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Mass. schools require dramatic change, report says

Mitchell Chester, elementary and secondary education chief, disagrees the state is stagnating.

Mitchell Chester, elementary and secondary education chief, disagrees the state is stagnating.

More than two thirds of the state’s employers report difficulty hiring employees with the appropriate skills, underscoring the need for major changes in how Massachusetts educates its children, according to a report and survey set for release Monday by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Bolstering the state’s public school systems is viewed as a critical step in producing more workers with the right skills to succeed in a more technologically driven economy, according to “The New Opportunity to Lead: A Vision for Education in Massachusetts in the Next 20 Years.”

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Monday’s release of the report will mark the beginning of a campaign to persuade state leaders to embrace the advocacy group’s proposals, from more charter schools to fundamental changes in teachers contracts.

The survey, part of which is included in the 120-page report, found that 69 percent of the 334 employers who responded said they experienced difficulty hiring employees with the appropriate skills, while 84 percent said school systems require moderate to major changes. The survey was conducted by MassINC Polling Group.

“You read and hear stories about how Massachusetts is the best in the nation, but we have a dismaying situation that not only do we have young people unemployed but a lot of jobs that are unfilled — good jobs, high-tech jobs,” said Henry Dinger, chairman of the business alliance’s board of directors and a partner at Goodwin Procter LLC. “There are a bunch of other countries that are doing better and other countries are gaining on us fast.”

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Because Massachusetts has such a technologically advanced economy that is rapidly changing, school systems are struggling to keep pace in producing graduates prepared for this kind of job market, said one of the report’s author, Sir Michael Barber, a former high-ranking British official who works with Pearson.

Barber said Massachusetts needs to move from a period of “adequacy,” the result of trying to ensure a level playing field for all school districts, to one that “unleashes greatness.”

“You can’t order someone to be great, but you can create the conditions for being great,” said Barber, who prepared the report with Brightlines, a group of education experts.

The report offers many recommendations to achieve greatness, including some already under consideration in Massachusetts, such as opening more charter schools, offering universal pre-kindergarten, and providing individual schools in a district more flexibility to hire their staffs, extend the school day and make other changes.

Other recommendations are more radical, such as devising a statewide contract for all teachers. Currently, unions negotiate contracts with their respective school systems.

Business leaders may have a tough time selling their agenda to school leaders, teachers, and parents who resent corporate interests influencing the direction of public education. They fear schools will evolve into factories focused solely on producing workers and the joy of learning will be lost — a situation they say is already unfolding at many schools trying to boost test scores to avoid government sanctions.

The business alliance plans to unveil the report Monday morning at Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center in Cambridge, then present it later that day to the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden.

But organizers were frantically reprinting the report on Sunday after the Globe, which had been given an advance copy, spotted a section drawn largely verbatim from a Globe story in December on the Trotter Elementary School in Dorchester. The “case study” on the school was not attributed to the Globe, even though more than half of the writing came directly from the newspaper.

The report’s authors, advised of the lapse, revised the section with appropriate attribution.

“It is an isolated oversight,” said Barber as he apologized. “Everything else has been meticulously done in other parts of the report.”

The report examines the state’s more than two-decade overhaul of its schools — an effort that has catapulted Massachusetts from the middle of the pack nationally to the top. The report notes Massachusetts consistently ranks first on national standardized tests, earns high marks on international tests, and continues to make big gains in 10th-grade scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams.

But one section raised questions about whether Massachusetts was reaching a plateau, offering up as potential evidence a drop in fourth-grade reading scores on the 2013 NAEP tests, and that other educational systems, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, are vastly outperforming the state on international tests.

“We should be alarmed our rate of change is not high,” said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the National Center on Time & Learning and also served on an advisory committee that oversaw the report’s development. “Very successful organizations don’t sit on their laurels. They think a lot about how to get better faster. That is not a strength right now in Massachusetts.”

The report endorsed one direction Massachusetts is already going in: Joining other states in adopting a common set of academic standards in English and math and developing a new online testing system that could replace the MCAS. Pearson has been assisting in that effort.

Yet in one of the more startling findings in the survey of employers — often perceived as enthusiastic supporters of standardized testing — respondents expressed concern that the state’s schools were overemphasizing standardized testing, potentially to the detriment of teaching skills critical for success in the workforce, such as the ability to think critically, communicate, and collaborate.

Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, disagreed that Massachusetts was stagnating. For instance, he noted that Massachusetts eighth-graders had the fastest rate of improvement on the TIMSS, an international math and science exam, which the report also cited.

“I do think the bigger point, while Massachusetts has a lot to be proud of and is the top-performing state in the nation, is, if we want to remain competitive we need to think about what it will take to build on the strong foundation we have set here,” Chester said. “There’s no question we need to accelerate our progress to go from good to great.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.
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