Saturday, January 13, 2018

If you must write that "ed reform at 25" article

Boston Globe coverage of the signing: "Weld puts lukewarm pen to education reform bill"

It's coming...
As we approach June of this year, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Massachusetts 1993 education reform law, we are bound to see an increase in the "ed reform at 25" articles. DESE's new hashtag #LeadingtheNation is only the beginning, and the Michael Jonas article in Commonwealth this week only the first.
I know that some of you reporters out there are going to have no choice but to write some sort of anniversary article; it's a hook. It's timely. It gives publications a reason to write about education, which most of them have a vague sense they should be covering even if they aren't very good or faithful about it.
So if you are going to be required (or feel required) to write a retrospective on Massachusetts over the past twenty-five years in light of our "landmark education law" (don't call it that), here are some tips from me.

1. Don't you dare ignore the money.
It's popular to refer to the 1993 act as "the grand bargain" and place lots of emphasis on the work that went on with business groups, political actors, educators, and others to put together the massive bill that was passed. I will never tell you that is untrue, but it often downplays something crucial:

The state lost a lawsuit on a Constitutional question.

It isn't only the billions of dollars that subsequently were pumped into local districts. The districts argued, successfully, that the state had a responsibility they had been shirking towards all children. It was a fundamental reshaping of the underlying structure of education in Massachusetts; it proved a state-guaranteed right to education--and education of a certain quality--in the Commonwealth.

2. Don't you dare ignore the money NOW.
No, you don't get to ignore the Foundation Budget Review Commission if you're writing a retrospective of the past twenty-five years. And no, you don't get to pretend that there's this pesky recent idea that the districts are short. We have been short for one to two billion dollars EVERY YEAR for AT LEAST A DECADE.
That matters. The Constitutional commitment found in McDuffy hasn't been happening. And since Massachusetts has fundamentally agreed that, yes, money matters, then, yes, money that is missing has mattered over the past dozen years as well.

3. Most kids aren't in charter schools.
Since 1993 brought us charter schools in Massachusetts, there will naturally be a temptation to focus on charter schools. How these would be different than every other article we got during the Question 2 campaign on the real impact of charter schools in Massachusetts, I don't know, but the charter schools shouldn't be the bulk of any story.

4. Receivership and innovation schools and "empowerment zones" aren't a 1993 story.
Yes, yes, I know they're hip right now, and Lawrence makes national news, and the Governor is breathless about Springfield, but those all came in with the 2011 Act Relative to the Achievement Gap. You're over a decade too early, as well as way off base on much of what you're saying. Save it.

5. Don't ignore MCAS
No, you can't pretend that having all 10th graders have to pass the same test to graduate didn't change things, nor that subsequent expansions, including requirements we decide things about schools based on it, didn't change things. They did. And some of it meant that kids we didn't always talk about or pay attention to couldn't be ignored. And some of it meant that kids spent a whole lot of time on boring and sometimes useless math and English drills that weren't educational. And a lot of it meant that we made judgment calls about complicated things on a very narrow set of data. That has shaped how we view not only education, but a lot of things in Massachusetts.

6. ...but don't pretend MCAS is the whole story. 
There's a lot of the work of the 1993 act that was kind of boring, or at least doesn't make good copy. It meant that teachers sat together and discussed who was going to teach what when; they "aligned standards" by grade. It meant that school committees' jobs changed; most significantly, they didn't handle hiring anymore. There was a lot of juggling of finances at the state and local level. As I said above, it's a big law; there's a lot in it. Most of it never makes the front page, but the changes it made are much bigger than the MCAS, and many of them made a lot more difference than the MCAS.

7. Most of this was local work.
Related to the above, much of the work of the 1993 Act took place at the local level. It was teachers and school-level administration that sat with standards and discussed how closely they matched what was happening and what had to change. It was teachers who changed their sequencing, their lessons, how they taught, what they taught, and so forth. It was district administration that changed hiring practices. It was local business managers and finance committees and selectboards and school committees that wrestled with the new funding formula.
That isn't to discount the state--more on that below--but much of the work was local.

8. This fundamentally shifted the locus of power in education in Massachusetts. 
If the state had a responsibility to educate kids, as the courts found, then the state had a responsibility to ensure that such education was happening. We can--we should!--debate if this should look anything like what the state has subsequently said it meant. But there absolutely and unmistakably was a shifting of power towards the state, away from local districts.
You might call this the "be careful what you ask for" lesson of McDuffy.

9. It's about kids. 
The McDuffy case is named after a real person: Jami McDuffy, a student in the Brockton Public Schools. She's Jami Milnamow now, and she now works for the Brockton Public Schools. She has some thoughts on school funding.
It wasn't only Brockton that brought a case, though: a host of cities and towns sued the state. All of those schools had kids in them. What was it like in those schools then? What changed under the change in funding? And how is it now for them?
What was it like to be a kid in school in Brockton or Leicester or Worcester in the 1980's? What is it like now?

10. The proof is in the pudding. 
The kids who went through schools entirely under the 1993 Act are in their late twenties now. What are they up to? Did more of them successfully complete college than prior to 1993? Do more of them have meaningful, fulfilling work? Are they involved in their local communities? Do they vote?

Seriously, the point here isn't to raise some concept of how a third grader can read. The point here is to have an educated citizenry that can continue our democracy.

Are we doing better at that? Do we know? Have we checked?
That's the question of Ed Reform at 25.

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