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opinion | Tom Birmingham

Education reform at 20

Common Core, funding issues put Massachusetts’ great gains at risk

daniel zender for the boston globe

If you had told me on that hot day in Malden 20 years ago when Governor Bill Weld signed the Education Reform Act that over 90 percent of Massachusetts students would pass MCAS, or that the Commonwealth’s SAT scores would rise for 13 consecutive years, or that our students would become the first in every category in every grade on national testing known as “the Nation’s Report Card,” or that Massachusetts would rank at or near the top in international science tests, I would have thought you wildly optimistic.

Massachusetts public schools have achieved all these results and more since 1993, but there is still more to do. I am troubled, for instance, by race- and class-based achievement gaps. Nonetheless, two decades after the passage of education reform, we have much to celebrate.

Hardworking students and committed teachers deserve the lion’s share of credit for our success, but policy makers established a structure that enabled educational progress. The Education Reform Act is a complicated piece of legislation containing many innovative initiatives, including the creation of charter schools.

But for all its complexity, the Education Reform Act can be reduced, in essence, to two propositions: We will make a massive infusion of progressively distributed dollars into our public schools, and in return, we demand high standards and accountability from all education stakeholders. This grand bargain is the cornerstone of education reform.


Our fidelity to these two core principles helps explain our extraordinary achievements. Throughout the 1990s and in the first years of this century, support for public education was the top priority of state government and our budgets reflected this. From 1993 to 2002, state spending on public schools increased 8 percent per year, for a total of over $2 billion. Our success correlated with the adoption and application of the criterion-based MCAS testing, with state leaders (notably including Paul Cellucci) united in support despite repeated requests to retreat.

Today, I fear we may be veering away from the act’s two core values — adequate funding and rigorous standards. If we abandon the bedrock principles that have proven to be historically successful, we imperil the progress we have made. In the last decade, support for public schools lost its primacy on Beacon Hill and state budgets reflect that. Today our inflation-adjusted education appropriation is the same as it was in 2002.


In contrast to the generous expansion of the 1990s, education funding for the last decade has remained flat. As a result, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, many (mostly low-income) school districts simply do not have the resources needed to provide the caliber of education envisioned in the reform act’s foundation budget.

I also fear that universal high standards and objective assessments are being jettisoned in favor of a return to vague expectations and fuzzy standards. The Patrick administration’s embrace of so-called “21st-century skills” elevates concepts like “global awareness” and “systems thinking” to new prominence in the public-school curriculum. I’m all for higher-order thinking, but students must accumulate the background knowledge that gives them something to think about.

As education theorist E.D. Hirsch Jr. has demonstrated, achievement gaps are really knowledge gaps. Poor kids tend to have access to less background knowledge outside school than privileged kids. Unless poor kids are exposed to the same academically rich content in school that more affluent kids can get at home, we consign these students to second-class citizenship.

I’m also troubled by the Commonwealth’s willingness to replace our tried-and-true standards and MCAS with totally unproven national standards and testing. This conversion will come at an estimated cost of $360 million for new textbooks, professional development, and technology, according to the Pioneer Institute.

Moreover, the political vectors will all tend to push the new standards to a race to the middle. Most of the lowest-performing states have adopted the standards, known as Common Core. Based on nationally administered exams, states like Alabama and Mississippi could not hope to attain Massachusetts’ standards.


In implementing the Common Core, there will be natural pressure to set the national standards at levels that are realistically achievable by students in all states. This marks a retreat from Massachusetts’ current high standards. This may be the rare instance where what is good for the nation as a whole is bad for Massachusetts.

I am not suggesting that we adorn our public schools with “Mission Accomplished” banners. Indeed, we must always strive to improve K-12 public education. But education reform has worked far better than we could have reasonably hoped. Given our incontrovertible educational successes, those seeking changes should bear in mind the admonition of the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”

Tom Birmingham, former president of the Massachusetts Senate, is senior counsel at Edwards Wildman Palmer LLP. He coauthored the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993.