Editor's Note: This piece is published in collaboration with WBUR's "Pass/Fail," a series evaluating 25 years of education reform in Massachusetts. You can explore the full series here.
Over half of Massachusetts third graders are not proficient in reading, and there’s been relatively little change in our eighth grade literacy scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — the nation’s education report card — in comparison to the rest of the country. It’s clear, then, that the key features of the 1993 reform law — school choice, charter schools, the MCAS exams, a one-size-fits-all prescriptive teacher evaluation system — have not resulted in the kind of change we all expected from a $2 billion a year increase in state education funding.
The 1993 law was based on a well-intentioned but faulty understanding of what is holding schools back. Specifically, those of us involved in writing it believed that principals, superintendents and teachers knew what it would take to improve teaching. We assumed the state’s role was to provide extra funding, to hold schools accountable via the MCAS exams, and to let the threat of losing students to school choice or charter schools prod teachers in the right direction.
What I’ve learned in 13 years at Momenta working in-depth with some 85 schools (and over 2,500 teachers) all across Massachusetts is that the vast majority of teachers, principals and superintendents work very hard and care deeply about their students — but few of them have been shown what changes they’d need to make to bring about dramatic gains in student achievement.
The 1993 law was based on a well-intentioned but faulty understanding of what is holding schools back.
Young students — especially those from disadvantaged homes — are capable of performing at levels far beyond what most parents, legislators and teachers believe possible. In the schools Momenta works with, third and fourth graders debate questions like whether genetically modified foods are the answer to world hunger, while first graders can differentiate fact from opinion and can explain to adult visitors (like me!) the difference between evidence, transition words, analysis and a paragraph’s topic sentence.
The old “stand and deliver” model is all too common in Massachusetts schools — the teacher stands in front, does most of the talking, and addresses all students at the same level. This usually means that at best she’s only engaging a third of the students, while another third are lost because the material is over their head and the final third is bored because they already understand it.
Moving students to the next level means making sure each student’s mind is in gear all day long. During the reading block, and again in the math block, the teacher meets with four different groups of students, addressing each group at its appropriate level. When they are not with the teacher, students are engaging each other in high-level, collaborative activities (like debates). It also requires strong educational leadership from the principal, a school climate where the teachers feel safe to take risks and have trust in their principal, and the strong support of the district superintendent.
Embarrassing our school faculties with low MCAS scores will not change teacher behavior if they neither know what’s possible nor have the tools and support they need to improve. Worse, the MCAS system puts teachers on the defensive, making them less likely to take risks. Because students from disadvantaged homes usually enter school with far less vocabulary development and exposure to books, they inevitably score well below students from language-rich homes — despite instruction in urban schools that is often as good as, if not better than, what suburban students receive. In this way, MCAS unfairly punishes teachers who choose to work in the inner city schools where they are most needed. And, as Harvard professor Daniel Koretz points out in his book, “The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better,” MCAS moves teachers away from good teaching and toward test prep and doesn’t accurately measure changes in student achievement.
I’ve found that a principal who knows what better pedagogy looks like, who has good leadership skills and the trust of her teachers, and who has the support of the district central office can always motivate her teachers. The implication for state policy is huge — the state should not intervene directly to change how teachers teach, but should seek out those superintendents who have the desire and the ability to change pedagogy — and then do everything possible to empower them: extra funds to help with the transition, long-term funding for change initiatives and waivers from state mandates for districts that have a well-conceived plan of their own in place.
Sadly, the state has no program to fund this kind of change initiative and, until now, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has shown little interest in offering flexibility as an incentive to encourage forward-thinking superintendents. Of course, funding has to be part of any successful change initiative, but the funding debate is deadlocked. Superintendents are asking for more money with no restrictions on how they spend it. Most legislators have seen for themselves that in many districts extra funding will lead to no major change and are therefore reluctant to support such increases.
Having moved to differentiated instruction, teachers tell us they now can’t imagine teaching any other way ...
When teachers expect more from their students and give students the support they need to get there, we see dramatic reductions in disruptive classroom behavior. Having moved to differentiated instruction, teachers tell us they now can’t imagine teaching any other way — and that their students are working at previously unimagined levels.
Before Momenta began work in Everett, the principal at the Keverian school walked us through his school and took us to see his best teacher. “What do you think?” he asked. Our response: she is a very committed and articulate teacher, who cares deeply about her students, and is working her heart out. But she is using a method that isn’t going to succeed. Instead of getting defensive, the principal realized that he needed to know more about what really good instruction looked like. He decided to work with us to learn our approach and help his teachers put it into action. It worked. The Keverian moved up to level one and became the highest performing school in the district.
We must put in place a reform plan based on an understanding of what’s holding schools back and what students are capable of. Our teachers are ready and willing to learn strategies that will move their students forward. Let’s not wait another 25 years.
Ed Moscovitch is the CEO and co-founder of Momenta (formerly the Bay State Reading Institute), a nonprofit that works with elementary and middle schools to help teachers and principals move toward differentiated, small-group instruction and to much higher expectations for student performance. As a consultant to the Massachusetts Business Alliance of Education from 1990 to 1993, he helped draft and pass the 1993 Education Reform Law.