Three decades ago, state officials transformed the landscape of public education in Massachusetts.
The adoption of the Education Reform Act in the summer of 1993 provided for sweeping changes, including the introduction of statewide standardized testing, the creation of charter schools, and an overhaul in school funding aimed at reducing disparities between wealthier districts and those that were struggling. Massachusetts would soon rank top in the nation academically.
But in the time since the landmark legislation was passed, many of its goals have been elusive, according to education analysts and a review by the Globe.
Low-income students and students of color still perform at levels far lower than their wealthier and white peers; standardized testing has failed to fully capture how much students are learning; and charter schools and traditional schools have struggled to swap ideas about what innovations are working to the extent lawmakers hoped they would.
“The bill made progress, and then progress stagnated,” said Mark Roosevelt, who was chair of the House Education Committee at the time the law was passed. “And that means maybe it’s time for a new look at the thing and a new look at what works best.”
Policymakers, advocates, and education leaders say more needs to be done to make educational progress in the state. They suggested that should start with tackling pandemic learning losses, beefing up early childhood education programs, and offering a range of post-secondary career paths, among other possibilities.
“I see the [Reform Act] really being foundational, but that’s just the bottom, that’s the floor. There are other things that need to be thought about and considered in terms of meeting the needs of students,” said Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler. “I remain optimistic that we’re headed in the right direction.”
The 1993 law was largely devised in response to a Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education report compiled two years earlier — “Every Child a Winner!” — which warned that if Massachusetts didn’t improve the quality and equity of its school system, its future workforce and economy would suffer. At the time, there was no standardized curriculum framework and no reliable data to track educational achievement, and public school funding was directly tied to property taxes. As a result, generally the more affluent a town, the better resourced its schools.
Meanwhile, the state faced a lawsuit, known as McDuffy v. Secretary of the Executive Office of Education, challenging the constitutionality of the school finance system. The pressure created by the report and the lawsuit moved both Republican Governor Bill Weld and the Democratic Legislature to support a large-scale overhaul of the state’s priorities, including a “grand bargain” that put more state funding into schools in exchange for increased accountability and higher academic standards.
By 2000, most of the Education Reform Act’s changes had been implemented. Local school budgets had incrementally increased, the first Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test had been administered, and charter schools had grown from an original batch of 15 to 40. Massachusetts K-12 public education scores increased across the board on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, colloquially known as the Nation’s Report Card.
Education analysts say the changes were historic, but they are now outdated and have proven to be inequitable in some cases.
The funding formula, for instance, sets no limit on local fund-raising, meaning affluent districts still often hold a considerable resource advantage over poorer ones.
The financing formula was well thought out “based on where the world was in ‘93,” said Tom Downes, a Tufts University associate professor of economics who has studied the long-term impact of the act’s funding. While there have been substantial improvements to the formula — such as the Student Opportunity Act of 2019, which pours more state funding into districts with significant low- income student populations — Downes said the model should be more routinely examined and updated.
As time has passed, views on the MCAS test, its corresponding MassCore curriculum, and accountability standards have also evolved.
Jamie Gass, director of the Pioneer Institute’s Center for School Reform, said MCAS was regarded “as the gold standard for standardized testing” in its early years, but the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 increased the frequency of testing.
To others, the test always seemed as if it unduly pressured students, given its usage as a graduation requirement; narrowed curriculum; gave the state an excuse to take over local school districts; and assessed students’ test-taking skills rather than truly measuring their academic level.
“We think the MCAS … has had a really detrimental effect,” said Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has long opposed high-stakes testing.
In recent years, calls to defang the test have intensified. But MCAS proponents argue that testing data help identify educational disparities and that fundamentally changing the stakes surrounding the test would go against the spirit of the Education Reform Act.
“It made for good politics, and it was good policy that you have highly progressive funding in exchange for MCAS and standards and accountability for the districts,” Gass said.
Meanwhile, although many lawmakers hoped charter schools would become innovation hubs where best practices could be shared and swapped with traditional public schools, the vision has never truly caught on.
“There’s plenty of learning that each could have from the other, but the context is so different that they sometimes feel like they’re talking different languages,” said Carrie Conaway, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s graduate school of education and former chief strategy and research officer for the state’s Education Department. Charters operate with more autonomy than is allowed among traditional schools, including more flexible curriculums and the ability to hire nonunion teachers.
But others argue that despite the sometimes fractious relationship between the two types of schools, charters have made a significant impact.
Tim Nicolette, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association, gives charter schools credit for innovations that have spread to traditional schools such as longer school days, mutual consent hiring of teachers, and leadership models that diminish principals’ administrative tasks.
Currently, more than 40,000 students, about 4 percent of the state total, attend 76 charter schools, with thousands more on waiting lists. Some charter schools in Massachusetts, especially in urban areas, have produced promising results in shrinking the achievement gap among low-income students of color.
But critics say limited slots at charter schools favor families that are highly invested and informed about their child’s educational opportunities, skewing achievement data. Furthermore, charters have been accused of pushing out struggling students and those with disciplinary issues to maintain graduation and college-bound rates, among other achievement benchmarks.
Paul Reville, a former state secretary of education, said the competition charter schools introduced to traditional schools was resented, creating an uneasy relationship dynamic.
“The notion that, right out of the box, these brand new schools are going to be beacons of innovation and success was naive,” he added.
Overall though, Reville argued that the Education Reform Act helped improve the general quality of public education and data collected around schools, even if it has not fully leveled the playing field.
“We did education reform as well as any state in the country,” said Reville, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, “but our theory of the problem and our theory of action must have been flawed. We hold schools accountable for being our main — and in some cases exclusive — mechanism for creating social mobility, and it’s not working.”
Legislation has limits, but there were oversights, too.
There should have been regular reviews of what parts of the legislation were most effective, and why, both critics and advocates say. Others say the reputation Massachusetts forged as a top-ranking academic achiever led to complacency that resulted in stagnated innovation.
Last year, Massachusetts’ NAEP scores hit a 19-year low as the state grapples with addressing achievement gaps exacerbated by the pandemic among low-income students, children of color, students with disabilities, and English learners.
“We are only number one for some,” said Mary Tamer, the Massachusetts director of Democrats for Education Reform. “I want to see us move away from patting ourselves on the back too much. … This 30th anniversary is an opportunity for us to really look at where we need to go next.”
Some education advocates hope the infusion of federal COVID relief funds targeted at addressing pandemic learning losses will spur an educational refresh.
“We’ve got to seize that opportunity,” said Tripp Jones, who served as the staff director of the joint Education Committee in 1993 and is now president of 21c, a social impact advisory firm. “And we’ve got to hold ourselves accountable for not just spending the money, but getting the outcomes.”
This story has been update to correct the titles for Paul Reville and Tripp Jones. Reville is a former secretary of education and Jones was the staff director of the joint Education Committee.