Our View: Schools need to tighten, not ease oversight

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Too often, education policy makers get so carried away with what’s new that they forget what works.

Thankfully, new polling shows that parents, teachers and legislators are a lot better at keeping their eyes on the ball.

A few years ago, Massachusetts education officials pushed to substitute “21st century skills,” such as “global awareness” and “cultural competence” for academic content. Next, they ditched Massachusetts’ best-in-the-nation K-12 academic standards for dumbed-down national standards that cut classic literature by more than 60 percent.

In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state ever to finish first in every category tested on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It has repeated the feat every time that the test has been administered. Results from the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study demonstrated that Massachusetts students are not only the nation’s best, but among the world’s best in math and science.

Whereas Massachusetts achieved this success by stressing rigorous academic content and testing, states embracing the 21st-Century skills fad have seen falling reading scores and widening achievement gaps.

Objective student assessments have also played a central role in the Massachusetts miracle. But in 2009, state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education postponed a plan for U.S. history to join English, math and science as topics in which students would have to pass an MCAS test to graduate from high school, starting with the class of 2012.

Chester cited the cost of administering the tests. But legislators, who appropriate the money, disagree. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of those surveyed said that we could find the $2.4 million needed in the $4.5 billion that the state spends annually on K-12 public education (local taxpayers contribute another $4.5 billion).

Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of legislators support the U.S. history MCAS graduation requirement. So do 63 percent of history and social-studies teachers and 59 percent of parents. Massachusetts is one of only nine states that don’t require students to demonstrate knowledge of history or civics to graduate from high school.

In recent years, middle school social studies departments have been eliminated and history courses are being taught by English, math and science teachers.

In high schools, history and social-science electives are being replaced. Some 77 percent of teachers and 74 percent of parents believe that there is a link between subjects that are tested and those taught in school.

State officials’ love affair with the latest fashions isn’t likely to end, but parents and teachers aren’t buying it.

With that in mind, it may be time for legislators to ratchet up their oversight of state education policy.

Also seen in Education News, BostonHerald.com and GloucesterTimes.com