Massachusetts schools and colleges have long ranked among the best in the United States. It is home to elite institutions like Harvard and MIT and a state K-12 system that is consistently named the strongest in the nation. Our workforce is better skilled than most other states, and the economy is a magnet for talent and innovation. But there are cracks in this prestigious facade — growing fissures rife with inequality threatening to engulf far too many residents.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the state’s racial wealth gap was staggering. In Boston, nonwhite households have only a fraction of the net worth attributed to white households. These stresses have been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and its disparate impact on communities of color, leaving a disproportionate number of Black and Latino workers without a job in Massachusetts and throughout the country. The state must do more than build back. It must also build toward a more equitable and inclusive recovery.
At a national level, economic inequality widened in the decade following the Great Recession. We cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. Massachusetts’ competitiveness in the years to come will be judged on not just economic growth, but also inclusion; not just the evolution, but also the equity of our economy. Making good on that promise will hinge on the ability to ensure workers at all levels can gain and develop the skills they need to thrive in a rapidly evolving labor market.
In the past, Massachusetts has proved investments in education can play a profound role in economic development. For decades, the state leveraged investments in world-class educational institutions to become a global leader in the biotech industry. This was possible because the Legislature understood how universities could strengthen the state’s workforce. Such investments are a necessary but insufficient component of a more inclusive recovery.
Aligning educational investment with economic aspirations will require a willingness to think beyond the most lauded and recognized elite private schools and colleges to extend the benefits of advances in robotics, artificial intelligence, extended reality, and quantum computing to all residents, not just a select few. Innovative institutions like Bunker Hill Community College, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and Mount Wachusett Community College have all developed nontraditional models worth emulating.
Bunker Hill, for example, now integrates concepts from Ethnographies of Work — a curriculum introducing students to sociological and anthropological perspectives on career development — into first-year learning communities and in courses across 15 disciplines. Students are asked to reflect on their workplace experiences through a social science lens, helping them gain insight into their work lives and develop greater agency around navigating the labor market.
Bunker Hill has also partnered with the Boston Private Industry Council, the City of Boston, Jobs for the Future, and the global software company SAP to develop an Early College and Career Pathways program for students at Charlestown High School. The program builds connections between high school, college, and future careers by offering students career-related college courses, opportunities to explore potential careers in some of Boston’s most high-demand sectors, and chances to connect with local mentors at SAP.
These institutions and schools demonstrate how agile coordination with corporations, small businesses, social impact startups, nonprofit intermediaries, and local and state government can close skills gaps in growing industries. Public-private partnership models should play a crucial role, helping guarantee that all of our educational institutions and industries emerge from the pandemic stronger, more flexible, and globally competitive.
The good news is the Bay State has a bipartisan state leadership that embraces new and innovative approaches to education. Earlier this year, the chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education introduced a bill that would create a special innovation commission to take the lessons learned from the remote and hybrid learning experiences of the pandemic and create a set of best practices for a stronger, more equitable system of digital learning.
The commission is a necessary development and one that points to the Legislature’s willingness to tackle head-on the education and workforce challenges of today and tomorrow. But this is just one example of the steps Massachusetts must take to improve public education at all levels and design the equitable education system of the future. The forthcoming influx of federal funds will require the governor and Legislature to craft a strategy for wisely deploying these resources — and one that includes the broad range of private sector, public sector, and nonprofit stakeholders.
Money must flow into programs proven to pay off in fuller employment, enhanced and sustainable careers, and global competitiveness for Massachusetts workers and businesses. Enlightened public policy must look beyond getting the post-COVID economy moving again; leaders from every sector should think more boldly to recover stronger than ever. It was, after all, Massachusetts’ own Horace Mann, the secretary of the nation’s first state board of education, who called education “the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Nearly two centuries later, we must make it so.
Maria Flynn is president and CEO of JFF. Jane M. Swift is president and executive director of LearnLaunch and the former acting governor of Massachusetts.