Commitment and common sense: Seven lessons for reformers from the Massachusetts Miracle

TBFI/Jonathan Lutton

With reading and math scores that top the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a majority of the workforce holding college degrees, and international test scores that compete with leading countries, it is clear that Massachusetts produces some of the best education outcomes in the country.

Its ascent to the top began in the 1990s with a series of reforms that transformed its K–12 education system. To explore how state leaders were able to pull this off (as well as what challenges remain), the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted a discussion featuring David Driscoll, former Massachusetts commissioner of education and the author of the new book Commitment and Common Sense; Bill Bushaw, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board; Jim Peyser, current secretary of education for Massachusetts and a veteran of the events recounted in Driscoll’s book; David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy; and Mieka Wick, CEO of CityBridge Education (also an alumna of the Driscoll education department.) The discussion yielded ample food-for-consideration by other states as they dive into implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Fordham President Emeritus Checker Finn moderated. A few emerging lessons follow:

Lesson one: Grow a thick skin

Diving into his own personal experience, Driscoll emphasized a common-sense approach to leadership, informed by his time spent teaching math in several Bay State towns, and a thick skin, developed while growing up in a large family. The former experience fueled and framed his work as an administrator while the latter made him comfortable confronting the challenges that he would face in that role, which he played at several levels of the K–12 system.

Frank, plain-spoken, battle-scarred, tough, realistic, kid-centric, Driscoll felt he was able to appraise the system as it then was which led to the conclusion that students needed more support and higher expectations. But he also saw great things happening within schools. He felt his status as an insider-outsider gave him both perspective and cover when tackling problems.

Lesson two: Make a commitment

The so-called “Grand Bargain”—struck between Massachusetts policymakers, business leaders and K–12 stakeholders—led to higher standards for students and accountability for school and educator performance in return for adequate and equitable funding, as well as more choices for families. It contained a lengthy and challenging list of to-dos. “The entire time we were doing this, there was the expectation that we were going to get results because we were given the tools,” said Driscoll. But without the investment of effort and resources, the deal would have fallen apart.

The additional funds not only boosted the capacity of poorer districts but also sent a message to all districts: The administration kept faith with what it said it was going to do. Driscoll emphasized that this was key to the bargain: “The money was about the commitment,” involving stakeholders at all levels, both in and out of education, to draw together a big tent of support.

Lesson three: Be asafecracker”

Calling himself and his predecessor “safecrackers,” Driscoll compared the “calibration” needed for opening an old-fashioned safe’s combination lock to the implementation of Massachusetts’s education law, saying “you want to make sure you’re checking in with the field to see where that sweet spot between bureaucratic compliance and the freedom of policy innovation is when you’re implementing” reforms. Balancing accountability and autonomy is critical to helping districts, schools and teachers succeed.

Lesson four: Set high expectations, send clear signals

Peyser said one important and enduring takeaway was the signal that “basic” performance was not good enough, adding that the reforms were “a reflection of the courage of the political establishment and Driscoll’s team to stick with the plan,” even as it reflected the new reality of the education system. Peyser acknowledged that a major reason for the success in Massachusetts was “Driscoll’s grounded, practical, and commonsense approach to research, actionable policy, and what works best,” and that having Driscoll’s voice during the legislative process made “all the difference.”

Lesson five: Build trust

Working with Driscoll, Wick emphasized that “David really believed we were going to make things better for educators in Massachusetts” and he communicated that faith to educators as well as Department staff. She cited his leadership in actually listening to teachers and designing programs to help them succeed, thus creating buy-in on the front lines. She also emphasized his trust in his staff, giving them the space to be creative and, at the same time, guiding the process toward his overall goals.

Lesson six: Embrace the data

Following enactment of the reform “bargain.” Massachusetts began its ascent. Acting as an informal “auditor” of the state’s results, Bushaw said, “without question, Massachusetts, by NAEP data, demonstrated very significant gains.” He noted that while some leveling off has occurred in recent years, Massachusetts remains at the top in NAEP data and compares favorably with many other countries. And while its achievement gaps remain wide, partly by embracing that data and recognizing its implications, Massachusetts has been able to raise all subgroups.

Lesson seven: Do the right thing

Steiner said that the “Massachusetts teacher test showed that real improvement is possible—we had been lying to ourselves and we needed real courage; more need to do the right thing.” He stressed that that the Bay State’s results have led to other states taking curriculum and teacher effectiveness more seriously—ideas that still reverberate in education today.

The panelists all noted that there’s ample room to improve, even in Massachusetts, and no call for complacency. Driscoll cited stubborn achievement gaps, the lack of progress on early childhood education, and the continuing need for remediation in community colleges. Peyser added the reforms were successful in capturing the “low-hanging fruit:” greater curriculum alignment with standards, increased focus on struggling students, and collective responsibility within schools for student achievement. With the reforms, he said, “we were able to create a sense that assessments could drive instruction in a way that could make a difference.”

Massachusetts has shown that a motivation to do what is best for students and teachers can lead to great success. It came down to “high standards and expectations for kids, for teachers, and for schools and districts,” Driscoll said, “all the time we were doing this, there was the expectation that we would get results.” And those results now speak for themselves, even as ample challenges remain there as elsewhere.