State of the art

24th May 2013 at 01:00
Massachusetts carves its own path and excels in education. What is its secret?

Mary Skipper is a school leader with many admirers. Strolling down the corridors of the TechBoston Academy, she dishes out hugs and high fives to students like a sports star acknowledging crowds of adoring fans.

"That might be the only hug the kid gets that day," she explains. "I don't have a problem with kids hearing the fact we love them."

The love goes both ways, and Skipper's admirers are not limited to the students in her care. In 2011, the school - in the deprived Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester - received a visit from Barack Obama. After the US president, addressing a crowd of staff and students, praised Skipper's "unbelievable work", one overexcited youngster shouted "We love you, Skip!"

Obama clearly agreed: "Love you, Skip!" he responded, to giddy laughter in the school hall.

TechBoston is by no means the only success story in Massachusetts, which has long been regarded as the top-performing US state for education. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress confirmed that, in national reading and mathematics tests for 4th Graders (aged 9-10) and 8th Graders (aged 13-14), Massachusetts had outperformed all other US states. Just as it did in the three previous reports.

The state is also growing in stature on the global stage. According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2011, if Massachusetts were a country, it would - according to 8th Grade test scores - have ranked sixth in the world for mathematics attainment, with an average score significantly higher than countries such as Finland, England - and the US.

The state's methods have, for example, particularly shaped education policy in the UK, with the country's Department for Education boasting last November that it was to "join high performers like Massachusetts. in restricting calculator use".

In the past few years, teachers around the globe have become used to hearing about how they need to mimic the success of Finland, but if noises from governments the world over in recent months are to be believed, we are going to have to get used to hearing more from New England.

So here goes. The linchpin of the Massachusetts success story was a raft of reforms implemented in 1993. The state's current education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, believes the hallmarks of the system were the principles of setting clear expectations for student learning standards, developing an assessment system measured against those, and aiming high. Despite various changes in the state's political leadership since then, the blueprint is still being adhered to today.

Just as important, Chester insists, is the simple philosophy that "results matter". "Students have to pass a test to get out of high school, to get a diploma," he says. "There's accountability at the school level and at the district level and, in exchange for high standards and accountability for results, the state invested more in the education system funding-wise, and targeted that funding to where the need was greatest and the ability to generate tax revenue locally was lowest."

TechBoston Academy's catchment area certainly falls into this category: 90 per cent of its students receive free or subsidised lunches, 25 per cent have special educational needs and a third do not have English as a first language.

After a persistently failing school based on TechBoston's site was closed in 2003, Skipper and her team moved in. But TechBoston was not the only new arrival: it shared the premises with two other schools. As it had just 75 students, it was allocated the first floor of a small building on the premises.

Since then, TechBoston's fortunes have been transformed. It now has more than 1,000 students and occupies the full site. It has a graduation rate of 98 per cent, and, thanks to funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, all students have their own laptops.

But the school has plenty of social problems to deal with. Every year, Skipper says, around 100 students are mugged on their way to or from the school.

"There's a high homicide rate. You get a lot of police chases, murders; serious things, things that impact our kids. Last week we had a brother of one of the kids killed. The week before that we had a father who was killed. It's serious life stuff."

As a result, the school tries not to suspend troublesome students but to find out the reason for their behaviour. This approach has already proved successful: the school's highest-performing ethnic group is black males, closely followed by Latino males.

But while Skipper quickly realised that her students needed more pastoral support if she was to transform TechBoston's fortunes, Jason DiCarlo found he had the opposite problem when he was appointed principal of Murkland School.

This troubled elementary in Lowell, 20 miles northwest of Boston, had - like TechBoston - a tough catchment area. But DiCarlo was shocked to find that the teaching staff he inherited were "overly sympathetic".

"Most of the staff looked at it as if we're underperforming because students aren't coming in with their needs met," he says. "That isn't a bad thing, you want empathy, but there was a lot of over-sympathy; a lot of looking out the window, not in the mirror.

"As time goes on, you get worn down a little bit because you hear sad stories, and are exposed to certain things that, as a middle-class person, you may not have seen. It does pull at you. So as time goes on you become more sensitive to those things and academic rigour can drop."

So DiCarlo and his assistant Kevin Andriolo set about establishing "a culture of high expectations". The school opted to pursue a turnaround model, meaning just half of the teaching staff were retained.

But the ones who stayed on, DiCarlo says, have been transformed. "I think the teachers will tell you they've never worked so hard, but they like the work. They like the results they are seeing, which is fuelling their energy and enthusiasm."

And this is borne out by the test results. After just one year, the school reported a 14 per cent increase in English proficiency and a 20 per cent rise in mathematics. Its success was hailed as "breathtaking" by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union.

Mathematics has also been made a priority for Massachusetts. While US states are responsible for setting their own education policies and curricula, commissioner Chester has been closely involved in the move to create a Common Core of shared standards for students across the US. Massachusetts has incorporated these new standards into its own curriculum.

"It's much more aligned to what some of the top-performing nations in the world have done with their math curriculum," Chester says. "It's less broad, it's more focused at each grade level. There's a more deliberate progression of topics from one grade to another, there's a strong focus on operations and number sense in the earlier grades.

"As you get into the middle grades, there's a strong emphasis on proportional reasoning on ratio, per cent, fractions, which we now know are important conceptual understandings for being able to tackle algebra and beyond as you move into the higher grades."

Simultaneously, the state has introduced an exacting new mathematics assessment for trainee teachers to ensure they have a sufficiently rigorous knowledge of the subject before receiving a licence to teach in the classroom. It's fair to say that many of the trainees found it a challenge, Chester explains.

"Of the first cohort that took the assessment, only a quarter passed. It also shows how poorly prepared many of our teachers were to take on the assignments we expect them to take on. I think there's a reasonable expectation."

Unlike many other US states, Massachusetts has a relatively warm relationship with the teachers' unions. "Massachusetts has managed to not be as polarised as you see in a lot of the states," Chester says. "We engage. A lot of what gets done, gets done with the unions at the table. So even if the policy that emerges may not be what the union advocates for, the development of the policy had the union's voice in it. That's a value in Massachusetts. That pays a lot of dividends. That's a big part of the story."

Ban on new charter schools

One view shared by the state administration and the trade unions is a suspicion of the charter school movement, which is built on the idea that schools do better with autonomy from local political bosses. The format has been mimicked in the UK with academies and there have been similar initiatives in Australia and New Zealand. Massachusetts has preferred to find ways of keeping schools in-house, including its programme of pilot schools - such as TechBoston - that are given some extra autonomy compared with maintained schools, but still kept as part of the state school family.

"We wanted to find a way to innovate that had the cooperation of the union but avoided ending up with a charter school, independent of the school district," Chester says.

As a result, Massachusetts imposed an 18-month moratorium on new charters being opened, which was lifted only last year.

Does Chester see charter operators as a threat? "Absolutely. The cap was designed to put a ceiling on the number of students and funding that could leave a school district, based on charter schools. It was designed to basically protect the district from unrestricted disenrolment of students and loss of revenue."

The state also keeps a close eye on which schools can become charters and which organisations can operate them. While insisting that the vast majority of these schools are "high quality", Chester points out that since taking up his job in 2008, he has closed down two underperforming charters.

But he believes the maintained sector has much to learn from the charter movement. "Part of the impetus for charters was to create a space where innovation could occur, space from regulations and requirements, and then learn from those.

"What's happening now is we're starting to see more cross-fertilisation between charter schools and traditional schools and districts. In Boston, you now have the administration actively courting charter school operators to take over some of their lowest-performing schools."

As such, in Lawrence, a mill town with a history of poor-performing schools, the state has recruited four successful charter operators - but brought them in under contract to the school district, rather than leaving them to operate independently.

"This is a way to have the best of the charter school world within the footprint of the traditional school district. to show (innovation) is possible within the school district," Chester says.

Another national policy that has caused significant problems for the state is former president George W. Bush's flagship No Child Left Behind (NCLB) project. This required states to ensure that all their schools were on the way to achieving 100 per cent proficiency in reading, writing and mathematics.

Loss of credibility

But while outsiders might have expected the top-performing state in the US to excel in this system, the reality was quite different. Each state set its own standards, and Massachusetts' exacting demands on students came back to haunt it.

"We have such high standards on our tests so, under the federal standard of the 100 per cent (proficiency) target, literally 80 per cent of our schools were being identified as failures. And when you have an accountability system where you say that the vast majority of schools don't measure up, the accountability system loses its credibility, its usefulness.

"You've got Massachusetts with 80 per cent of schools failing, and other states with 30-40 per cent failing. But if you look at an apples-to-apples comparison, Massachusetts is outperforming those other states. It creates a disconnect. It invites cynicism, rather than being a call to action."

And the consequences for the teaching profession were also profound, explains Murkland School's DiCarlo. "It was done in a way where teachers lost autonomy," he says. "They lost the art of teaching because they were relying upon heavily scripted programmes that were supposed to get us (to meet the prescribed targets). This particular school was a result of that.

"The teachers here knew it wasn't really working and were frustrated. We had to ask what curriculum is going to engage these kids? We're switching to a model where we encourage our students to be independent thinkers and readers and writers, rather than following a programme that didn't make sense."

Thankfully for Massachusetts, in 2011 President Obama's administration invited states to request "flexibility", allowing them to deviate from the stringent NCLB requirements. Massachusetts was granted a waiver in 2012.

But, as far as Chester is concerned, that doesn't mean that the state's problems are over. "One of my concerns," he says, "is that, in Massachusetts, many students are receiving a world-class education second to none anywhere in the world, but most are not at this point.

"Too many students are not experiencing a world-class education, and too often those are students of colour, students from low-income backgrounds. We need to correct that. We've got a lot to be proud of, but there's a lot of work to do."

Massachusetts: leading the way in education

In the previous four Nation's Report Cards, dating back to 2005, Massachusetts has ranked in first place in reading and mathematics. But its educational success story can be traced back to 1837, when it became the first state to create a board of education.

Its first secretary was Horace Mann, who introduced a host of school reforms and became a national pioneer in the field. He was a controversial figure, and was a leading advocate for banning the use of corporal punishment as a means of disciplining pupils.

Massachusetts passed another key set of reforms in 1993, increasing investment in schools in exchange for increased accountability. The state's current education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, was appointed in 2008 after holding senior roles in Ohio and Philadelphia.

Chester played a key role in the creation of the Common Core - shared educational standards now in use across the US - and served on the committee that first proposed it. He is currently chairing the multi-state Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which aims to ensure that young people across the country are better prepared for work or further study when they leave high school.

Photo: Melinda Gates (second from right) - one of TechBoston Academy's partners is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - joins Barack Obama on a school visit to see how the reforms started in 2003 have turned around what was a failing school. Photo credit: Getty

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