The COVID-19 pandemic has created a host of problems for public education in Massachusetts, the weathering of which will require flexibility, compromise, and a recognition that we are all in this together. And indeed, across the Commonwealth, thousands of students, teachers, and parents have risen to the occasion, adjusting to the unprecedented new demands the outbreak has created for all of us.
Unfortunately, that spirit is not what we’re currently seeing from the heads of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union. Instead, the union leadership has issued a long list of directives it says should be preconditions if teachers are to return to school in the fall.
MTA President Merrie Najimy maintains the union is simply supporting its local affiliates with their school-reopening negotiations, but if MTA teachers refuse to return to work until those demands are met, that would be a havoc-creating standoff akin to a teachers strike.
So let’s look at what the MTA wants. One demand: An assurance that public schools will be safe for educators, students, and families, with special consideration for teachers and students with compromised immune systems. That’s certainly an appropriate pandemic concern.
But not this directive/demand: the permanent elimination of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams.
Those exams are a foundational aspect of the sustained and bipartisan education-improvement efforts that have helped make this state’s public schools the best in the nation.
The MCAS tests a sophomore level of high school knowledge in English, math, and science. High school students must pass it to receive a diploma in Massachusetts. (Exams are also given in some lower grades, though passing isn’t required to advance.)
The passing threshold is not a particularly hard bar to clear. Over the last three years, about 87 percent of students have passed all three MCAS tests (English language arts, math, and science) on their first attempt. For the class of 2021, the first-time passing rate for Black students was 77 percent, for Latinx students, 73 percent. Since 2003, about 95 percent of students have passed the MCAS during their high school years.
Still, the MTA remains intractably opposed to the test. The union has many reasons for its opposition to the MCAS, but one unstated reason certainly is the school accountability it has helped bring about. Indeed, it’s not just individual students who are assessed with the MCAS. Schools whose students chronically underperform on the exams can be subject to state interventions, which may include altering union contracts as deemed necessary to improve education.
So why does nixing the MCAS qualify as a pandemic concern?
“You have to think about the impact of the pandemic on learning at this moment,” says Najimy, asserting that the need for social distancing will render it impossible to cover the curriculum the MCAS tests in the next school year. That remains to be seen, but: Why should those short-term concerns prompt a permanent elimination of the test? The MTA president maintains that MCAS “just measures socioeconomics and race” and that ending it is necessary to rid the schools of structural racism.
Those are weak and unconvincing arguments. The MCAS exams aren’t perfect, and test questions should be scrutinized for possible racial bias before they are included in the exams. But a test that identifies areas where high school students need more work shouldn’t be considered racist simply because there is an overall achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. The MCAS exams didn’t cause that gap, they merely reveal it. The problem is more likely the gap in the amount of education and support the students receive.
Even as the MTA steps up its anti-MCAS offensive, a new Brown University study underscores the value of Massachusetts’ education-reform efforts and the MCAS. The study finds that the “percentages of students graduating from high school, enrolling in college, and earning four-year college degrees have all risen over time,” a pattern that “holds true for low-income students, English learners, and students from all of the largest racial/ethnic groups.”
What’s more, the report found that scores on the 10th grade MCAS exams “predict longer-term educational attainments and labor market success, above and beyond typical markers of student advantage.”
And yet, after state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley on Thursday issued an initial 23 pages of school reopening guidance, the MTA responded within hours with a relatively short and critical statement that, among other things, underscored its stance that the MCAS should be eliminated.
Let’s call this MTA demand what it is: a transparent effort to use the pandemic to achieve a self-interested goal the union hasn’t otherwise been able to accomplish.
Other MTA demands are for a restoration of any positions cut in the spring, the addition of more staff, and full funding for the first installment of the Student Opportunity Act.
Schools should certainly have enough staff, though whether that requires restoring any and all position cuts or additional hires is really a district-by-district question. More problematic is the MTA’s insistence on full first-year funding of the Student Opportunity Act. Passed last year, that legislation calls for raising education spending by $1.5 billion annually, phased in over seven years. As a down payment, Governor Charlie Baker had in his pre-pandemic budget proposed some $300 million in new state spending for the fiscal year that starts July 1. But now that the pandemic-caused economic slowdown has blown a $6 billion hole in state revenues, delivering that much new funding will be exceedingly difficult, particularly if there isn’t another infusion of federal dollars for states.
Najimy, however, brushes those concerns aside, saying state policy makers can use rainy day reserves and raise several billion more in taxes.
“The money exists and the legislators have the power to raise revenues,” she says. A reality check: Even if state budgeters used all of the $3.5 billion rainy day fund in the next fiscal year and the Legislature raised new revenues equivalent to the amount that would come from the $2 billion millionaire tax that the MTA and a progressive coalition backs — a measure that will likely be on the 2022 ballot — that wouldn’t fill the projected revenue hole in next year’s budget.
As policy makers and stakeholders grapple with these very difficult times, the MTA leadership needs to recognize that a once-in-a-century pandemic calls for compromise and cooperation — not line-in-the-sand demands.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.