and before or after-school tutoring.
Florida’s leaders understood that this new strategy could not be successful without making sure teachers had additional tools for reading instruction. This meant that by 2006, roughly 56,000 Florida teachers had received training in new scientifically based reading research (SBBR) instruction. SBBR employs systematic and empirical objectives to assess instruction and covers phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Training was coordinated through Florida’s statewide reading office. The state also revised its teacher certification exam to be more aligned with SBBR and also required additional reading courses in Florida teacher prep programs.
Florida’s commitment to early literacy was not a passing phase. In fact, Florida lawmakers allocated $130 million for research-based reading instruction in 2013-14, more than a decade after the initial policy was passed.x In addition to more training for teachers in reading instruction, funding also supported reading coaches to assist teachers in improving their instructional practices.xi
The results of these efforts have made a tremendous impact for students. According to the national assessment, Florida ranks in the top ten states in fourth-grade reading in 2013 after experiencing rapid growth over the last decade. In comparison, Michigan ranked 38th in 2013, having dropped from 28th just ten years prior.
Leading states like Florida prove that only through a comprehensive strategy will Michigan one day become a top ten state.
x. Kevin Smith, “Statewide Literacy Efforts” (Tallahassee, FL: Florida Center for Reading Research, 2014). http://www.cga.ct.gov/coc/PDFs/achievement_gap/turning_2014/smith.pdf
xi. The Florida Legislature, “The 2014 Florida Statutes, Section 1011.62” (Tallahassee, FL: The Florida Legislature, 2014). http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&URL=1000-1099/1011/Sections/1011.62.html