Robert Costrell, currently the "endowed chair of education accountability" in the University of Arkansas's Department of Education Reform (Jay Greene's shop), and formerly an advisor to three Republican Massachusetts governors, weighs in on our ongoing debate about the meaning of the Bay State's achievement gains in the face of a "strong union":

Let me offer some comments as a State House participant in the Massachusetts ed reform battles in 1999-2006. I served Governors Cellucci, Swift, and Romney and worked closely with our Democratic counterparts. I have written about this experience in the past, and Mike Petrilli's initial post was absolutely correct: the teacher unions were the largest obstacle to education reform in Massachusetts. In this post, let me add a bit more flesh to Mike's point, and then try to advance the discussion with the further lessons drawn by Massachusetts' ed reformers regarding the unfinished business in Massachusetts.

It is indisputable that the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was the largest obstacle to implementing key elements of the reforms, most notably the MCAS exit exams, which were the main driver of Massachusetts' success. Diane seems to minimize "the current effort to show that teachers' unions were no help to education reform in Massachusetts," as if this were some sort of recent revisionist history. But the "current" effort simply reiterates the well-documented history that was established at the time.?? The fight against MCAS featured lawsuits, boycotts, demonstrations, and, most famously, the MTA's $600,000 fear-mongering ad campaign (the ads showed a ticking clock with nervous students, despite the fact that the exams were untimed).

My own contribution to this history was solicited by Diane for her last annual Brookings conference, in 2004, and was published in her edited volume of the Brookings Papers on Education Policy, 2005, pp. 27-37. Tom Loveless' lead article in that volume identified the unions and other organized interest groups as the major opponents to accountability, and how they had succeeded in state after state. My task was to explain how Massachusetts overcame the MTA-led opposition. At the time, Diane thought my piece was "great." So I was surprised to read that the lesson Diane now draws from Massachusetts is that "unions do not block academic improvement." Well, it was certainly not for lack of trying.

Now it is true, as Mike also points out, that the Massachusetts reforms did not meaningfully address tenure, bumping, differential pay, and the like. The 1993 reform law nominally eliminated tenure, but provisions inserted into the bill made it practically just as difficult to remove ineffective teachers as it had been before. So it is certainly reasonable to point out that the success that Massachusetts has enjoyed so far did not require these human resource reforms.

However, the lesson drawn from Massachusetts ed reformers was that these reforms would be required, if the success was to be extended to its failing schools, of which there are still quite a few. This is the knotty problem of "turnarounds." The 1993 law did not establish an effective method for turning around failing schools, and this unfinished task occasioned considerable effort during the Romney administration. Governor Romney commissioned a blue ribbon panel to examine the issue, co-chaired by Bob Schwartz and Paul Grogan. Their recommendations included the expansion of principals' powers to remove ineffective teachers from failing schools and to reshape those schools' workforce. Bob and Paul--both lifelong Democrats (Bob was an advisor to Gov. Dukakis)--testified to the Legislature in support of Governor Romney's legislation implementing these recommendations. However, the MTA succeeded in blocking the bill, and also Governor Romney's succeeding bill in 2005 with more comprehensive reforms.

I have not kept up with all developments since I left Massachusetts in 2006 and a new governor took office. But I do know that Mass Insight--an important player in Massachusetts ed reform and currently a national leader in advancing turnaround strategies--is pushing the very type of personnel policies so vigorously opposed by the unions for its Gates- and Carnegie-funded turnaround initiative. True, we do not yet know if these policies will be effective in solving the very tough problem of failing schools. But those who have studied the issue in the context of Massachusetts believe they will improve the odds.

I have not addressed the social science debate in this post, despite the fact that I am an economist. But I was also in the policy arena, and this is the history that I--and many others--lived for those crucial years. In short, the lessons Diane draws from the Massachusetts history about the role of the unions is very different from the lessons drawn by those in both parties who fought the good fight in that state. That role was not benign.

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, executive editor of Education Next, and a Distinguished Senior Fellow for Education Commission of the States. An award-winning writer, he…

View Full Bio