Education news from other states

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Last July, while most of the Massachusetts educators were at the beach, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) endorsed Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s recommendation and voted to replace Massachusetts’ best-in-the-nation academic standards.

There is lots of gab about what all that means—and major media outlets have spilled a lot of ink copying the press releases from public officials. Falling into the category of “So much effort to advance unproven ideas” are the folks at EdWeek, who continue to monitor DC chatter, the national testing vehicles being developed, a thus-far postponed debate on where proficiency will be set (cut scores), and a manifesto issued by the Shanker Institute arguing for a national curriculum. The tentacles of the Gates Foundation continue to stretch outward, with their funding going to implement Common Core-related projects. EdWeek notes that a search of the Gates Foundation’s grant database demonstrated a number of districts “have gotten half-million-dollar grants to work on common core implementation.”

The DC debate is going to go around in circles for a while, with the the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) holding up all forward movement. A key issue is that the ESEA since 1965 has forbidden a national curriculum and has other restrictions on the DC-driven national standards agenda. Meanwhile there is a lot of action in the states:

School Choice is Back. For the last handful of years, voucher programs were said to be dead, but it seems that choice efforts were only subjected to a politically induced sleep. The Democratic Party around the country is quickly changing in its attitude toward charter schools, but the Republican Party tends to be the entity that is most supportive of vouchers. With significant 2010 gains by Republicans in state houses and governorships around the country, broader parental choice legislation is making headway fast. A number of states, including Arizona, Colorado, Indiana and Tennessee, have seen movement forward on school voucher programs. In addition, the federal recent budget deal breathed new life into the DC Opportunity Scholarships program.

Indiana’s situation is representative: The House and Senate have now passed similar bills that expand the existing tax credit program for students and in fact allow for much higher contributions to be made to the tuition scholarship fund. The bills also create Choice Scholarships, vouchers that are means-tested and (in the first few years after its passage) limited to 15,000 students. The chambers have to iron out the differences, but Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels is sure to sign whatever compromise hits his desk, because both bills mirror his stated position on choice (he’s pro, but wants means-testing and accountability measures).

Jeb Bush is making waves. The former Florida governor recognizes that running for president with his last name is not a strong option at the moment. So he has taken his signature reform area—education—and gained even more expertise. He has been going from state house to state house, whether Arizona, Oklahoma or elsewhere, meeting with legislators and executive staff and advancing the core elements of Florida’s education reform which took the state from very near the bottom of the national barrel to a rising performer on national assessments. Florida’s progress among Hispanic students is impressive (Massachusetts’ Hispanic students have risen on national assessments at nearly the same rate, but for Florida that is a real turnaround). The reforms mirror Massachusetts’ in their emphasis on accountability and choice. Massachusetts’ state standards were far better than Florida’s; but Florida has been much more innovative on the digital learning front and on programs aimed specifically to raise reading skill levels.

On curricular standards, a David-Goliath brouhaha is brewing. In Massachusetts, the regional school committee representing Brimfield, Sturbridge, Holland, Brookfield and Wales (the Tantasqua Regional School District) registered opposition to the state’s July adoption of the national standards. Last week, the state’s education commissioner Mitchell Chester felt the need to visit with committee members to defend the national “Common Core” standards.

In Texas, a bill brought forth by Representative Daniel Huberty would preserve the Lone Star state’s control over standards and assessments. It is out of committee and soon to be in front of the full House, and later the Senate where it has picked up support from key legislators. Interestingly, the day that Huberty’s bill was debated in committee, Texas Commissioner of Education Robert Scott issued new math standards that were built from the foundation of Massachusetts’ state standards and Singapore’s math standards. More on that soon, but the fact is that with its excellent English Language Arts standards and now what are likely the best math standards in the nation, Texas has become the counterpoint to the national standards.

What that means is that Texas also has better curricular standards than Massachusetts. Let that sink in. That’s certainly a sad outcome for the Commonwealth, which allowed the wave of federal action to sweep it back into the sea of other states’ reform efforts.

As the long dance around ESEA reauthorization and the debate on national curricula and tests get bogged down, there are many states that would like to assume the Commonwealth’s mantel of leadership. With national assessments showing that Massachusetts’ speedy improvement has slowed since 2007, one wonders if we will be able to maintain our lead nationally. Two decades of leadership in education reform are now deeply in question.

Crossposted at’s Rock the Schoolhouse.