The Massachusetts experiment with transforming public education traces back to 1993, when state leaders decided to set high standards, establish a stringent accountability system aimed at ensuring that students from all backgrounds were making progress, and open its doors to charter schools. And despite some hiccups, it was able to do so largely without all the partisan wrangling and interagency tensions that have notoriously confounded such efforts on a national scale.
The goal wasn’t just to boost performance in some pockets, but to “get everybody there,” Reville said. “Not just in our rhetoric, but in our intent, we said, ‘All means all.’” By 2000, the state also had doubled its funding of public education, when compared with 1993.
Still, as Hardin Coleman, the dean of Boston University’s School of Education, stressed to the EWA audience, the reason the state has struggled to achieve wholesale improvement has to do with phenomena that exist outside the classroom.
The widespread misconception is that “if you say poverty’s a problem … we’re backing off the issue,” said Coleman, who also serves as vice-chair on the Boston School Committee, the district’s governing body. Now that the improvement in Massachusetts is slowing down—and achievement gaps are widening—“I think there’s going to be a change away from a significant primary focus on academic-skill acquisition to those other aspects of what children need in terms of their social-emotional learning … being engaged in school, learning more about themselves, having access,” he continued.
Tommy Chang, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, said at the EWA event that he sees the conversation shifting, too, pointing to the district’s recent appointment of an assistant superintendent of social-emotional learning and wellness.
Echoing national trends, the school system is homing in on how childhood trauma can undermine achievement and developing means for helping kids cope with it. In fact, the district recently received a $1.6 million federal grant to address the early symptoms of trauma in students. Trauma is one of the many barriers, Chang said, that keep disadvantaged students behind. So are things like a lack of access among many low-income families to jobs that pay a living wage and quality health care. Dental disease, for instance, is one of the most common reasons kids miss school. All this explains why Chang and others are now thinking of achievement gaps as “opportunity gaps.”
Still, as much as external factors stymie efforts to lift disadvantaged students’ performance, Chang notably criticized certain district policies in Boston as contributing to those inequalities, including its approach to selective schooling and gifted-and-talented programs. (Chang became the Boston superintendent in July of 2015.)