Reading & Reacting: As Education Reform Act reaches 20, Mass. has more to do

By Tom Birmingham @ The Boston Globe

Former Massachusetts Senator Tom Birmingham penned an interesting opinion piece at the beginning of the summer that resurfaced recently, courtesy of a Diane Ravitch post.

While I am not sure I agree with everything in the piece, I think it is an important commentary to read, highlighting the Bay State’s educational outcomes over the last 20 years. According to Birmingham, the change began with the Education Reform Act of 1993, which he distills here.

But for all its complexity, the Education Reform Act can be reduced, in essence, to two propositions: We will make a massive infusion of progressively distributed dollars into our public schools, and in return, we demand high standards and accountability from all education stakeholders. This grand bargain is the cornerstone of education reform.

I am not convinced that it was a grand bargain, necessarily. However, there is little question that it is part of what made the results Massachusetts routinely achieves possible. Thankfully, Birmingham begins with emphasizing that “hardworking students and committed teachers deserve the lion’s share of credit for our success.” Of course, once a politician always a politician, so he also presses credit for policy makers too.

In coupling funding and high standards, this pairing becomes twin axes he sets about to grinding. He does not so much take a if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach, yet Birmingham does see that pair under threat. He stresses the decreasing funding for education in the state, which amounts to 2002 levels when adjusted for inflation. He also takes aim at the Common Core and current fads.

I wish that he could have used better backing for some of the claims. He invokes E.D. Hisrch Jr. to make a point, despite the fact that Hisrch is a CCSS proponent. Plus, I can do without the Pioneer Institute, despite being anti-CCSS. They seem a whole lot more more aligned with an array of other think tanks that claim independence and non-partisanship but look a lot more like masquerading conservatives with ALEC agendas.

Ultimately, I appreciate the circumspect view of being cautious about making wholesale changes that deeply impact any system that seems to be working with reasonable effectiveness. The combination of prolonged funding reductions, likely to only get worse, and unproven, ill-formulated educational standards, arguably not as strong as the previous frameworks strikes me as a pretty significant gamble – and for what? Some Race to the Top money that won’t even cover the runaway costs of the changes.

Image: iPad

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