While Massachusetts is widely acknowledged to have the best-performing students in the nation, at least as measured by national and international test scores, there are increasing signs that educational progress in the state has stalled. In a recent survey, sixty-nine percent of employers reported difficulty hiring people with the knowledge and skills to fill available jobs. Public colleges and universities are spending tens of millions of dollars to provide remedial courses so that graduates from Bay State high schools – who have “passed” the MCAS test – can master college-level material.
Moreover, it is no longer enough for Massachusetts students simply to compete with their American peers. As a center of intellectual talent and innovation, the state competes directly with China, Hong Kong, and Singapore. International performance data make it clear that even the best and brightest pupils in the Massachusetts school system, our top talent, fall far short of the best in the world. Some nations, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, are not only ahead of us, but pulling away. Other places, such as Poland and Germany, are improving faster than we are and will leave us trailing if we don’t take serious steps to prevent it.
Unlike other states and countries with mineral resources or gentle climes, Massachusetts’ only competitive economic advantage is our highly educated workforce. But truly excellent schools are essential not only, or even primarily, to create a pool of skilled employees but also to sustain the kind of informed, sophisticated communities where we all want to live and to raise our children. We want our kids, all of them, to have the tools they will need to thrive and prosper – here in Massachusetts.
And those necessary tools have changed. Jobs and industries change at an accelerated rate today. Students must be prepared for lifelong learning and recalibrating – for jobs that don’t yet exist. They have to be taught not only how to read the manual, but to be the ones rewriting it constantly. Teamwork is an essential skill as is figuring out how to develop innovative new products and services with collaborators worldwide. And while math and science are increasingly essential in the workplace, so is an-depth knowledge of languages, social studies, and the arts. These are the foundation to careers requiring critical thinking and constant learning.
To give all our children these necessary tools, Massachusetts must dramatically change its schools. But what does such a transformation look like?
One that will require an overhaul of our school system. It will take a major shift from state mandated reform and compliance to creating the conditions in which schools themselves devise the means for continuously improving their performance. It will take reducing regulation and devolving budgets and responsibilities to the school level, enabling schools to take charge of — and requiring them to be accountable for — their own destiny. Ironically, at the moment we provide more freedom and flexibility to low-performing schools than we do to the rest. This has to change.
A report that benchmarks the Massachusetts education system against the best in the world, published Monday, emphasizes the need for systemic innovation rather than incremental reforms. School leaders must be granted authority over spending and staffing and be free to choose or create innovative and varied school models. Developing much more effective teachers and principals must be a priority. This demands more deliberate recruitment, transformed teacher preparation, intense classroom training, better use of master teachers, and the development of new career paths.
All of these reforms will require the establishment of a student-driven funding model that prioritizes a radically student-oriented system. That means pushing school districts and state bureaucracies to function differently and be both leaner and more productive.
Greatness cannot be mandated. It must be unleashed. These proposals will do just that, and we are developing these ideas into a plan for concrete action for the Commonwealth’s next governor and the Legislature.
The good news is that we’re not starting from scratch. Massachusetts is blessed with some of the finest colleges and universities in the world. We have a shared, centuries-old commitment to excellence in public education. We have a vibrant group of innovative tech companies that have an economic stake in world-class academic excellence. Let’s seize upon this local capital for our children’s sake – and our own.
Sir Michael Barber, lead author of the Brightlines report, is the chief education advisor for British educational publisher Pearson. Henry C. Dinger is a partner at the law firm Goodwin Procter LLC and chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.