Important tests ahead for Mass. education reform

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As we turn the pages of our calendars to September, and children return to school, policymakers face important decisions about the way we will educate the next generation of Massachusetts students.

Historically, Massachusetts has been a leader in education reform.  This year, from standards and testing to charters schools and the length of the school year, education advocates are pushing reforms aimed at keeping Massachusetts schools among the best in the nation.

Below is our take on two of the most important education-related issues:

Common Core — Despite its name, there is very little common ground between those who support the national Common Core standards and its testing regime and those who prefer to keep Massachusetts’ homegrown standards.

Those who support Common Core argue that it is important to provide nationally-consistent standards of basic educational and workplace skills.  But opponents argue that Common Core does so at the expense of local control, quality, and common sense.

Compare, for example, the Massachusetts History and Social Science standards with the same content area for Common Core.   Massachusetts standards require schools to teach specific topics: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and so on.  By contrast, Common Core does not require schools to teach any particular body of knowledge and instead demands only that schools teach skills, such as how to cite primary sources to support an argument.  Understanding how to use primary sources is, indeed, important.  But it cannot take the place of a Canon that can help students from diverse backgrounds discover their shared American identity.

But this is not the only substantive problem with Common Core.  Who among us has not heard one of the legendary Common Core math horror stories?  You know, the ones where students who answer seven out of seven math problems correctly still receive Cs on their math tests if they cannot correctly explain, in narrative form, how they solved the problems?

Gov. Charlie Baker campaigned against Common Core, although he now says that he is withholding judgment until he receives a report on implementation this fall, and until parents, teachers, administrators, and the public have a chance to weigh in.  This is, of course, smart politics.  But let’s hope that smart policy prevails and Massachusetts dumps Common Core.

Charter Schools — Although Massachusetts schools are, overall, among the best in the nation, too many students still attend underperforming schools that fail to provide an adequate education.  Many of these kids — more than 18,000 in Boston alone — are on wait lists to attend a public charter school.   But Massachusetts law limits the number of charter schools to 120, keeping tens of thousands of Massachusetts students trapped in failing schools.  We believe that Massachusetts families should have an array of options when it comes to their children’s education, and we support the ballot initiative filed by the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association that would let voters in 2016 decide whether to lift the charter school cap.  If approved, the measure would allow the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to add up to 12 new charter schools each year.

Gov. Baker has made clear his support for charter schools and reiterated last week that expanding school choice options remains a top priority for his administration. Although he supports the ballot question in principle, he has indicated that he might file legislation to lift the cap ahead of the November 2016 referendum.  We say, the sooner the better.

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