Massachusetts can offer some direction to Ohio's academic standards effort

David Driscoll, former Massachusetts education commissioner, sat down with the Ohio Gadfly last week after the “World-Class Academic Standards for Ohio” conference. Driscoll is now a member of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Foundation board of trustees.

What was the genesis of the Massachusetts rebound in education?
It was passing a comprehensive law [in 1993] that some people called, potentially, the most effective law in the country. It was a compact that said that we’re going to give schools and districts the tools and hold them accountable for results. On the tools side it was $2 billion more over seven years—a foundation budget that gave more to poorer districts. But it demanded professional development, training for teachers, student testing and accountability for schools and districts.

At the conference, you mentioned how a large number of Massachusetts’ teachers lacked competency in math, communications, and literacy. Yet, the state has improved dramatically in education. Can you explain?
Standards and assessment sometimes drive the system in spite of a lack of teacher training. However, teacher quality is vitally important. But even if there hadn’t been progress in teacher training I think students would have progressed. What most people don’t realize is that student testing for high school graduation, which began in 2001, was big news but teacher testing for communications and literacy in 1991 was bigger news because 61 percent of teachers failed the test. The training of our teachers had to improve overnight because they had to pass the test. So, the new system for testing teachers was combined with a new system for student testing and they both drove student progress. The tests fixated student attention on learning and it was the same with teachers.

If we want world-class standards that means looking at standards outside the country. Where?
Singapore. People are looking at China and India because of the improvement they’ve seen. There, it’s the hunger to learn. Huge numbers of kids are advancing, learning English as well as their own language. They don’t have the total answer but there are still so many children performing at high levels. Also we need to look at Finland, Australia, and Japan. What we [in Massachusetts] learned from Japan was the need for teacher competence and the need to motivate kids to learn. Also, the big thing in other countries is they settle on [national] standards and don’t have 50 [state] versions of standards. 

What has Massachusetts still to do?
Like everyone else we face financial challenges that have resulted in the reduction of programs—music for example—and in higher class sizes. Even if the economy rebounds, schools will have to do more with less. We’re not going to have another huge influx of money like we had in the 1990s. We may lead the country but we’re the best of a poor lot. We still have way too many kids—particularly kids of color—not finishing school. Only 20 percent of our urban kids ultimately get college degrees…. We still have close to the national average for dropouts. We still have an achievement gap. It’s still educational achievement by zip code. We have standards and alignment and they have produced results but kids still come to school hungry. We haven’t yet dealt with the social and psychological issues kids have. 

What kind of pushback did you get in Massachusetts when you revamped your standards?
All the regular stuff. I was burned in effigy. People said we can’t set high standards. They won’t work; they will increase the dropout rate. The state shouldn’t tell locals what to do, it’s a waste of time to test and the money should be spent on other things, and we’re taking the joy out of education. All of those criticisms could be right if testing is implemented in the wrong way. People who implement standards and assessments through fear do cause negativity and misery around students. Those who approach it positively—who know testing is telling us what we need to know—still have engaging and creative classrooms. These are the teachers that get the best result and there are, thankfully, many examples in Massachusetts that help drive success. In the schools getting the best results, you will not find teachers teaching to the state achievement test. You will find kids productive and engaged. Their principals and teachers have set high expectations and given students the support they need. That’s what reform is about.

On Massachusett's continuum, where is Ohio?
Ohio strikes me as being where Massachusetts was in the late 1980s. There were a lot of earnest attempts to address problems, especially the financial formula…. We didn’t get it right the first couple of times. It wasn‘t until 1993 that everyone—the unions, principals, business community, and others—all compromised. Teachers, for example, had to agree to take courses to maintain a teaching license. They had to agree to allow prospective teachers to be tested. Principals gave up collective-bargaining rights. School committees [school boards] gave up the right to appoint personnel. 

You’re familiar with the evolution wars in Ohio and Kansas pertaining to science standards. There is a concern among some state board watchers in Ohio that conservative religious elements are attempting to subvert the science curriculum and, perhaps, the curriculum in other academic areas as the state revamps its standards. Is this a nuisance or a threat?
This is a threat to the integrity of standards. When people interject ideology then they are, in fact, distracting from what should be the business of schools to educate kids to high levels. Education becomes politicized. We didn’t tolerate anything like that. We have enough to worry about to get standards right without these distractions to satisfy individual perspectives, belief theories, religion, and ideology. 

Ohio has had a 21st century skills debate. You have called it a silly debate. Why?
Public education can’t seem to move forward without a useless debate. For example, we argue phonetics versus whole language when we need both. We argue about math understanding versus drill when we need both. In the case of 21st century skills, people see them in place of content when, in fact, strong content has to be at the core of all of our standards. So-called 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, should be part of an exciting and engaging curriculum in which kids learn content. However, I disagree strongly with the new law in Ohio that suggests we’re going to measure 21st century skills. What you want to continue to measure is student progression using well laid out achievement tests. I don’t think they’re 21st century skills anyway. Benjamin Franklin was pretty creative in the 18th century. 

True or false, teacher colleges are so remote from classroom reality, in 20 years we’ll still be complaining that their graduates don’t know enough content.
Unfortunately that’s probably true. You would think that institutions that need to prepare candidates for a certain industry would be closely connected to that industry and aware of the changes going on in that industry. In most states, and it’s true in Massachusetts, there’s a certain isolation that seems to occur. It’s an age-old problem and we don’t seem to be attacking it in any fundamental way. Fortunately, there are competing forces such as Teach for America. 

What kind of an issue was local control in Massachusetts?
We had the same problems in Massachusetts as in other states. Local districts were saying, “We have kids and we know what we’re doing. Leave us alone.” Slowly but surely local control is being eroded, and I think you’re going to see more and more erosion of local control as schools continue to fail to produce results. 

Are schools maxed out with testing?
There is a point where there is too much testing. No Child Left Behind doubled testing in Massachusetts. It can become inefficient. We could have a combination of state-administered and locally administered tests of shorter duration and we could connect those so we wouldn’t lose trend data. Online [state] testing may come along and help. I think we ought to get more efficient and there is a point at which the amount of time used for state testing is an imposition and I think we’re at that point. 

What’s your advice to the Ohio State Board of Education as they revamp standards?
They’re on a difficult timeline. Ohio is part of the effort to develop common national standards. The preliminary national standards will be released in January. They’ll come out before the Ohio standards are due. I would urge the state board to align with the national standards. They’d be able to take advantage of that collective effort. What I urge them not to do is, in any way, lower standards. We have an obligation to set high standards and high expectations for all kids and to stick to them. It may be we have to provide more time and additional supports to help kids get there, but if we set the right standards, we’re clear about them, and we don’t waste time arguing about them and getting distracted, then we will make great strides. The whole system will shift.

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