One of the big mysteries of the education-reform movement is why Massachusetts, the gold-standard of American education, jettisoned its highly successful education standards for the untested Common Core State Standards. One reason was a much-needed, post-recession cash infusion via Race to the Top.
The Bay State’s first bid for RTTT funds failed—the commonwealth came in a miserable 13th—because it had not adopted the Common Core. “There’s a lot of disappointment and anger in Massachusetts that our outstanding track record in education reform was not recognized,” said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary at the time.
Massachusetts finally won $250 million in RTTT funding, in 2010, after agreeing to adopt the Common Core. That “win” would usher in a series of changes to the state’s highly regarded, two-decade old education system.
Massachusetts’s poor showing in its first RTTT sweepstakes—and the Federal government’s apparent willingness to tie funding to the adoption of the Common Core, even for the country’s most advanced education system—troubled many experts on both sides of the ed-reform divide. Beginning in 2005, Massachusetts kids had the highest performing test scores in every subject tested by the National Assessment of Education Progress, which is known as the Nation’s Report Card. It has also outscored kids around the world on a range of international tests (More on Massachusetts’ test scores below.)
Now the Massachusetts reforms are once again under assault by Common-Core enthusiasts. Strangely, many of those attacking the reforms are its erstwhile defenders. In February, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a leading advocacy group for the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, issued the first of several reports that found, or are expected to find, the Bay State standards and an accompanying high-stakes test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System or MCAS, wanting when compared to the still-untested “Common-Core aligned” PARCC tests (PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.)
“The current MCAS high school tests do not identify students who are college- and career-ready, and they do not contain the right content to measure college- and career-readiness,” concludes the MBAE study.
By contrast, the MBAE cautiously endorses the PARCC test: “As we are preparing this report in early 2015, the PARCC tests hold the promise of being a good indicator of college- and career-readiness.” (Emphasis added.)
In response, researchers from the Pioneer Institute, a market-oriented Massachusetts think thank, argue that money, once again, is playing an outsized role in the latest anti-MCAS research. The turncoats, according to Pioneer, include MBAE, which was cofounded by the aforementioned Paul Reville, as well as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Achieve Inc., both national Common-Core advocates. What these organizations all have in common is that they have receive funding– lots of it—from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also invested over $200 million in developing the Common Core.
The most recent Massachusetts skirmish over the Common Core is no coincidence. This year, Massachusetts elementary and middle schools had the choice of taking the PARCC test or the MCAS. In the fall, Massachusetts will make a final decision about whether to ditch the MCAS entirely in favor of PARCC, at a time when half the states that initially agreed to adopt the Common-Core aligned test have since backed out.
In their OpEd, Charles Chieppo and Jamie Gass, detail the tangled web of relationships that tie the critics of the Massachusetts reforms to the Gates foundation, the PARCC tests and the Common Core. The OpEd is particularly scathing about the role of the MBAE:
The Mass. Business Alliance study’s credibility was further compromised by the fact that its author is an adviser to PARCC. An earlier report from the Alliance — written by the senior education adviser to the giant testing company Pearson, which is near the top of a long list of entities that stand to gain from the switch to Common Core — was so bereft of intellectual integrity that it lifted an entire purported “case study” from The Boston Globe without attribution.
However, the winner of the “conflict-of-interest derby,” according to Chieppo and Gass, is Teach Plus, a Boston-based national education-reform organization, which published a pro-PARCC report, “Massachusetts Teachers Examine PARCC“, in March:
The group recently released a study in which 23 of its fellows conclude that the commonwealth should ditch MCAS for PARCC. Teach Plus has received over $17 million from the Gates Foundation, including stipends for each of those 23 fellows.
While Pioneer Institute says it has neither solicited nor received funding from the Gates foundation, it has been approached by the Gates foundation. “The more noise we made the more they seemed interested in ‘working with’ us,” Gass wrote me in an email.
Like major philanthropists before him, Gates’s foundation has done a great deal of good around the world—for example, in joining the fight against the Ebola outbreak in Africa. However, the Gates foundation’s work in education reform illustrates the danger of allowing a single individual (or foundation)—no matter how well intentioned—to have too much influence on public policy. Gates brings his own data-driven world view to education—one that values STEM subjects over literature, history and the arts. There is no countervailing force with comparably deep pockets to argue that children would be better off, say, producing Shakespeare plays and studying violin instead of focusing on high-stakes tests.
By controlling the purse strings and the megaphone, the Gates foundation engineered “the swiftest and most remarkable shifts in education policy in U.S. history,” according to a Washington Post analysis.
That story is now replaying itself in Massachusetts; the only difference is that in Massachusetts, there’s a real danger that by jettisoning the Bay State’s reforms, the Common Core could turn a widely recognized success into a failure. Like a bio-engineered super plant nurtured by Gates and bred for the arid conditions of ed-reform soil–and to be bug-resistant and uniform—the Common Core is threatening to crowd out the healthiest varietals.
Among the local ed-reform crop, none is sturdier than the Massachusetts standard and the MCAS. Beginning in 2005, the scores of kids in Massachusetts surpassed those of every other state, in every subject, at every grade tested on the NAEP. The state also outscored kids from around the world on international tests. Based on the latest PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results, if Massachusetts were a country, it would rank ninth in the world in math proficiency, tied with Japan; fourth in reading, tied with Hong Kong. Moreover, Massachusetts eighth graders ranked second only to Singapore in science competency, according to the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Social Studies) tests.
MBAE essentially argues that the “proficiency” cut-off score on the MCAS is set too low. In Massachusetts, other arguments for adopting the Common Core range from a 21st century penchant for all things new and shiny to an educational vision of “national citizenship”—as one Common Core advocate put it: “If we’re going to develop this country and thrive as a democracy” national standards will help lift states like Mississippi, which have the lowest education performance in the nation.
MCAS advocates counter that low-performing states will exert “downward pressure on PARCC’s rigor” eventually dumbing down both the test and the standards.
Indeed, in Massachusetts, even the Common Core’s staunchest advocates couch their support in conditional terms. “[I]t it is not possible to know how much” of the “promise” of the PARCC tests “will be fulfilled,” concedes the MBAE report. Reville meanwhile says: “Our hope is that they’re a more sophisticated generation of tests, they’ll be aligned with the Common Core and will generate information more quickly and in a more useful fashion than we’ve been able to do in the past.” (Emphasis added.)
Long-time Massachusetts educators disagree. Sue Szachowicz the recently retired principal of Brockton High, the largest high school in Massachusetts, says she “cringed” when she saw the MBAE report, which she says compared “apples” and “oranges.” Says Szachowicz: “MCAS was never ever” intended to test college and career readiness. “It’s a 10th grade test designed to be a check in, to see if our kids’ reading and math proficiency is where we need it to be.”
“I’m a strong supporter of MBAE,” adds Szachowicz who led a one of the Bay State’s most heralded and enduring turnaround efforts in response to the Massachusetts Reforms. But the report, she says, “is wrong,” noting that studies have found a strong correlation between MCAS performance and college success.
Tom Birmingham, a key architect of the Massachusetts reforms who recently joined the Pioneer Institute, is now also weighing in with his own series of OpEds, arguing that the Common Core, and thus PARCC, is inferior to Massachusetts standards. Most recently he wrote: “A distinguished presidential panel found that Algebra I is the key to advanced math study and recommended that students study it in 8th grade, as currently occurs under Massachusetts’ state standards. But Common Core would delay Algebra I until early in 10th grade, preventing students from reaching high levels of math in high school… Common Core ends with ‘Algebra II lite,’ which is insufficient for students aiming for college majors in science, technology, engineering or math.”
Advocates of the Common-Core and PARCC also miss a key ingredient that made the Massachusetts standards and the MCAS a success: They were the result of a dynamic democratic process, that solicited input from a wide range of constituencies. “We developed traveling groups of educators to go around the state and find out what should be included in the curriculum frameworks,” recalls Sandra Stotsky, who then served as senior associate commissioner of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. By the time the accountability piece of the reforms kicked in 2001—the MCAS results would determine whether kids received a high school diploma kicked—there was widespread acceptance of the process.
And after each MCAS testing period, the state released the MCAS questions and results, allowing teachers and administrators to pour over the tested material. Recalls Szachowicz: “We used the information, to see what areas we were strong on and where we were weak. It was a very open process.”
The MCAS continued to be updated and improved each year for more than a decade.
PARCC, by contrast, is a locked box, entirely controlled by Pearson, the testing giant that is developing the PARCC tests. It isn’t designed to be improved by educators over time, nor to help educators use the test to improve what or how they teach.
For now, at least in Massachusetts, the war over the Common Core will continue for at least a few months. Fordham Institute is expected to produce a study this summer examining the MCAS’s alignment to the Common Core; if its earlier support for the PARCC test is any indication, it too is likely to find against MCAS.
In Massachusetts, a final decision will be made by Mitchell Chester, the current education commissioner. Chester, it must be noted, also chairs PARCC’s governing board.