When the education reform bill was enacted in the early 1990s, its main goal was to educate all students to high levels. And all meant all. Many reforms and investments were implemented, and the state is now the national leader in student achievement. Still, there are deep, persistent achievement gaps and inequality of opportunity that don’t meet our goal of “all means all.’’ Too many students leave school unprepared for college or a career. Until this is addressed, we cannot consider our prodigious reform efforts and investments successful.
Since the early 1990s, education reform has been a collaborative effort between leaders in the public and private sectors and educators. This has allowed the state to avoid many of the “education wars” that have embittered the climate in other states. To be sure, there have been fierce and healthy policy disagreements here, but opposing parties have usually kept their eyes on the consensus goal of education reform: all students learning at high levels.
Education reform is always a work in progress, requiring regular changes in policy, strategy, and practices. And now, after more than two decades of good work, we must admit that our strategies — regardless of their comparative success — have failed to achieve our overall goal of all students learning at high levels. We need to ask once again: What more needs to be done? How do we customize education to meet each child’s needs so that every child achieves success?
Looking ahead, one of the major challenges is obviously the budget. Current and anticipated budget shortfalls will pose serious threats to progress. Of course change in education doesn’t always have to cost more money, but it’s clear that we will eventually have to spend more on specialized services, including early childhood education, extended school days, summer learning, tutoring, and health and human service supports. We also need to reduce the cost of higher education.
Another challenge will be to avoid distractions and debilitating conflicts. Extremists would happily drive us into full-blown warfare over their favorite causes — whether safeguarding a sacrosanct version of standards and tests or tearing down the reform architecture of the past 20 years. For example, extremists in the charter school war want us to do continuous battle over whether charters are the “silver bullet” salvation of the public schools or the scourge of public education. We have fought these battles many times before and they are costly distractions from the business of formulating effective, long-term strategies for improving the education of the our students. We’ll need to keep our eyes on the prize — advancing student learning.
There are a number of strategies that the state needs to develop over the next few years, including early childhood education, expanded learning time, career pathways, increased turnaround work, the better utilization of education technology, expanded access to top quality charter and innovation schools, higher education reform, and improved quality of teaching.
This is an enormous agenda. No single player could begin to accomplish it. Collaboration will be essential. Innovation will be vital. Making progress will depend on the cooperative efforts of the state and local elected officials, educators, unions, business leaders and the media, as well as students and their families. Education is vital to our success as a people, as a state, and as a nation. Getting to “all means all” would be an unprecedented achievement, but Massachusetts is still very well positioned to make a run at such an ambitious and historic goal.
Paul Reville is professor of practice of policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he also leads the Education Redesign Lab. He is a former Massachusetts Secretary of Education.