Pioneer Institute Mourns the Passing of Tom Birmingham

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We at Pioneer Institute mourn the loss of Tom Birmingham even as we are thankful for having had the opportunity to get to know this kind and brilliant man when in office and later, when he spent several years as Pioneer’s distinguished senior fellow in education.

There weren’t a lot of opportunities for kids who grew up poor in Chelsea, Massachusetts, but that never stopped Tom. He went on to be a star athlete, Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law School graduate, and president of the Massachusetts Senate.

But no accomplishment outshined what he achieved as coauthor of the Commonwealth’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, which former governor and fellow coauthor William Weld called “a possession for always.”

The results of that effort propelled Massachusetts to become the leader on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, “the nation’s report card,” consistently since 2005. Massachusetts is also the only state that is internationally competitive in math and science.

WATCH: Tribute to Tom Birmingham, presented at Pioneer’s annual Peters Lecture (Nov. 9, 2022)

“Tom Birmingham was the most important state education leader in the U.S. over the last 50 years,” said Pioneer’s Director of School Reform Jamie Gass, who was close to Tom. “The reforms he crafted in 1993 were the most successful of our time—not only in Massachusetts, but anywhere in the nation.”

Tom dedicated the final years of his life to protecting high academic standards, MCAS, accountability measures, and school choice—elements at the heart of education reform. He fought tirelessly for the Commonwealth’s outstanding public charter, Catholic, and vocational-technical schools.

As a senior fellow with Pioneer Institute, Tom did vital work to strengthen and advocate a rigorous U.S. history and civics curriculum that is key to ensuring a vigorous and democratic nation.

“Everybody knows Tom Birmingham was brilliant,” said Pioneer Executive Director Jim Stergios. “What I’d like people to understand is what a kind, decent, and courageous man he was.”

“Getting to know people like Tom is one of the pleasures of my affiliation with Pioneer,” said Board of Directors Chair Adam Portnoy. “In this difficult time, our thoughts turn to his wife, Selma, and their daughters Erica and Megan.”

“Tom Birmingham leaves a legacy of innovation, independence, and integrity in public service,” said Greg Sullivan, former state inspector general and former director of research at Pioneer. “He dedicated his life to helping others and succeeded magnificently.”

Op-eds by Tom Birmingham:

Rigorous Civics Education Needed Now More Than Ever

After decades of being overlooked, the importance of teaching US history and civics in public schools is at last gaining momentum. At the same time, the American Rescue Plan will bring an influx of tens of millions of dollars into Massachusetts schools. The confluence of these two events could transform civics education, but turning potential into reality will require combining a high-quality, fact-based curriculum with strong accountability measures.

Charter schools leading the way with in-person instruction

Massachusetts charter public schools have lived up to their decades-long record of excellence during the pandemic, developing innovative ways to continue providing high-quality education by maximizing the number of students who can safely learn in person.

Tax credit scholarship program would give Catholic schools fighting chance

I am among the countless individuals whose lives have been shaped by Catholic education; in my case, it was attending high school at Austin Prep. Despite a stellar record, Catholic schools are facing a grim financial picture. But a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gives new hope to the schools and to the many Massachusetts families with children who would benefit from attending them.

Voc-tech schools thriving despite pandemic strictures

HANDS-ON EDUCATION plays a critical role at Massachusetts regional vocational-technical high schools, where students alternate weekly between academics and shop classes. Given that reality, you’d think the schools would be particularly hard hit by the switch to hybrid models under which students are in a physical school building only half the time. But thanks to innovative approaches to coping with pandemic-related restrictions, voc-techs are successfully bucking statewide public-school enrollment trends.

MCAS testing essential to address falling test scores

Amid the chaos that was created by schools suddenly being shuttered in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it made sense to cancel administration of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests. But supporters of pending legislation that would place a four-year moratorium on using MCAS as a high school graduation requirement and create a commission to study alternatives to the tests are no longer responding to a crisis; they are using it to advance their anti-reform agenda.

The Virtual Lessons Catholic Schools Can Teach

This op-ed originally appeared in The Boston Pilot. By Tom…

Easthampton High Scores A National Educational Victory During The COVID-19 Pandemic

This spring, Massachusetts’ Easthampton High School was crowned national champion in the “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” contest. The competition brings together about 1,200 students from across the country to answer civics questions based on America’s Founding Documents including the U.S. Constitution; The Federalist Papers; and U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

Mass. schools must recommit to knowledge-based curriculum

The Bay State’s leadership role has continued into the current century. Massachusetts made tremendous strides in the years following passage of a landmark 1993 education reform law. But it has been backsliding since 2010, when it adopted weaker English and math standards known as Common Core. To get back on track, Massachusetts must reform its school- and district-level curriculum to emphasize imparting a shared body of background knowledge and social commitment to students in all ZIP codes.