World Classy

Is there anything Massachusetts can do to STEM the rising tide of mediocrity?

stemcellOnce upon a time there was a little state with big dreams. We’ll call her Massachusetts as that is her name and, since 1993, she has been the standard bearer for educational standards. But the times they are a changin’ and the Massachusetts way of lifting all educational boats by making the school funding sea more equitable no longer seemed cool. Meanwhile a rising tide of mediocrity threatened her shores, a peril not covered by flood insurance. Fortunately a solution awaited on the other side of the pond: a raft of bold ideas for unleashing excellence. 

After a months long journey, The New Opportunity to Lead, a report commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and authored by none other than Sir Michael Barber, steamed into port this week. I will let you avail yourself of Sir Barber’s backstory here, but suffice it to say that he is a Pearson of great interest. Alas, the maiden voyage was not without icebergs. On the very eve of the report’s debut, an eagle-eyed Boston Globe reporter spotted some familiar fare among the soon-to-be-unleashed excellence: a case study of a Boston school that the reporter himself had written. Not to be too hard on Sir Barber; a little *dropped attribution,* as he rather delicately referred to it can happen to anyone. Especially when the budget for your report is a mere $250,000…

North Poll
But before we unleash the excellence, let’s hear from Massachusetts business leaders about their views of the state’s K-12 public education system. According to a new poll of 300 + business leaders commissioned by MBAE and conducted by the MassINC polling group, the single biggest problem with our schools is—wait for it…—too much helpstandardized testing. I kid you not, reader. Sixty-three percent of the business leaders surveyed said *there is too much emphasis placed on testing right now* and that to strengthen its schools Massachusetts needs to *deemphasize standardized testing* and *teaching to the test.* Which may explain why another beloved reform staple, the lifting o’ the charter cap, ranked near the very bottom of the business community’s education improvement wish list. You see, with the exception of a handful of suburban schools, the same charters that routinely post top scores on the state’s standardized tests also generate some of the lowest SAT scores in the Bay State. In other words, whatever else these *high fliers* are doing, they are probably not producing the next generation of STEM innovators. 

GreatnessSomething olde, something new
But enough with the data—you want to see the shackles of greatness removed so that excellence can at last be unleashed. The New Opportunity to Lead probes six different gaps that threaten to engulf Massachusetts: employability, knowledge, achievement, opportunity, global and top talent. I will skip over them all and proceed directly to my very favorite chapter: *World Class Teachers and Leaders,* where we must choose between two divergent roads: my way or the highway.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The English teachers in the house will no doubt note that our nameless traveler is on horseback, which means that s/he will leave either road bespeckled with deposits of an equine nature. And so it is with *World Class Teachers and Leaders,* which attempts to marry Sir Michael Barber’s boldly disruptive vision of transformation to a smattering of select policy paths that the state is already marching down. Lifting of the charter cap (check), a dramatic overhaul of teacher preparation using Match Education’s graduate school as a model (check), a new career ladder for teachers a la the state-run Lawrence Public Schools (check), and so on.

And now, a visit to the future 
But how will we know that our bold unleashing has at last produced world class teachers and leaders? Easy, reader—we will visit a teacher in the future and ask her.

Perhaps the best way to conceive the difference this would make is to imagine a retired teacher in Massachusetts in 2030. She is sitting on a veranda in the Berkshires when her grandson asks her what she did during her career. She might say, “I was a teacher, I loved the children but the work was tough and my colleagues and I were ground down by the endless reform and bureaucracy. It was such a relief to retire. rockingchairI hope you will never be a teacher.” Or she might say, “I was a teacher. It was incredibly demanding and tough but I can’t imagine a more rewarding career. We transformed our profession in the last 20 years. Teachers in our state are now admired across America, even across the world. And the Massachusetts education system is fit for that ‘shining city on a hill’ you learnt about in school recently. One day, if you study very hard, you might be able to be a teacher.”

Or perhaps she said that she went to Match’s graduate school and taught at City on a Hill for two years; I suspect we’ll never know. Note: our former teacher is enjoying the veranda while on break from her job at the Berkshire Inn. You see, as part of the unleashing of excellence, the state also unshackled itself from her pension.

The #unleashables
One hundred and twenty pages later, we are confronted with a fiercely urgent question: will anything come of the bold report and its assorted unleashings?  In a word, no. Here’s the Boston Globe’s James Vaznis:

Business leaders may have a tough time selling their agenda to school leaders, teachers, and parents who resent corporate interests influencing the direction of public education. They fear schools will evolve into factories focused solely on producing workers and the joy of learning will be lost — a situation they say is already unfolding at many schools trying to boost test scores to avoid government sanctions.

Now why couldn’t I have written that?

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  1. With all of the budding entrepreneurs vying to assume Henry’s Ford’s mantle and make or extend their fortunes, it is unfortunate (no pun intended) that children don’t seem to mold quite as tidily as automobiles on an assembly line.
    Love your essays. Oh wait, does irony fit Common Core?

  2. Needless to say, the core of my Creative Writing curriculum at KIPP was assessing the commercial viability of the prose my kiddos were generating. Have to keep the corporate overlords/consulting business leaders happy! Plus, #careerready, amiright?

  3. Still laughing as I write this. Another great piece. Now I am off to prep my pre-service teachers for a career of world class excellence (and no pension).

  4. You obviously are a pro status quo, pro achievement gap, anti-excellence hater of children!

    I hereby sentence you to one year of solitary confinement, to be spent listening to an constant loop of of speeches by Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan.

  5. Remember when John Silber, the Pioneer Institute and the Rennie center were considered loony here in Massachusetts? Remember the derision when the teachers’ exam required taking dictation from the Federalist Papers? How I long for the good old days!

  6. Right on . Great piece. I am that teacher sitting on the veranda telling gym grandson what it was like to teach when I was the professional who determined what I needed to meet the objectives given to me in the state syllabus.

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