The Massachusetts Exception: The state’s knowledge-rich standards have made its schools the best in the country.
It’s common knowledge that in 1983, a federal report called A Nation at Risk indicted the “rising tide of mediocrity” in American public education and called for a school system that would be among the best in the world. Far less well known is that only one state effectively responded to that challenge: Massachusetts. By passing the landmark Education Reform Act of 1993, which pushed content and high standards above all else, the state became an outpost of success in a landscape of academic failure. Today, however, federal initiatives—especially the push for national education standards, which may have beneficial effects in lower-performing states and which Massachusetts has adopted—threaten to undermine the reforms that made the Bay State the nation’s unquestioned educational leader.
Reform wasn’t an overnight success in Massachusetts, despite $1 billion in new state money for education between 1993 and 1996. Some members of the state’s board of education and department of education resisted the reform, and a process-heavy approach—which focused more on achieving consensus than on implementing the law—also slowed progress. For example, a crucial piece of the reform required the state to develop liberal-arts-rich “curriculum frameworks,” which would help schools choose curricula by specifying the academic content that students should be able to master. But the development of those frameworks didn’t proceed smoothly. Initial drafts of the English frameworks even included 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. Developed after years of public debate, with input from teachers and subject-matter experts, the frameworks were internationally benchmarked, with an eye toward authentic college readiness. High-quality literature made up about 80 to 90 percent of the English content. In math, students were required to start studying algebra in the eighth grade, years before the National Mathematics Advisory Panel made the same recommendation. A wide range of voices—including the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; noted standards expert E. D. Hirsch, Jr.; educational historian Diane Ravitch; Achieve, Inc.; and the American Federation of Teachers—hailed the frameworks as a national model.