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Colleagues Remember Late Education Commissioner's Dedication To Improvement03:05
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Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts' commissioner of elementary and secondary education, in 2015. (Peter Balonen-Rosen/WBUR)
Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts' commissioner of elementary and secondary education, in 2015. (Peter Balonen-Rosen/WBUR)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Mitchell Chester, commissioner of Massachusetts' Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, died Monday night after a battle with cancer. He was 65.

At the time of his death, Chester was the nation's longest-serving chief state school officer. Throughout his nearly decade-long tenure, Chester used tests and accountability to keep Massachusetts in its place as the nation's top public-school performer.

After his long commissionership -- and a few controversial decisions — Chester is being praised by his colleagues for his courage and willingness to listen.

When Chester came to Massachusetts in 2008, he was already devoted to education reform — and to high-stakes testing.

For years he did double duty as commissioner and as the chairman of the governing board behind PARCC, a standardized test aligned with the Common Core curriculum. And he hoped to see that test replace the MCAS in Massachusetts.

But after Gov. Charlie Baker and many state educators opposed the change, Chester backed down — and the state education board settled on the hybrid test known as "MCAS 2.0," first implemented this past year. State Education Secretary Jim Peyser says it's proof that Chester listened to opponents — and put the state's children first.

"He could easily have been wedded to his original position. But he never let that happen."

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chair Paul Sagan sat next to Chester at monthly meetings and says he was always impressed with Chester's patience, even when confronted with shouts of criticism.

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"I would often say, 'Don't you just wanna yell back?' And he would say, 'You know, they cared enough, and they have something that they're concerned about, and I will try to learn from it.'"

Chester was sworn in under Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick in 2008, but he stayed on after Baker, a Republican, took over in 2015.

Chester's pragmatism and commitment to reform made him the ideal person to lead the state's approach education reform, characterized — mostly — by bipartisan agreement since it began in 1993.

At times educators and parents protested Chester's reliance on testing, and his decision to take over some of the state's lowest-performing schools and districts, like Lawrence and Holyoke.

But colleagues like Peyser say Chester made those decisions only after the need for change was evident. "He had to make some very difficult and in many cases courageous decisions which were very unpopular, but were very necessary at the same time."

"He had to make some very difficult and in many cases courageous decisions which were very unpopular, but were very necessary at the same time."

Education Secretary Jim Peyser

At his swearing-in in 2008, Chester said Massachusetts public schools were the "envy of educators" nationwide.

And according to many of last year's test scores, at least, they still are: first in the nation on Advanced Placement tests, and even world-class in reading and science on the international PISA exam.

But Sagan says Chester still came into the office every day looking to do better. And in that way he participated in Massachusetts' success.

"It's easy to forget that we didn't always have the best public schools in the country," says Sagan, noting that Mitchell is "a big reason" that Massachusetts schools have their stellar reputation.

State officials announced Tuesday that Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson will take over as acting commissioner, but said it's too early to begin to speak of Chester's permanent successor.

A meeting of the education board was shortened Tuesday because of the news of Chester's passing. But it was supposed to be the latest in an annual tradition under his data-driven leadership: a "year in review" meeting, where the board reviewed the state's impressive numbers and searched, as Mitchell Chester often did, for room for improvement.

This segment aired on June 27, 2017.

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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