Back in February, U.S. News and World Report named Massachusetts the top state in its Best States rankings. Though the Bay State has plenty else going for it, part of its triumph is based on educational success—and on that dimension it’s no secret that Massachusetts students have recently excelled on both the national and international stages.
Perhaps, therefore, we ought not be too surprised that one of Ohio’s latest Common Core repeal attempts would replace those “national” standards with Massachusetts’s pre-2010 academic content standards. The bill’s sponsor has argued that the Bay State’s old standards are in Ohio’s current best interest because, while teaching them, Massachusetts moved from “modestly performing” to best in class. In recent testimony, he called them “excellent” and “proven” and argued that this change is necessary because Ohio’s education ranking has “plummeted” (which, for the record, is a misunderstanding of the data). The implication is that by adopting Massachusetts’ old standards, Ohio will place itself on the road to dominating the education sphere.
But is that true? Were Ohio to adopt the old Massachusetts standards, can we expect Massachusetts-style academic results?
Brief but apt digression: let’s turn to the favorite subject of nearly every Buckeye—football. Last year, the Cleveland Browns won just one game, yet another terrible season for the league’s most tortured franchise. The New England Patriots, on the other hand, won 14 of their 16 regular season games and pulled off the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history. Put simply, when people talked about the Browns in 2016, they wondered if they were the worst team ever; when they spoke about the Patriots, they wondered if they were the best franchise ever.
The Browns’ management knows it has work to do. In undertaking the Herculean task of turning around the franchise, its leaders would do well to model themselves after the Patriots (except for that whole cheating thing). But following the Patriots’ example is a lot more complicated than just Xeroxing their playbook. That playbook is certainly full of excellent plans and details. But copying just one aspect of the Patriots’ organization and ignoring the rest, including the challenges of implementation and execution will never take the Browns to the same level as the Patriots.
The same is true for states and their academic standards. Massachusetts’ pre-2010 standards—its “playbook,” so to speak—were undoubtedly fine. But the success that Massachusetts experienced didn’t happen solely because of its standards. A host of other policies and reforms shaped the Bay State into an education powerhouse.
Massachusetts’ standards were aligned to rigorous assessments
During previous repeal attempts in Ohio, Common Core opponents brought in Sandra Stotsky to testify. Stotsky is often asked to testify because of her role on Common Core’s Validation Committee. But she also worked in Massachusetts’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from 1999 to 2003 and is legitimately credited with leading the standards development process.
In a 2016 piece, Stotsky argued that states should replace Common Core with Massachusetts’s standards, in which she takes huge pride (and pride of authorship). But while reviewing why the Bay State has been so successful, even Stotsky acknowledged that it wasn’t just the improved academic standards for schools that altered the education landscape; the state also “developed a high-quality test” that was “related to authentic college readiness.” Specifically, she referenced a report that found that performance on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was related not only to the type of college that students enrolled in after graduation, but also to how much remedial coursework they needed. With results like that, it’s unsurprising that MCAS was considered “best in class” for state assessments. But it’s also worth noting that these outcomes likely wouldn’t have happened if MCAS had not been closely aligned with the state’s academic standards.
It’s futile to champion standards that outline what content students must learn, to spend hours and hours teaching that content, and then turn around and assess students with an unaligned test. Massachusetts students rose to the challenge of their state’s assessments because they were tested on standards they were taught during the year—and they ultimately had to pass the test to earn diplomas. Under House Bill 176, however, Buckeye students won’t have that chance, as the legislation says Ohio should import Massachusetts standards but assess students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Madness.
Massachusetts set and maintained rigorous graduation requirements
Amongst its many provisions, HB 176 revises Ohio law to grant a diploma to anybody who “has successfully completed the curriculum in any high school or the individualized education program developed for that person by any high school.” This means that high school exit exams (like today’s End-Of-Course exams or yesterday’s OGTs) will no longer be a deciding factor in whether or not kids graduate. This is the complete opposite of what Massachusetts did: During the days of pre-Common Core MCAS assessments, all high school seniors were required to pass them (or take an approved and rigorous alternate path) in order to graduate
In fact, Massachusetts’s graduation requirements are more similar to current Ohio requirements than to those proposed under HB 176. Ohio’s current law allows students to earn diplomas in one of three ways:
1) by passing end-of-course exams
2) by earning a remediation-free score in English language arts and mathematics on a nationally recognized college admission exam
3) by earning an industry-recognized credential and demonstrating workforce readiness
In Massachusetts, students can earn one of three certificates to graduate:
1) the competency determination certificate, which is awarded based on passing MCAS scores
2) the certificate of mastery, which is awarded based on passing MCAS scores and additional accomplishments.
3) the certificate of occupational proficiency, which is based on successful completion of a training program in a particular trade or professional skill area
Massachusetts has even weathered the dire warnings that Ohio lawmakers are currently panicking over regarding the “graduation apocalypse.” Paul Reville, the Bay State’s former Secretary of Education and a key player in its education reforms, has said that despite fears that the MCAS expectations were too steep, “the standards we set proved to be attainable for the overwhelming majority of students.” Massachusetts students benefited in the long run from policymakers who had enough confidence in them to maintain high standards. Ohio students deserve the same courage from their lawmakers.
Massachusetts committed to comprehensive school reform
The development of Massachusetts’s stellar state standards and of MCAS was made possible by the Massachusetts Education Reform Law of 1993. This law is often referenced in regard to standards, assessments, and accountability, but it also included a host of other reforms—including changes aimed at vocational education, charter schools, school budgeting and accounting, district hiring authority, and the use of technology. The bill also poured hundreds of millions more dollars into schools and tackled funding reform. Stotsky has been vocal in saying that the changes to the teacher licensing system were just as instrumental to the “Massachusetts education miracle” as high standards and assessments for students. She contends that policymakers must also revamp teacher licensure if they’re serious about stronger pupil achievement.
What’s most interesting about all of this is that the majority of issues Massachusetts addressed in its 1993 law are issues that Ohio faces today. Teacher licensure needs work. There’s plenty of room to improve the quality of our charter sector. Our school funding system needs an overhaul. The majority of these concerns aren’t addressed in HB 176 and those that are—like teacher evaluation—are addressed in an opposite manner than Massachusetts’ example.
There’s nothing wrong with Ohio policymakers wanting to model the Buckeye State’s K-12 sector on that of Massachusetts. But cherry-picking a single reform and acting as though it will help us reach the same achievement heights without the profound systemic changes that accompanied that reform instills false hope. It’s actually deceitful. It takes advantage of Massachusetts’s reputation and promises the same results without implementing 95 percent of the reforms that propelled the Bay State to the top. Even worse, it undoes years of Massachusetts-like reforms that are already in place in Ohio. The Cleveland Browns aren’t going to win a Super Bowl by stealing the Patriots’ playbook—and Ohio isn’t going to dethrone Massachusetts by Xeroxing its old standards. If we admire Massachusetts enough to adopt its standards, then we must also admit that it’s not just its standards that we need.