Massachusetts: An education fairy tale tempered by hard truths

We all hold up Massachusetts as the gold standard in K-12 education and in many ways, it is. (I even wrote a blog entitled, “Be Like Mass.”) The state where public education got its start tops the rankings year after year and was a pioneer in reform long before most other states shook off the cobwebs and started making needed changes to standards and state policies around how best to educate kids.

Sadly, some states are still in the slow lane, decades behind the state of Massachusetts. But the hard truth is, Massachusetts is not good enough, at least not for all kids. Alia Wong tells the story in The Atlantic in a piece entitled, “What are Massachusetts Schools Doing Right?”

“On the one hand, these first-place finishes and so forth—which are all based on averages—are great, we’re proud of it, but it should be a pretty short celebration in light of the deep, persistent achievement gaps that look a lot like they did when we set out on this,” said Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Despite the fanfare (much of it well deserved), stark disparities in student achievement persist. Education leaders in the Baystate will tell you that the story of Massachusetts is “complicated” and while they can boast a drop out rate of only 2 percent and internationally competitive academic performance, the reality of achievement disparities and the impact of concentrations of poverty have proven to be almost insurmountable.

Perhaps the most striking finding is that, Massachusetts now ranks 3rd in the nation for highest achievement gap. Add to that the income based disparities that have grown over the last decade, and the fairy tale is replaced by some very hard truths that we all need to care about and work to fix.

“Is it just a coincidence that all the inadequacy in education is aggregated around poor kids or is there something about poverty, which on average is just too strong for the relatively weak intervention for a school to overcome?” Reville asked rhetorically. “That’s one of the problems with our current delivery system: It dismisses or marginalizes or avoids coping with the impact of poverty on the lives of children.”

Not surprisingly, current education leaders cite a variety of reasons for this failure and while they don’t necessarily all list them in the same order, poverty, trauma, and early grade tracking seem to top the list. Boston Schools Superintendent, Tommy Chang, points to district policies that, by design, exacerbate already existing inequities. He sees the long standing approach to what he calls “selective schooling and gifted-and-talented program” as something that must change if we are serious about attacking these gaps and disparities head on.

“In BPS, we start segregating kids at very young ages,” Chang said, noting that children are separated by ability starting in the fourth grade in ways that often correlate with race and linguistic background. “We have to figure out how we stop doing that at such an early grade level. We are literally tracking kids still.”

The impact of trauma has also become front and center in the discussion of what it means to serve “all kids” and really mean “all kids.” Audrey Jackson, the 2016 State Teacher of the Year, is well versed on the topic of trauma and how it impacts children in school; her commitment to this issue by giving voice to it publicly and tackling it inside her own classroom and school are emblematic of what is needed if we are to get the best out of all of our kids.

And Superintendent Chang seems to agree.

Echoing national trends, the school system is homing in on how childhood trauma can undermine achievement and developing means for helping kids cope with it. In fact, the district recently received a $1.6 million federal grant to address the early symptoms of trauma in students. Trauma is one of the many barriers, Chang said, that keep disadvantaged students behind. So are things like a lack of access among many low-income families to jobs that pay a living wage and quality health care. Dental disease, for instance, is one of the most common reasons kids miss school. All this explains why Chang and others are now thinking of achievement gaps as “opportunity gaps.”

Massachusetts certainly deserves praise for all that it has accomplished in how it educates students. But the truth isn’t usually as rosy as it seems and that is certainly the case for far too many kids and families statewide. And since the promise of public education is one we make to all kids, and not just pockets of some kids, this is an all hands on deck effort that forces everyone to reflect, be willing to pivot if needed, and believe in all children’s potential to thrive.


This post originally appeared in the blog Good School Hunting.

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Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi spent a decade as a teacher and school dean before becoming a full-time education advocate. Her love for writing coupled with her willingness to take on people in power has led her to spend much of her time responding to status-quo protectors inclined to put adult interests ahead of kids. She is particularly focused on inequities in the system, persistent but surmountable achievement gaps, and what she sees as a culture of low expectations that disproportionately impacts low-income students of color. She is the mom of three young sons and you can often find her on the sidelines of their countless sports practices and games. She is committed to the belief that zip code isn’t destiny, that parents deserve choices when it comes to educating their children, and that too many “good” schools are falling down on the job in too many ways. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she now calls Rhode Island home with her boys, her husband, and her big fluffy dog, Griffey. She writes about her corner of New England at Good School Hunting.

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