School Days: Seattle Times reports on education lessons from Massachusetts; how you spend the money matters

Massachusetts regularly ranks at the top on measures of education performance, including ours. The most recent update of the Opportunity Washington Scorecard found the Bay State to be in a class of its own on the Achieve measures of education outcomes. 

Top performer: Massachusetts maintains its 1st place position with an off-the-chart Achieve score of 157.

Washington, you’ll remember, fell to 21st in the updated ranking.

So we were as interested as anyone in the Seattle Times two-part series on Massachusetts education by Claudia Rowe. The first part, which ran yesterday, took a broad look at reform efforts and funding in Massachusetts; today, the focus turned to the length of the school day. Both articles should be considered must-reads by anyone interested in improving public education in our state. There’s too much good information to summarize fairly in a short blog post, so we recommend reading both articles in their entirety. 

Rowe reports one difference: discontent with the status quo is more pronounced in the state with the better performance.

For more than a decade, fourth-graders in Massachusetts have been, on average, the most literate children in the country. They also compute at higher levels. The same is true for eighth-graders. And for overall K-12 achievement. Yet the predominant sentiment in school hallways and policy offices around the state is discontent.

This stands in striking contrast to Washington, where students’ scores have hovered at middle-of-the-road status for years, and schools chief Randy Dorn recently trumpeted an uptick in graduation rates, though they lag behind the national average by five points.

She notes that the states have similar demographics, making the comparison between them less affected by population differences. Funding matters and Massachusetts has made significant and strategic investments. Rowe quotes Paul Reville, the state’s former secretary of education during the overhaul who now teaches at Harvard University.

In his opinion, three strategies — all of them costly and most aimed at low-income schools — are making the difference: beefed-up early education; an expanded school day resulting in significant salary increases; and huge boosts to teacher training.

“You can’t say if I put in x more dollars, I’ll get y results,” he added. “It’s how you spend the money that matters. If you do more of the same, you’ll get more of the same.”

Massachusetts approached funding with an eye toward equity and recognizing that some students required more support than others. The article provides rich detail, concrete examples, discussion of challenges overcome and the ongoing effort to make sure every student has the opportunity to succeed. 

This perspective from our state resonates as well.

“I’m not foolish enough to say money doesn’t matter, but how it’s spent matters a great deal,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, a think tank made up of business leaders like those who issued the clarion call for change in Massachusetts 23 years ago.

The key difference between the two states, he said, was determination to see their plan through.

“Massachusetts developed its reform agenda the same year as Washington and stuck to it faithfully. We didn’t. We watered everything down, including funding, and changed our assessments time and time again. We just kept moving the goal posts.”

The struggle here continues.