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The Podium

Overhaul of schools is the wrong diagnosis

Monday’s hot-off-the-press report on “The New Opportunity to Lead: A Vision for Education in Massachusetts in the Next 20 Years,” commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, presents an erroneous diagnosis of the state of education in the Commonwealth and proposes remedies that are based on ideology, not evidence. While there certainly are areas for improvement in Massachusetts, Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester is right to disagree with the report’s finding that school improvement in the state is stagnating.

What’s wrong with the report? First, its grudging acknowledgement of positive educational outcomes in Massachusetts and grim portrait of the state’s shortfalls have little to do with the facts. Massachusetts is the leading state in the United States on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It is the only state in the United States with an “A” grade in the highly regarded Quality Counts 2014 State Report Card. It is also one of the world’s top-performing systems on a number of international assessments. Its rate of recent progress may be slower than some countries, but they’ve started from farther behind — Massachusetts literally has less room for improvement. To view the state’s school system as suffering from “complacency,” as the report claims, confounds all the findings of United States and international research on school achievement.


Moreover, the report draws many of its recommendation from the United Kingdom, where its lead author, Michael Barber, once worked as an advisor on education to former Prime Minister Tony Blair. England has made massive investments in “academies,” similar to government-supported charter schools here. It has explored various ways to prepare new teachers outside of a university setting. There have been targets and tests galore. Yet, results from the 2012 Program of International Assessment put England merely at the international average, 499, compared to Massachusetts students’ score of 524. For Bay State policymakers to follow England’s lead in education would be like the Red Sox taking coaching tips from the lowly Kansas City Royals.

Most of the solutions proposed in this report are out of line with the world’s best performers. The expansion of charter schools, less university-based teacher preparation, and putting digital technology before superb teaching as a way to personalize learning for students do not characterize the policies of international educational leaders like Canada, Finland, or Singapore.


Which is not to say the report is altogether wrong. Every school system needs to keep searching for improvement, and the MBAE is right to explore new ways of moving forward.

But it is not necessary to conjure up flaws to improve or to innovate. Although the England’s overall performance on PISA remains only adequate, some of the turnaround schools in London, which we have studied, have been spectacular. This has been due, in no small part, to Barber’s inspirational promotion of schools working with other schools to take collective responsibility for results. More professional collaboration in the Commonwealth, along with fairer and better funding to support it, would undoubtedly be a positive. And no one can quarrel with the argument that the school of the future will need better education in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Still, Massachusetts deserves a smarter reform agenda than what “The New Opportunity to Lead” is able to offer. Earlier this month, Chester met with Krista Kiuru, Finland’s Minister of Education, in Boston. Kiuru invited Massachusetts to join fellow high performers in Finland, Singapore, and the Canadian province of Alberta as leaders in a new global partnership for educational innovation. It would be a good first step.


This global network would embrace the provision of strong public schools for all children, make room in the public sector for creativity and innovation, and support teachers and schools to become the leaders of change, not implementers of more mandates. And when the state wants greater equity, it should look not to the class-ridden British system but to some of the most equitable ones found in places like Finland and another Canadian province, Saskatchewan.

Educators in the Commonwealth have worked hard for several years to improve student learning. They should be proud of all that has been accomplished. Yet no state should just hold steady. As it pursues advancement, Massachusetts should not look for inspiration from inferior international performers whose models offer an easy fit. As the nation’s educational leader, Massachusetts must instead push and pull its schools toward new heights of excellence.

Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley are professors at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College and co-authors of “The Global Fourth Way: The Quest for Educational Excellence.” Pasi Sahlberg, former director general at Finland’s Ministry of Education, is visiting professor of practice at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.