Ed Moscovitch helped design Massachusetts’ landmark education law that passed in 1993. He wrote the formula that directs state money to schools around the commonwealth. But he learned his most important education lessons by leaving this state and going to Alabama.
“They were so excited about what their kids were doing,” Moscovitch recalled. “And how unbelievable it was the progress their kids were making."
Moscovitch met with elementary school teachers who were part of a special Alabama state program. They received lots of long-term coaching to teach little kids to read.
“And I said to myself, ‘That’s what we missed!’ We didn’t understand that teachers need help,” he said. “And that they will respond so incredibly positive to it.”
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. The so-called “grand bargain” combined high standards, accountability and more school funding in an effort to increase academic achievement for all students.
While Massachusetts, as a state, has achieved the highest scores nationally on standardized exams, deep gaps persist between low-income, black, Latino students and their white and Asian peers. Those gaps have led Moscovitch and many of his colleagues who worked on the education overhaul to reflect on what they could have done differently.
Moscovitch, for his part, said he would have focused on teachers. When he came back from visiting schools in Alabama years ago, he started his own program in Massachusetts based on what he saw there. His program, the Bay State Reading Institute, or BSRI, combines sustained professional coaching for teachers and principals, with small group learning that’s called “differentiated.” Different students get different lessons based on their ability level.
Teachers at the Lafayette K-8 School in Everett began working with BSRI last year, and said they’ve already noticed a big difference, especially in expectations.
A few years ago, kindergarteners weren’t expected to read. Kindergarten teacher Erica Bono said she had focused on recognizing letters.
“I think before it was probably more like tracing a letter, coloring a picture,” she said. “And now they’re reading. They’re playing games with words. They’re reading full sentences.”
School leaders hope the Lafayette will improve MCAS test scores, especially for low-income kids and students who didn’t grow up speaking English. That’s what happened at another Everett school, the Keverian K-8 School. When the school signed up for BSRI coaching, it was considered near failing or a level three in the state’s ratings system. After a few years, it moved into level one, the designation for the state’s best most high-achieving schools. BSRI has moved about a third of its schools up a level in the state’s ratings system.
Moscovitch said the key to turning around struggling schools is coaching teachers to do better. State debates about whether to expand charter schools or canceling teacher’s contracts to overhaul failing schools, he said, have missed the point.
“They don’t understand what the problem is,” he said. “Ultimately, it’s that teachers don’t have the tools. And they don’t set expectations high enough because they don’t know what’s possible. And principals don’t have the tools they need to lead.”
The cost to a school for BSRI coaching is about $150,000 over three years. For many districts struggling to balance their budgets, that amount for each school could be unaffordable.
Moscovitch isn’t the only person involved in the 1993 education law who now says it wasn’t a total fix.
“You know I understand his point,” said David Driscoll, a former commissioner of education.
“I really appreciate the reading program he has developed…and it’s clear that if people implement that with fidelity, it’s proven they will improve reading achievement, but that’s really true of a lot of programs. I think the state has just chosen not to get into that business.”
Driscoll said that unless the state considers a school to be failing, lawmakers and education officials typically don’t prescribe coaching or a type of instruction. It’s up to districts to make those choices themselves.
Note: The Bay State Reading Initiative plans to change its name later this month to Momenta.
Our coverage of K through 12 education is made possible with support from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.