Day 8: Give Urban Kids Access to a Rich Liberal Arts Curriculum

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Countdown to World-Class Schools summarizes 12 actions the incoming governor can take to make our schools the best in the world. All achievable. All for under $50 million.

I wrote this blog entry a couple of days ago, before yesterday’s disastrous vote by the Massachusetts Board of Education to adopt national standards that are (1) in many ways very different from and (2) weaker than our now dead-letter state standards for what is taught in our schools. The punch line is at the bottom.

Since 1993, Springfield has received well over $2 billion, Worcester over $1.5 billion and Boston another $2 billion in state aid supplementing local education funding. The percentage of students passing the MCAS test varies greatly by subgroup, with critical challenges remaining to raise significantly academic achievement among African-American and Hispanic/Latino students, as well as students with disabilities.

The state’s tens of billions of dollars of investment have not led to high-quality education in our urban districts or improved the proficiency (the “high performers”) among minorities.

The Bay State’s remarkable improvement overall has come as a result of a multi-pronged set of efforts set forth in MERA—charters, strong accountability, teacher and student testing, and a rich content-based set of academic standards that all districts are supposed to have adopted and from which the MCAS is drawn. Yet 17 years after its passage, our urban districts have too often resisted full implementation of the Education Reform Act.

The unfortunate fact is that the vast majority of urban districts have either just or have not yet aligned their local curricula with the state’s academic frameworks.

As a result, students are not learning from a rich liberal arts curriculum. Translation: Many are being tested through MCAS on materials they haven’t even seen in the classroom. Given that reality, what is surprising is the surprise that some policymakers have regarding urban students’ poor performance on the MCAS.

DESE must actively ensure that local curricula in the state’s largest 25 districts are aligned with the state’s rich academic frameworks. The fact is that the districts should have long ago undertaken these reforms. But it is also true that these reforms may not be possible in the short term without money, which we would estimate to be around $10 million. The state should provide $200,000 a year for up to two years to the largest districts that have not yet aligned their curriculum with the state frameworks. Should the districts not complete this work, in year three the districts should face significant financial penalties.

All of this is, obviously, complicated enormously by the vote taken yesterday by the Massachusetts Board of Education. Now we are back to step one and have to start a new alignment process for all districts. The over 300 districts (and the many urban districts that still haven’t gotten this right) will have to dedicate lots of resources gathering the adults in any number of rooms who will first spend hours creating PowerPoints and many more hours debating them and making decisions, buying new textbooks, crafting and participating in new professional development. So much money (much more than I had suggested above) and so much time, and – one has to wonder – to what benefit?