The Bay State, British Blues, and Barber

Some music scholars believe that 50 years ago, the blues—the primordial indigenous American musical form—was on the brink of extinction. Its progenitors were fading away, mainstream America was uninterested, and the unsympathetic forces of musical evolution were marching on.

But across the pond, in the 1950s and early 1960s, a gang of teenaged Brits, hailing from a nation still reeling from World War II’s devastation, happened upon imported records by U.S. blues legends like of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. These lads, connecting with the music’s enigmatic blend of sadness and hubris, studied with awe.

Years later, they would make it to our shores, with names like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, reintroducing the United States to something of its own creation and using it to plot an extraordinary path forward.

In 1993, Massachusetts passed the “Education Reform Act,” legislation that touched every important area of K–12 policy: increasing funding, toughening standards, upping accountability, introducing chartering, reforming teacher preparation, and more. It was arguably the most important state-level action of the standards-and-accountability movement.

Beyond it’s comprehensiveness, two aspects of the law stand out. First, over the next two decades, regardless of political party, the state’s leadership (governors, education commissioners, and state board members) remained faithful to its vision. Second, it helped Massachusetts emerge as one of the nation’s highest-performing states: as of 2013, according to the Nation’s Report Card and international assessments like PISA and TIMMS, the Bay State was leading the American pack.

But, like the blues, the Education Reform Act has largely been forgotten. The political screech of today’s overheated K–12 debate drowns out discussion of plodding, bipartisan measures, and our infatuation with shiny new initiatives—Blended learning! Teacher eval! Freedom from NCLB! Expansive pre-K!—leads to serial speed dating instead of the constancy of policy marriage.

So maybe it’s no surprise, then, that it would take another Englishman to reintroduce us to a forgotten gem of our own making and then use it to plan the next generation of reform.

Sir Michael Barber, an international education expert who served in multiple senior-level positions in the United Kingdom’s government prior to his work at McKinsey and Pearson, was commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) to develop a plan that would enable Massachusetts to have the best-performing school system in the world in 20 years. (A MBAE-sponsored report provided the framework for the 1993 Education Reform Act.)

The result, Barber’s recently released report The New Opportunity to Lead: A Vision for Education in Massachusetts in the Next 20 Years, is an important read for anyone interested in long-term state-level reform.

My old boss at the New Jersey Department of Education, then-commissioner Chris Cerf, used to say that the hardest part of his job was balancing praise for the state’s overall strong performance with a sense of urgency for the enormous work remaining to be done.

Barber’s report expertly walks this tightrope. It gives great Massachusetts credit for its progress over the last 20 years, pointing out the courage and cooperation required to stay a difficult course and emphasizing the impressive gains that followed.

But it also unrepentantly underscores the state’s big challenges: Massachusetts lags far behind the world’s highest-performing nations, many of which are pulling farther ahead; other nations and other U.S. states have shown stronger recent gains; too few Massachusetts high school graduates are prepared for college-level work; and other U.S. states have done a better job of closing the achievement gap.

Coincidentally, my only in-person meeting with Sir Michael occurred with Cerf. Barber had come to Trenton to talk about the “Delivery Unit” approach he pioneered in the U.K., which was coming to life in the U.S. via the new Education Delivery Institute.

I liked him immediately. He was clearly sharp as a tack, but he was also humble and quite funny. His faith in “deliverology,” essentially a rigorous performance-management system combined with a relentless commitment to faithful policy implementation, was convincing.

It also seemed to be a natural by-product—actually the quintessence—of the Left’s technocratic bent: if we set clear, measurable aspirations, develop aligned policies, organize ourselves to achieve our goals, continuously assess performance, and make necessary course corrections, then we will succeed.

The new Massachusetts report reflects this mindset and, as a result, has many strong points. It borrows heavily from the smart McKinsey report on whole-system reform, views innovation as essential for continuous improvement. and emphasizes the need to implement with fidelity.

In terms of content, it relies on today’s “consensus reform package.” It advocates for strong standards, aligned curriculum frameworks, improved teacher preparation and certification systems, increased school-level autonomy, diverse school options, and more early-childhood programs.

But the report also suffers from the natural downsides of technocracy. It assumes the two primary K–12 administrative units bequeathed to us—districts and state departments of education—can be altered to serve our new needs. The report believes (per CRPE’s “portfolio-district” approach) that districts can be transformed from owner-operators of schools into arms-length assessors of schools run by others. It also believes SEAs can be transformed from compliance monitors into performance managers and assistance providers.

On both scores, we need to realize that organizational leopards don’t change their spots. New duties call for new organizations.

Similarly, the report’s faith in technology (blended learning, computer adaptive assessments, and so on) seems to overestimate the potential and underestimate the complications associated with fundamentally altering longstanding practices and policies.

These concerns aside, Barber’s report is an exhaustive—if exhausting—assessment of Massachusetts’ standing and a thorough plan for generating improved results. Its 100-plus page length is understandable given the project’s gigantic ambitions: resurrect a forgotten tome, recap 20 years of work, and lay out a plan for the next 20.

In total, it’s as fine a state-level blueprint as we’ve seen in years. I’m confident that, should the report’s recommendations be embraced, Massachusetts will continue to lead the pack when MBAE commissions a new study in 2034.

-Andy Smarick

This first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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