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How Massachusetts education raced past that of Wisconsin

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Alan Borsuk
September 21, 2010

Wisconsin has showed little muscle when it comes to motivating students, teachers or schools to achieve ambitious academic goals.


Massachusetts provides a particularly striking comparison. Just 15 to 20 years ago, Massachusetts and Wisconsin were fairly even. In recent years, Massachusetts has led the nation in reading and math scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. A recent New York Times article said, “Many regard (Massachusetts) as having the nation’s best education system.” And Boston is widely regarded as a leader in tackling urban school issues.


So what explains the successes in Massachusetts and Boston?


There is nearly universal agreement that the key is “the grand bargain” struck in the Bay State’s Legislature in 1993. At heart, it was a simple deal: Give schools more money and demand better results.


A multibillion-dollar infusion of state aid to schools righted inequities between have- and have-not school districts. But along with the money came one of the nation’s most rigorous sets of standards for what children were expected to learn, and a demanding state testing system, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).


When the reality of the test hit, “there were no excuses anymore,” said Dave Driscoll, then the state’s education commissioner and now chair of the National Assessment Governing Board. Schools, teachers and students themselves found they could achieve more than expected.


“When we want to, we can move mountains,” said Driscoll. “We don’t expect a lot of our kids, and that’s wrong.”


The bargain also called for teachers to demonstrate competency in their subject areas before being allowed to take over a classroom. When just under 60 percent of the applicants for teaching licenses failed the test the first time it was given in 1998, it led to major changes in the way teacher training programs in Massachusetts worked.


Meantime, what has happened in Wisconsin? There’s been a lot of action, but not much that can be shown to have improved student achievement.


In an interview, Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, listed the elements of Massachusetts’ success—the standards, tests, overall accountability—and said, “To the best of my knowledge, Wisconsin has lacked all of those things so far.”


In today’s economy, throwing a lot of money into the education pot is almost surely not feasible. But what could be done if there was really a sense of urgency about the state of education in Wisconsin, or if legislators, union leaders and others were willing to look realistically at fiscal changes that could open the doors to change?


Students need to pass the high school MCAS to get a diploma in Massachusetts. Despite fears by some about what the impact would be, more than 90 percent have been meeting the requirement each year.


It appears that if you set the bar low, students will jump over a low bar. If you demand more from them, they just might meet and even surpass expectations.


Alan Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School, wrote this for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute’s “Refocus Wisconsin” project. A full version of the essay, and more about the project, is available at www.RefocusWisconsin.org.

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