Over the last few weeks, a bleak picture has been painted of the Massachusetts educational landscape.
MCAS exam scores revealed achievement is still far below prepandemic levels and National Assessment of Educational Progress data show the lowest student performance in nearly 20 years.
State education leaders said it could take at least five years for students to catch up to the achievement levels of their peers before the pandemic. Charting a path to lift the state’s students will be among the most pressing objectives for Governor Charlie Baker’s successor. Yet neither major party gubernatorial candidate has offered fleshed-out plans to address pandemic-specific education losses.
Geoff Diehl, the Republican candidate, wouldn’t agree to an interview with The Boston Globe on this topic, but provided a statement. He identified “school closures and unfair mandates” as the culprit for “enormous consequences,” but didn’t mention how he would address learning losses.
The former state representative said his top priorities include ensuring schools remain open “without creating any bars to eligibility based on COVID vaccine status;” giving parents more control over curriculum; and expanding school choice by lifting the charter school cap so students can go “to schools that better fit their needs.”
The Democratic candidate, Attorney General Maura Healey, said she believes the state “absolutely needs a targeted effort to address some of those gaps both in terms of social emotional learning, as well as learning across a range of subject matter areas.” But Healey didn’t specify what that effort would look like outside of hiring additional school social workers and other mental health support staff, as well as appointing a secretary of education committed to addressing learning losses.
The lack of detailed plans from either candidate fails to reflect concern among voters. Eighty-eight percent of Massachusetts voters surveyed want education improvements to be among the governor’s top priorities, according to a recent poll released by a new coalition working to support students.
Education advocates insist that now is a critical moment for students, and measures taken to improve academic performance must be innovative and decisive.
“It’s imperative . . . they understand the academic recovery from the pandemic needs to be a central priority. And they need to have a comprehensive plan because the long-term consequences are big,” said Kerry Donahue, chief strategy officer for Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit focused on increasing access to high quality education in Boston. Donahue cautioned that gaps in education will have future economic consequences.
Natasha Ushomirsky, Massachusetts director of The Education Trust, a nonprofit working to close opportunity gaps affecting low-income students and students of color, pointed to billions in largely untouched federal dollars and state education dollars as resources to fund new initiatives.
“Oftentimes we talk about change in education, but the resources aren’t really there to create that change,” Ushomirsky said. “That’s not the case right now.”
Donahue said the governor should appoint a central leader to spearhead education recovery, collaborating with various state agencies that work with children to do so. She said the state should help every district develop an educational recovery plan tailored to the needs of their student population. She also wants the next governor to incentivize districts to implement recovery practices such as intensive tutoring and extended learning time.
Healey said the state must play an active role in funding such efforts but did not say whether she will require individual districts to create their own programs.
“Our partnership with cities and towns is absolutely imperative. And we will be an administration that supports those partnerships and supports work together to provide our students, our educators, our communities what they need in the space,” Healey said.
Diehl did not say how he would use state education dollars or the influx of federal funds aimed at closing pandemic learning gaps. Instead, he reiterated his belief that a free market-based approach to education, which allows parents to use public school dollars to send their children to private school or other learning options, drives positive innovation. “Education dollars need to follow the child,” he said.
Advocates say students who have suffered the steepest decline need solutions geared toward them. Both MCAS and NAEP returns show Black and Latino students, low-income students, and English learners continue to struggle to close achievement gaps.
“Coming out of the pandemic, the issues that existed before are still there and it’s more dire because the gap is wider,” said Robert Hendricks, executive director of He Is Me Institute, which works to increase the number of Black men working in education. Hiring and retaining more educators of color in Massachusetts — where 91 percent of teachers are white, but 44 percent of students are of color — should be among the next governor’s priorities, Hendricks said. Research shows students of color who have teachers of their race or ethnicity have higher academic achievement.
The attorney general said she plans to build on existing reforms to the teacher licensure process to make it more equitable. “Outright recruiting, and pay, wages, benefits; these things are important as well,” she said.
In the first debate between the candidates in mid-October, Diehl also said he supported hiring teachers who reflect student populations. “We’ve got to make sure that when schools are looking at who they’re hiring, they’re thinking about the community as well,” he said, adding that increasing school choice provides families with other options if public schools don’t deliver the educator diversity they seek.
Amanda Seider, executive director of OneGoal Massachusetts, said educational recovery strategy requires political will and courage, which should come not only from politicians, but also from business leaders and institutions of higher education.
“I fear if we don’t address these gaps, students may find themselves trying to navigate a narrower set of options than they deserve. And that will have implications on their family for generations after them,” Seider said. “And we, as a state, can’t accept that.”