A Look at the Condition of Education in Massachusetts

By Chad d’Entremont

Leaders engaged in Massachusetts’ public higher education system—including at community colleges, state universities, and UMass—have demonstrated their strong commitment to improvement in recent years. The state Department of Higher Education’s Vision Project is focused on reforms necessary to “produce the best educated citizenry and workers in the nation,” and demonstrates a clear willingness to examine and address both our strengths and deficits. This work is augmented by policy initiatives, such as the establishment of a unified system of community colleges with annual performance measures, which represent significant steps forward in advancing the quality and rigor of the Commonwealth’s public higher education system. Massachusetts is one of a small group of states to implement this type of funding formula, and Gov. Deval Patrick has demonstrated his intention in his FY 2015 budget proposal to continue support for community colleges, through including an additional $13.2 million in funding.

But, let’s be frank: At the postsecondary level, we’re still playing catch-up. This past year marked the 20th anniversary of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA), which sought to improve our K-12 system through heightened standards and accountability and increased school funding. This law is largely credited with the Commonwealth’s emergence as a leader on national and international assessments of student achievement. However, our understanding of education has expanded dramatically over the last two decades. Policymakers, practitioners and business leaders have begun to realize that high academic achievement prior to high school graduation is necessary, but not sufficient to ensure that all students are prepared to enter the workforce and achieve lifelong success. Policy solutions must move beyond the limitations of a K-12 perspective. We must invest in our entire education pipeline if we are to provide all students with the increasingly sophisticated knowledge and skills needed to compete in the global economy.

To provide a starting point for determining how to approach these new challenges and opportunities, the Rennie Center recently released the Condition of Education in the Commonwealth: 2013 Data Report. Building on the Vision project, which focuses on postsecondary indicators and outcomes, this report establishes indicators aligned with state-level data to track student progress beginning before formal school entry and extending through college into adulthood. Findings are revealing. Despite the state’s standing as an education leader, concerns must be raised about students’ preparedness for college, as well as their completion of postsecondary programs. In a state dependent on a high-tech economy and college-educated workforce, for example, only 39% of Massachusetts adults hold a four-year degree and just over half hold a two-year degree—this despite research suggesting that nearly 70% of all jobs will require some level of postsecondary education by 2018, according to research by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce.

Noting that many students are not sufficiently prepared for college and careers should not devolve into a blame game. Nor is the purpose of the Condition of Education in the Commonwealth project to place responsibility for improving postsecondary outcomes solely at the feet of institutions of higher education. Massachusetts should be commended for putting in place rigorous standards and assessments to help track the proficiency gap and measure student growth, but this system was never intended to indicate students’ ability to succeed in credit-bearing coursework in higher education. Reaching proficiency on MCAS and graduating does not entail preparedness.

Thus, while 85% of Massachusetts’ students graduate from high school on time, only about two-thirds of students complete MassCore coursework, the recommended course of study to prepare students for college and the workforce. (MassCore includes four units of English Language Arts, four units of Math, three units of lab-based science, three units of history/social science, two units of a foreign language, one unit of arts, and five additional units of core courses.) It therefore comes as no surprise that 36% of Massachusetts public school graduates attending state institutions of higher education place into remedial courses, reducing the likelihood that they will continue toward degree completion. To remedy this, Massachusetts is currently in the process of piloting new assessments, through the PARCC consortium, aligned with the Massachusetts Common Core State Standards in Math and English Language Arts adopted in 2010. These new assessments aim to measure higher-level reasoning skills and certain scores will be aligned with expectations for higher education success.

The reality is that each of our education sectors has an important role to play in ensuring that our students arrive in the workforce prepared for success. Higher education was clearly not an area of focus of the last big education reform efforts, including the 1993 MERA and the more recent Act Relative to the Achievement Gap of 2010, which put in place structures to support the turnaround of underperforming schools. Against the backdrop of a history of low investments, we must all work together to help accelerate progress. As Charles Desmond, chair of Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, said at the release of the Rennie Center’s Condition of Education in the Commonwealth: 2013 Data Report, to have a world-class public higher education system, we must sufficiently support our institutions.

With the Rennie Center’s Condition of Education in the Commonwealth project, we hope to create a platform for talking openly about the current status of our entire education system and where to best leverage new investments. These conversations should include hard questions, such as how to determine the actual credentials and skills students should be developing and gaining prior to entering the workforce, as well as the level of responsibility individual institutions should assume to help students advance through credit-bearing coursework. Above all, it must be a conversation that links leaders and practitioners throughout our entire education system to promote a seamless system of learning experiences from birth through adulthood. We welcome your feedback and input as this project moves forward and hope it sparks debate and constructive conversations about how to improve student outcomes in the coming years.

Chad d’Entremont is executive director at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.

Related Posts:

In Massachusetts, Public Higher Education Is the Engine for Opportunity (Gov. Deval Patrick)

Coming Into Focus: A New Vision for Public Higher Education in Massachusetts (Commissioner Richard M. Freeland)

Translating Education Reform into Action (Then-Secretary of Education Paul Reville)


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