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The landmark Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 was designed to improve student performance and to close the achievement gap. So in the 16 years since, is the state closer to those goals? A new analysis of education reform by the think tank MassINC says the results are mixed.
REPORT SUMMARY: Massachusetts Education Reform At 15 (PDF)
The report out Thursday finds that student achievement is up overall, but that the achievement gap between low- and high-spending districts remains wide. MassINC research director Dana Ansel says some gains in that area were lost when the state trimmed education funding in the 2001 recession. We asked her if she is worried the current economic downturn will have the same affect.
DANA ANSEL: Right now we're obviously in a recession that is much more prolonged than 2001. I think there's risks of what's going to happen to the level of inequality between spending and school districts.
So over time, was there much progress actually made in equalizing the gap in funding?
ANSEL: There was progress, which is what the law was intended to address. And part of it is what is done with the money, and how it's focused and targeted.
Let me ask that question: What was most of the money spent on?
ANSEL: Classroom services, which is the majority of the education expenditures. But in addition to looking at spending, we also looked at what happened in terms of achievement since 1993.
So asking the question, 'Did the low-spending districts, as they received more money, were they able to close the achievement gap with the high-spending districts?'
ANSEL: The answer is actually complicated in that, in the simple sense, the answer is no, the achievement gap still exists.
But what we found was that the performance trends of the different districts were on different tracks. So the high-spending districts, at the time that education reform was enacted, they were trending upward in their performance. In contrast, the low-spending districts were trending flat or downward. So their trends were going in different directions.
Widening the gap.
ANSEL: Widening the gap, exactly. And what we found through our analysis is that education reform did have an impact and it did raise the performance of the low-spending districts. But because of these different tracks, the achievement gap has remained essentially the same.
What kind of return — in your opinion — did the state get, did the local districts get, for spending all that money?
ANSEL: We definitely did get a return and the state aid did make a difference, but at the same time I think it's pretty clear going forward that — if we want to close the achievement gap — more innovation, bolder approaches are gonna be necessary. I mean it's hard to imagine a scenario that we're gonna keep pumping more and more money into K-12, and be able to close the achievement gap.
The other point that I would bring up is that there's also the research we found, [that there's been] a real change in the demographics of the student population as ed reform has been implemented. In that you see dramatic growths in the share of low-income students in certain school districts. And while the formula does make adjustments for those students, I think it's really unclear how much money is needed and what the effects of concentrated poverty are on classroom learning.
In a recession — when the state is obviously able to provide less money to local communities and less money for education-- should it rethink the formula? Should it spend even a little more money in poor districts during these times than it gives to more wealthy districts?
ANSEL: Well, I think that's one option, but there are several other options. I mean, there are some cost-cutting measures that could make a difference. And now would be the perfect time to enact those. You know, things like moving the municipalities onto the GIC health insurance. That would make a difference.
We also have a situation right now where federal stimulus money, some of it is being allocated to K-12 education.
Some of the recommendations to help reach the main goals of education reform include a longer school day, a longer school year, merit pay for teachers to get the most effective teachers into high-poverty schools. All of those involve collective bargaining agreements with teachers' unions. What can the state do about that? Do you expect any progress in those areas?
ANSEL: We hope so. You know, the state has expanded longer school days with, you know, union buy-in. And there are more schools --
Only in a very limited number of school districts though.
ANSEL: Yeah. Absolutely. But there are more schools that would like to do that. So I think that's a possibility. I think there's also a possibility for schools that are underperforming, where the state might have some more opportunities to, you know, enact some statewide policies.
You know, it would require some legislative changes, but I think in the areas particularly of underperforming schools, there will be some more opportunities.
This program aired on May 28, 2009.
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