A Race Well Run

Beacon Hill and the education establishment overcame narrow self-interest by putting students and schools first
By EDITORIAL  |  August 26, 2010

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Five months ago, when Massachusetts failed to win a Race to the Top education grant from the federal government, the Phoenixtook the legislature and teachers' unions to task for being too timid and politically motivated to do the right thing. Today, with $250 million intended to promote educational reform and improve school performance coming the Bay State's way, we find much to applaud. Beacon Hill and the education establishment took the long view and put the interests of families and students first. It was a splendid performance.

Essential credit must go to the Obama administration for designing a process that accomplished the seemingly impossible: prodding and motivating the state's policymakers and education stakeholders to implement reforms well beyond their comfort zones, self-interest, and power fiefdoms.

Governor Deval Patrick deserves credit for early on recognizing that this was indeed a unique opportunity, and for working behind the scenes to broker agreement while keeping public expectations high.

Many of those reforms, including expanded charter schools and state intervention in failing schools, were included in legislation passed early this year. Although the battle for that bill predictably stirred tensions — between the governor and the legislature, between the House and the Senate, between unions and education officials — in the end, it was the state's most significant education reform in 17 years.

Special commendation goes to House Education Committee Chair Marty Walz and Speaker Robert DeLeo, for pushing the bill's reforms further than the Senate was initially willing to go.

That legislation, however, still left significant holes in the federal evaluators' scorecard. Most glaring, to us and others, was the lack of serious teacher evaluations tied to outcomes.

Massachusetts officials thought they were close enough — they figured that the US Department of Education would be grading on a generous curve, given the heavy political pressure to push Race to the Top money into circulation. (The $4.35 billion was part of the 2009 economic stimulus package.) They were wrong in their assumption that politics would trump policy. But in the months that followed Massachusetts's first-round loss, their various parties buckled to do what needed to be done to push over the finishing line.

Kudos to US Education Secretary Arne Duncan for playing hardball. In that first round, back in March, he stunned public officials across the country by rewarding only two states — and telling the other 40 or so that applied that they'd have to do better.

It worked, at least here in Massachusetts. The Patrick administration negotiated an agreement with the Massachusetts Teachers Association on a teacher-evaluation measurement that, while not yet finalized, has enough teeth that it prompted the state's other teachers' union to withdraw its support.

In another major concession from the union, principals trying to turn around failing schools will now have the ability to hire their choice of teachers, and not be stuck with those they don't consider up for the task.

And finally, state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester agreed to adopt national standards, after an impressive and lengthy process that brought the national standards up to our level, rather than dropping ours.

That last item angered some of the policymakers behind the seminal 1993 Education Reform Act, who are understandably proud of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) they established.

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