Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who ramped up oversight of the state’s public schools and moved the paper-and-pencil MCAS tests into cyberspace, died early Tuesday after battling cancer. He was 65.
Dr. Chester, who was appointed in 2008 after a career that started in Connecticut as an elementary school teacher, was one of the longest-serving state education commissioners in the country. He lived in Winchester and leaves behind a wife, Angela Sangeorge, and five children.
Long regarded as a stalwart of high academic standards and rigorous accountability systems, Dr. Chester guided the state’s public schools through a tremendous period of change, much of it fueled by policies that then-Governor Deval Patrick pushed through the Legislature. Those policies included doubling the number of charter school seats in Boston and elsewhere and aggressively intervening in failing schools.
He also successfully navigated the transition from a Democratic governor to Republican Charlie Baker, an increasingly rare accomplishment for education chiefs in this country these days, according to policy experts.
“We were lucky and blessed to have him here with us,” said James Peyser, the state education secretary. “He was a thoughtful leader. He loved the job he did. He cared deeply about all the children in the state. . . . He leaves a legacy that will stand for many generations.”
At times, pushing for changes in the state’s schools made Dr. Chester unpopular, particularly among union leaders and rank-and-file teachers. He declared dozens of schools underperforming, a move that enabled local superintendents to broom out teachers and administrators, and he successfully persuaded the state education board to take over three school systems, Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge.
He also overhauled state rules for evaluating teachers and administrators that introduced a controversial requirement to use student test scores and other achievement data to judge their performance. That requirement was fiercely opposed by teacher union leaders for years, and eventually superintendents and school committee members started to question the fairness of the requirement.
In the end, Dr. Chester struck a compromise late last year that lessened the emphasis on student data.
Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said in a statement, “Although the MTA and the commissioner disagreed on certain education issues, we respect his service to the Commonwealth.”
Paul Sagan, chairman of the state education board, said he marveled at how Dr. Chester could sit patiently through hours of public hearings as teachers, parents, and others would vent their frustrations over his recommendations.
“I would often say later, ‘Don’t you want to yell back’ and he would say . . . ‘They have something they are concerned about and I will try to learn from it’,” Sagan said. “If they were worried about kids, he had all day for them. If they just wanted to talk about adult problems, they could go to the back of the line.”
Dr. Chester garnered national attention a few years ago for heading a consortium of states that aimed to develop a common standardized testing system. Although Massachusetts ultimately stuck with its MCAS tests, the effort provided the state with a blueprint to move its testing system online.
Dr. Chester was also heavily involved in developing a uniform set of academic standards in English and math known as the Common Core, which Massachusetts adopted.
“I don’t think it would have been possible for us to raise standards across the country without Mitchell Chester,” said Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Dr. Chester held a doctorate in administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University and advanced degrees from the University of Connecticut and the University of Hartford. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Tuesday.
State officials learned of his death shortly before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was about to start its monthly meeting Tuesday morning, and the news stunned staff, education advocates, and others who gathered at the department’s headquarters in Malden.
“It’s so shocking,” said Margaret McKenna, a board member and former chairwoman, in an interview after the meeting as her eyes welled with tears. “He was positive and determined that he would beat this. . . . The question was when he would come back, not if he would come back.”
The board had been scheduled to deliver Chester’s annual performance review in which he earned high marks, but instead the meeting turned into a eulogy to honor a leader known for his strong convictions but also for his empathy. He was one of the first state commissioners nationwide to push for changes in regulations to recognize the rights of transgender students in public schools.
“I would say personally and speaking for the board, I couldn’t imagine having a greater commissioner,” Penny Noyce, who headed up the commissioner’s evaluation, said during the meeting.
The board appointed Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson as acting commissioner.
Baker expressed his condolences to Dr. Chester’s family on Twitter.
“Commissioner Chester’s leadership improved the lives of thousands of students & helped make MA’s public school system a national leader,” Baker said.
Paul Reville, who was chairman of the state board when Dr. Chester was hired and later became education secretary, said Dr. Chester “had a very good gyroscope that kept him balanced,” enabling to persist in the job when the tenure of his peers in other states has been rapidly shrinking.
“It’s a real loss,” he said. “He will be missed.”