Plan for Education Czar Threatens Reform Efforts

Fewer than 15 years ago, K-12 public education in Massachusetts — a few favored communities aside — was in bad shape. The system by which schools were funded was so inequitable that it was in danger of being declared unconstitutional, student achievement was mediocre at best, and there was no reason to believe it would get better.

The Commonwealth’s 1993 Education Reform Act, with its grand bargain of a massive infusion of new money coupled with high standards, accountability, and enhanced parental choice, changed all that. Today, we lead the nation on student assessments, and average achievement compares favorably with the leading nations worldwide.

The crafters of the 1993 reform got it right. But no matter how well legislation is crafted, implementation is where the rubber meets the road.

Education reform is often stifled by the vested interests that resist accountability and new models like charter and pilot schools. In Massachusetts, the independence of the state Board of Education provided the continuity that allowed reform to be implemented year after year.

The board was responsible for the initiatives that were the heart and soul of reform, like the MCAS exam, teacher testing, and academically rigorous curriculum frameworks. It was the board that followed a prudent course by creating rigorous charter school approval and closure processes.

Each of these reforms was the target of substantial resistance from a powerful and change-averse education establishment. Only an independent Board of Education, insulated from politics, could have made them a reality.

Despite these unparalleled successes, all we have achieved is now at risk. A proposal to eliminate the Board of Education’s independence seems to be breezing through the Legislature. The proposal would make the board just another part of Gov. Patrick’s administration and thus politicize an institution that has been insulated from politics since 1837.

That continued independence is essential to address the challenges that remain, such as eliminating the unacceptable achievement gap that condemns many urban children to stunted lives.

I learned to have a deep respect for how essential that independence is when I worked for the board in the early 1970s, responsible for integration and equal opportunity in Boston, Springfield, and New Bedford. We were under constant attack in the Legislature, with only the courage of board members preventing the interests of African-American students from being abandoned. We were able to stay the course because the board members served long and overlapping terms, and were selected for their character, not the constituencies they represented.

The selection of a new commissioner of education provides a more recent example of how the proposed restructuring would strip away the Board of Education’s independence. The board unanimously chose an eminently qualified candidate who was clearly not the administration’s first choice. Under the proposed changes, a new secretary of education would have veto power over the board’s choice for commissioner.

Incoming Commissioner Mitchell Chester brings particular expertise in accountability. But another recent proposal would make the new secretary responsible for accountability. The result would be a commissioner who is little more than a department head ostensibly reporting to a largely ceremonial board.

Gone would be the independence of a board that implemented reform initiatives over the long term, even as governors and legislative leaders came and went.

Instead, teachers and students would potentially be subject to 180-degree shifts in policy every time a new administration takes over. The 15 years of moving in a consistent direction that has been responsible for our education reform success would be rendered virtually impossible.

Charles L. Glenn is dean ad interim of the Boston University School of Education.

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