Max Page, the new president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, deserved kudos of sorts for the revealing testimony he offered at last week’s meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.
I say “of sorts” because of what Page’s remarks revealed. To wit, the snide and supercilious manner of the new MTA chief and just how far left the MTA leadership has lurched since the days when it was a constructive player in the state’s education-improvement efforts.
The subject at hand was a proposal to nudge the scores required to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams to levels that more closely correspond with college or workplace success.
Page’s response? Not a well-developed argument but rather a dose of derision.
As an adolescent, he told the board, “I had a shiny object I too thought was magical. It was called a mood ring. And I thought it was capturing my every change of emotion. I also thought that REO Speedwagon’s first album was really the height of pop music. Then I grew older and I grew up.” (Page’s putative maturation isn’t persuasively evident in the video of his remarks. Fie on technology!)
He continued: “The board is still fidgeting with your mood rings and spinning your REO Speedwagon albums, obsessed with a test invented some 20 years ago.”
It’s important to understand that the MCAS exams were born of a bipartisan push to improve state education. With the passage of the Education Reform Act of 1993, the state embarked on a three-pronged approach. Beacon Hill markedly ramped up state aid for education in an attempt to ensure each district had sufficient funding to educate its students. Higher standards were set and statewide curriculum frameworks were developed. Schools were required to administer the MCAS at various grade levels to assess students’ educational progress. Starting with the class of 2003, passing the 10th-grade-level English and math MCAS became a graduation requirement. A science exam, based on courses usually taken in the ninth grade, was later added.
So as far as the MCAS are concerned, to graduate from high school in Massachusetts, a student needs to demonstrate a basic competence in sophomore-level math and English and in ninth-grade-level science. In non-pandemic years, students have had four opportunities to take the test and, by passing, still graduate on time.
The state’s school-improvement effort, which has been sustained through six governors over three decades, has boosted Massachusetts to the status of national leader on education.
No exam is perfect, but the MCAS is recognized as a test that provides an accurate measure of a student’s subject mastery. The state has a workaround by which students who have successfully completed their coursework but scored a little shy of passing on the MCAS can, by doing further work in their weak areas, still obtain their diplomas.
The MTA has never liked the MCAS. Still, it’s only in the past decade, with the ascension of a combative ideological faction, that the state’s largest teachers union has made abolishing the MCAS both as a graduation requirement and a school-evaluation tool its holy grail.
Let’s turn back to Page. Noting that board members and the MTA “have a fundamental difference of views of what schools are for,” he criticized the board for its policy-making considerations.
“The focus on income, on college and career readiness, speaks to a system . . . tied to the capitalist class and its needs for profit,” he declared. “We on the other hand have as a core belief that the purpose of schools must be to nurture thinking, caring, active and committed adults, parents, community members, activists, citizens.”
Sadly, as we saw in the years before the landmark 1993 law in Massachusetts, without high standards and a uniform method of assessment, what can result is a system where far too many students graduate without the skills required for the workplace, for college, or for consequential citizenship.
None of that seems to matter in the fanciful world Page occupies. So it was that he ended his comments by vowing that he and the MTA will “be back here in the Legislature and in the districts for as long as it takes to tear down the system that you are perpetuating.”
Now, if the MTA wants as its chief another combative ideologue whose hyperbolic rhetoric state policymakers will listen politely to and then ignore, that is of course the union’s prerogative. But Massachusetts citizens concerned with good public schools should realize what today’s accountability-averse MTA is all about.
There’s no better place to start than with Page’s own haughty lecture to the board.