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opinion | Jim Stergios

Mass. leads in education, but it’s not because of Deval Patrick

Governor Deval Patrick (center) testified at a state budget hearing.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe/file 2013

Who says Common Core advocates don’t like fiction? In his Opinion piece on Jan. 5, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan got one fact right: Massachusetts leads the nation in education. Attributing that progress to Governor Patrick’s leadership is like suggesting that a pinch runner who finds himself on third base hit a triple.

Massachusetts has led the nation in all subjects tested on sampled national assessments for a decade. In fact, before Patrick’s inauguration in 2007, Massachusetts had been one of the fastest improving states in the nation.

Duncan makes glowing reference to Massachusetts’ performance on the Programme for International Student Assessment tests. But, again, already in the spring of 2007 the Commonwealth’s students had taken the Trends in Math and Science Study, a higher-quality international test than PISA, and ranked in the top six countries in math and science.


Only a politician, or an education secretary playing one, would attribute Massachusetts’ success to Patrick. The best one can say about overall student achievement in the Commonwealth during Patrick’s terms in office is that it has been stagnant. An objective observer would note significant areas of decline:

■ Since the adoption of Common Core in 2010, sampled national tests show fourth-grade reading scores, the best predictor of future success, falling more significantly in Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country.

■ During Patrick’s time in office, Massachusetts students’ SAT scores have fallen by 20 points. (Prior to 2007, SAT scores had risen for 13 consecutive years.)

■ When Patrick took office, 67 percent of third graders scored advanced or proficient on the state’s third-grade reading tests (again, an important marker); that number is now 57 percent.

The one area where I do agree with Duncan is in his praise for the work being done in the Lawrence Public Schools. There the Patrick administration has demonstrated strength of purpose and a willingness to bring in outside partners to advance the interests of all children.


Duncan’s suggestion that this uninspiring record is path-breaking no doubt stems from his own support of policy changes Patrick made. The most significant of these is the governor’s abandonment of two pillars of Massachusetts’ original, bold reforms — academic content standards that approached those in the highest-performing nations and a unique accountability system focused on improving district leadership and performance.

It may also stem from the malady that most plagues our nation’s capital — that toxic mix of self-importance and the inability to see reality. After his six years in Washington and tens of billions of dollars spent on policies that centralize power at the Lyndon B. Johnson Building and away from classrooms, the secretary continues to believe that his policies have been “game-changing,” a term he seemingly has on speed-dial.

Six years later, any policy analyst can review the data. Duncan’s impact on student achievement in the United States is no different from that of his predecessors — imperceptible.

When it comes to education, I hope Governor-elect Charlie Baker opts for empirically proven policies rather than the secretary’s empty PR.

Jim Stergios is executive director of Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.