I find myself telling the story about what’s happening in Massachusetts quite a bit when I travel around the country, and I come back to the state often to visit schools and meet with educators and students, parents, community and political leaders.
It is not by accident. I have always been impressed by Massachusetts’ deep commitment to education. From the founding of America’s first public schools, through the historic Education Reform Act of 1993 and to today, the state has shown a commitment to improving student outcomes, raising academic standards, closing achievement gaps — and to the opportunities for all that a world-class education can create.
This has been particularly true under the leadership of Governor Deval Patrick. I have tremendous respect for what he has done, and know that when the story of his tenure is written it will have as a highlight the tremendous progress that’s been made in education.
It seems every politician says they are “pro-education” — no one wants to run on an “anti-education” agenda. But not many walk the walk — and Patrick has done that, with courage, clarity of leadership, and a real sense of urgency. And he has approached education issues with an inclusive style — working with educators, higher ed leaders, the business and philanthropic community, unions, and community members. In many ways, Massachusetts is now helping to lead the country where it needs to go in education.
Quite simply, Massachusetts leads the nation. The state’s graduation rates are at an all time high, while they’ve seen dropout rates hit an historic low. There are more students taking the SAT, and Massachusetts’ high school students consistently outperform their peers nationally. Participation in Advanced Placement is up for all students — including a dramatic 94% increase for AP participation for low-income students. Student achievement rates in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math show these students ranked number one in the nation. Moreover, eighth-graders rank in the top five in the world for math and science while 15-year-olds rank in the top 10 for reading, science and math on the PISA tests.
Most states would have settled for that kind of success, but it has been impressive that Massachusetts has not. Over the last several years, the state has also introduced new college and career ready academic standards, with a focus on critical thinking, problem solving skills, has brought approximately 5,000 poor children off waiting lists and into high quality early education, and has worked to make college more affordable. And progress is being made on closing the critically important achievement gaps that exist for economically disadvantaged students and students of color: the state has seen impressive achievement gains among African American and Hispanic students over the last eight years.
I had the opportunity to see this progress first hand when I recently visited the Lawrence school district. Since Lawrence was placed into state receivership in 2011 they have made a remarkable turnaround, increasing the number or Level 1 schools and seeing significant gains in student achievement. Their progress exemplifies that collaborative, courageous leadership can work to transform an entire school district from chronic poor performance to high performance. And it has been done not through a top-down, one size fits all approach, but though empowering schools to innovate, expanding learning time, constructive partnership with the union and strong teacher leadership.
Those are incredible achievements. Yet we know that for all these successes, there is still much, much more to be done. In too many communities those achievement gaps persist and more must be done to close them. Fulfilling the promise of giving all of our youngest children the start they need in life through high quality, universal early education is essential. Continuing to implement new college and career ready academic standards will help ensure all students have the skills they need to succeed in college, career and life, and arrive prepared for college without needing remediation.
But I am convinced that Massachusetts will choose to go to the next level, to take on all this and more and continue to lead the nation. This state has a real opportunity to do that, and I know that Governor-elect Charlie Baker shares a passion and commitment to education, and has an opportunity to help take the state to the next level and become a governor who is a national leader in education.
Massachusetts is now as ever watched by others around the nation — and increasingly around the world. I congratulate Governor Patrick and thank him for his leadership and for truly being an “education governor.” And I look forward to the more opportunities in the years ahead to come and celebrate education achievement in Massachusetts.
Arne Duncan is the US secretary of education.