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opinion | The Podium

Raising the grade for public education

There are two separate worlds within public education in Massachusetts: one that serves wealthy, majority-white communities and earns national praise, and another that educates low-income, often minority kids where dropout rates receive far more attention than test scores. In the wake of this growing chasm of education inequity between groups of kids in our state, StudentsFirst, a national grassroots advocacy organization led by school reformer Michelle Rhee, has graded our state education system and given it a “D+” for failing to enact polices that ensure all kids get an equally great education.

For a state accustomed to accolades for educational excellence, a D+ grade surely will earn scorn from defenders of the current system. Given what’s at stake, however, we should seize this criticism and take it as an opportunity for some self-reflection.

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Despite our successes — which include high overall test scores and high learning standards — there are still enormous and unacceptable gaps in the achievement levels of groups of Bay State students. Latino children, who make up the largest minority group in the state, lag far behind their white peers academically. In fact, the achievement gaps between Latino and white children in our state in various subjects and grades are among the largest in the nation. Large academic performance gaps also exist between the state’s black and white students, as well as between low-income kids and their wealthier peers. Additionally, minority and low-income teens drop out at much higher rates than other students.

To be fair, recent governors, legislators, and many policymakers have tried to tackle the achievement gap with a number of initiatives, but we just aren’t seeing the kind of bold changes that this unconscionable problem demands. Massachusetts was home to Horace Mann, the father of modern public education in the United States. He believed that our schools should be the great equalizer, leveling the playing field for all children and ultimately all Americans. We aren’t living up to Mann’s vision or his legacy. But it is within our power to do so.

What to do? There isn’t one single policy that will provide all our kids with a great education. However, the latest research, including some from Harvard, confirms what parents and students have known intuitively: that teachers have an enormous impact on the success of their students. Massachusetts took an important step recently in enacting a new teacher evaluation policy to ensure all teachers receive annual evaluations based on various measures of success, including whether their kids are making academic gains. But, as StudentsFirst noted in its report, the law doesn’t specify that evidence of student learning must actually be a significant factor in these evaluations. We should strengthen the law to reflect that.

We also should reconsider the way teacher layoffs occur in Massachusetts. Right now, when layoffs regrettably take place during tough economic times, teacher seniority trumps teacher quality. That doesn’t make any sense given the link between the work of a teacher and the success of his or her students. We should follow the lead of many other states and get rid of this antiquated policy. An ongoing system of teacher assessment will assure that any necessary layoffs will be based on the quality of teaching rather than on unfair favoritism. Better than layoffs, we should ensure that public education is fully funded and all teachers are fairly paid in Massachusetts.

The StudentsFirst report card suggests that we should do more to empower parents by providing them with more meaningful data about their kids’ schools and giving them more educational choices. We have a duty to try to expand the options available to all families regardless of their incomes. One way to do that is by lifting the arbitrary state cap on public charter schools. Many charter schools do extremely well educating high-need populations, particularly in urban areas, and many charter schools in our state have long wait lists. We should allow them to expand to serve more kids but simultaneously should increase charter school accountability rules to ensure kids are learning at high levels.

Massachusetts is rightly proud of our state’s reputation as an education leader. But there still is room for improvement and we need to embrace some new common-sense policies to ensure all of our kids get an excellent education. Their success is our success. Great schools that meet the needs of a diverse population such as ours are the foundations on which great communities and great economies are built. Working together, on behalf of all our children, we can show America what real excellence — and real equity — looks like in the schools of Massachusetts.

Russell E. Holmes is a Democratic state representative from Mattapan. Daniel B. Winslow is a Republican state representative from Norfolk.
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