In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Massachusetts business leaders were desperate to attract more companies and good jobs to the state.
The business leaders reasoned the only way they would attract new businesses was by creating a “world-class labor force,” recalledPaul Reville, a former state education secretary. “People aren’t going to come here for the cost of living or climate. So we’re going to have to out-educate other jurisdictions.”
At the time, Reville was running the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. His organization helped articulate the changes business leaders wanted to see.
They wanted the state to spell out everything students should learn in math and language arts. They wanted rigorous tests to assess that knowledge and a system for holding schools accountable when kids didn’t learn it.
For their part, educators said they needed a fairer way to finance schools guaranteeing that poorer districts had enough money to provide kids an adequate education.
Both groups got what they wanted in 1993 when the Legislature passed theMassachusetts Education Reform Act. After several years, the changes appeared to be working. Massachusetts started outscoring the rest of the country on standardized exams.
When other states looked to catch up with Massachusetts, they’ve focused on only half of what the state did, especially the move to adopt clear and rigorous curriculum standards. Those standards inspired the national movement to adopt uniform high expectations across states called Common Core.
Common Core came about after governors got together around 10 years ago and asked why there were different expectations in Massachusetts and Mississippi. Students from both states were taking the same SAT or ACT to get into college, after all.
This was a point Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates emphasized when he went out to campaign for Common Core. His foundation spent hundreds of millions of dollars advocating for the standards.
“When you take the SAT test, it has trigonometry on it,” Gates told the American Enterprise Institute in 2014. “So if you’re in a state that doesn’t have that, you’re going to get a low score … You’re screwed.”
The Common Core was modeled after Massachusetts’ standards, and state officials were consulted on the new expectations. Forty-six states initially adopted the Common Core, but several later abandoned the standards, mostly for political reasons.
But as they adopted more rigorous standards, few states also increased funding to help students meet the higher expectations, according to Andrew Saultz, an education professor at Miami University in Ohio.
“The national conversation about standards is easier to have,” Saultz said. “Funding is so localized it’s harder to convince states to adopt that. So, unfortunately, the funding conversation has not been borrowed by many states.”
In Massachusetts, many people agree the key to success was the combination of high standards and adjusting the state’s funding formula to pay for it. But that funding formula hasn’t kept up with rising costs.School officials say that less affluent communities don’t have the money to meet those high standards.
An amendment to the Massachusetts House Ways and Means budget would adjust that formula. The Legislature has until this summer to pass a new one and get it signed into law.
Our coverage of K-12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.