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The Massachusetts Business Alliance Breeds Discontent with Schools

Ohanian Comment: Thanks to the Massachusetts Business Alliance, indeed. Those who insist that heavyy duty standards and testing is a product of conservatives, should note that Mark Roosevelt, managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, was the 1994 Democratic nominee for Governor of Massachusetts.

For background on Just4Kids see:

Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Schools, by Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian.

Coming from Heinemann in July.

DELIGHTED IN Duxbury? Satisfied in Swampscott? Content in Cohasset? If you're a parent, you may not feel that way after viewing some revealing public school comparisons, which, thanks to the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, are now only a few clicks away.

Mark Roosevelt, the managing director of the alliance, unveiled the Web window on Massachusetts academic performance Wednesday at the State House. What an interesting tool it turns out to be.

The website, www.just4kids.org/ma, offers apples-to-apples evaluations of school performance by comparing a school's success in boosting students to proficiency or better on the MCAS with the rates achieved by the top-performing schools with similar percentages of pupils from low-income families and those who lack proficiency in English.

If that data may cause some agita in the tony towns mentioned above, whose high schools have marked achievement gaps relative to the best-performing comparable schools, the website should also make Somerville residents feel pretty good about their plucky high school, which solidly outperforms its demographic peers. And what besides "bravo" can one say about the Media and Technology Charter High School? With a 70 percent proficiency rate in math, the innovative Boston academy has a whopping 34 percent opportunity advantage over other schools with demographically similar studentries.

Roosevelt hopes the new website will empower parents to ask probing questions -- and, once the site is expanded to highlight the practices the most successful schools follow, to demand similar practices in their own schools.

Getting that information to parents is just another small, but important, step in the long march toward educational quality. As he looks back on the landmark legislation he and Thomas Birmingham guided through the Legislature in 1993, Roosevelt sees some solid accomplishments but says bigger challenges lie ahead.

After more than a decade's work, the state has boosted most kids up to passing a minimum competency threshold. Today, with 96 percent of the class of 2004 having earned their competency determinations in time for graduation, the debate about the supposedly high-stakes MCAS exam is all but over, says Roosevelt.

But the MCAS passing threshold, which one report recently put at an eighth- or ninth-grade level of learning, doesn't guarantee that high school graduates will have the skills they need.

"Now we need a statewide campaign for proficiency," Roosevelt says. "That represents where a high-school student should be." Indeed, achieving educational proficiency by 2014 is the goal the federal No Child Left Behind Act sets for the United States.

Getting students to proficiency may well require deeper changes than achieving the current MCAS passing rate, Roosevelt says.

Meanwhile, he sees one particular flaw in education reform that needs to be addressed. When the legislation passed, its authors believed that underperforming districts could figure out how to improve by themselves. But, Roosevelt says, some districts don't seem able to solve the improvement riddle on their own.

"The missing ingredient has been an aggressive state role," he says. One possible solution is to develop specialized intervention partners -- colleges, nonprofits, or businesses -- that can help those troubled districts. Another, Roosevelt says, is a state-specified curriculum those districts could adopt.

The Business Alliance, which helped lead the drive for education reform in the early 1990s, also believes it's time to revisit the state's foundation budget to determine whether it remains sufficient to deliver a solid public- chool education.

"However, given the considerable sums of money that have gone out to districts like Holyoke over the last 10 years, we believe it is hard to argue that money is the leading cause of educational dysfunction in those districts," Roosevelt says.

Other questions must be asked: Is the district's management competent? Have education reform dollars been wisely spent? Do the teachers' development plans meet the district's needs?

Looking back, Roosevelt calls standards-based education reform "the most important social movement of our era."

And he offers a lament.

"It is just so odd to me that liberal Democrats to a large degree let conservatives capture the standards-based reform movement," he says, "because to me there is no more fundamentally liberal objective than to deliver a quality education to every child."

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

— Scot Lehigh
Surprising school exam comparisons
Boston Globe


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