How Massachusetts — not the feds — improved student achievement

Printed from:

An oft-cited study by Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob in 2010 on the impact of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) on students, teachers, and schools across the country showed how little impact NCLB had on student achievement. The published version included invited comments by, among others, education researcher Helen Ladd. Ladd raised a provocative question (pp. 204-205):

First, the null findings for reading indicate to me that to the extent that higher reading scores are an important goal for the country, NCLB is clearly not the right approach. That raises the obvious follow-up question: what is?

Ladd made an even more provocative suggestion:

(T)he suggestive evidence that I have included here on Massachusetts (indicates) that states may be in a better position to promote student achievement than the federal government … The 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) should restore power to states and localities by allowing states, school districts, and charter schools to opt out fully and completely from the programs and regulations of ESEA.

The re-authorization bill, co-sponsored by Senators Lamar Alexander and Patti Murray, was passed and signed into law in December 2015 as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), over 1,000 pages long.

We now know how little attention ESSA’s anonymous authors paid to Ladd’s comments. ESSA incorporated all the major flaws in NCLB (such as annual testing in reading and mathematics) and completely gutted its best provision — the qualifications of teachers in schools using ESEA funds.

The national needle has not moved in reading at any National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)-tested grade in 50 years, nor have upper high school scores in either reading or mathematics changed. Despite the lack of evidence to support ESSA’s major provisions, states were not freed from federal regulations to try other ways than federally-mandated state tests and test-based accountability to improve low-income student achievement — and to justify them.

As Ladd also noted, Massachusetts did increase the academic achievement of all students. Scores in both reading and mathematics, for grade 4 and grade 8, on NAEP tests in 2005, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015 were the highest or among the highest of all 50 states. On the only international test assessing curriculum-based achievement (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study — TIMSS), the state, entered as a separate country, made first place in grade 8 science and was among the top six countries in mathematics in grades 4 and 8 in both 2007 and 2013.

Surely, then, there should be some interest by researchers or the media in what the Bay State did. Alas, I have never been asked. As the person in charge of the total revision or development of all the state’s K-12 standards, teacher and administrator licensing regulations, most teacher licensure tests, as well as criteria for professional development from 1999-2003, I will explain the approach we followed that likely contributed to students’ enduring academic gains in the past decade even if education researchers do not seem to want to learn what the Bay State did.

Under my direction, the state department of education revised major documents to increase the content knowledge requirements in standards for all students, and to strengthen academically the licensure requirements for the state’s teacher and administrator corps.

The results of high quality research were clear; teachers’ knowledge of the subject they teach is the only trait associated with enhanced gains in student achievement. The documents we developed during the years I was a public bureaucrat, including definitions of terms used, embedded policies approved by the field (via frequent public comment), the Commissioner of Education David Driscoll, and the Board of Education under James Peyser, chair.

Among the policies that ESSA has frozen in at the urging of prominent education policy wonks and researchers, but that were not used in the Bay State’s successful efforts to increase all students’ achievement, are:

1.  Annual testing in reading and math. From 1998 to 2000, testing had taken place in all four major subjects once at every educational level (grades 4, 8, and 10), as mandated by the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act (MERA), and every two to three years after that (grade span testing) until 2006, when NCLB’s annual requirements kicked in, with testing of science and history only in grades 5, 8, and high school. Annual testing at every grade level in math, reading, and science was not necessary for high academic achievement in these subjects, even though ESSA froze it in for reading and math.

2.  Costly professional development for teachers and administrators. In the Bay State, we chose to strengthen licensing regulations, licensure tests, and criteria for teachers’ professional development by upgrading their academic components.

In contrast, ESSA simply requires teachers of low-income children to be licensed or certified and expects much professional development. However, research shows almost no benefits to students and schools from professional development in math or in other subjects.

3.  College and career readiness standards. MERA sought to raise the rigor of the K-12 curriculum, not lower standards for credit-bearing coursework in our public colleges. So, we developed internationally comparable standards in K-12 in mathematics and science to make students eligible for a meaningful high school diploma and a STEM career if desired. A stress on empty reading skills, “collaboration,” and narrative writing does not. Critical thinking emerges from a broad and deep knowledge base, not an intellectual vacuum. ESSA has frozen in content-free college/career readiness standards in reading and the tests based on them.

States that do not apply for ESSA funds may in fact see higher achievement and more satisfied teachers and school administrators than states that apply for and get ESSA money. States that want to raise student achievement should be free to do what Massachusetts did. They should certainly be free to avoid doing what it did not do, and what ESSA requires them to do.

Sandra Stotsky, former Senior Associate Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Education, is Professor of Education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.