Making Massachusetts Schools Fairer

Dec 20, 2018

We in Massachusetts need to address an issue that for decades has compromised our standing as an educational leader. Despite the strides we’ve made, our education system is not properly serving all our students.

In the 1990s, the Bay State created universal education standards, measurable by way of more rigorous testing.

But what started as an effort to provide equal opportunity has ironically reinforced an unfair, ineffective and antiquated system of picking "winners" and "losers" for limited seats in higher education. 

On average statewide, only about half of Massachusetts high school students graduate ready for college and career. 

While many students in more affluent areas succeed, this is in part because of the additional non-school opportunities and resources they enjoy.

But far too many low-income students and students of color are still left behind. 

Rather than picking a small set of winners, we need to creatively focus on the success of many more.

The traditional model of sitting in rows, listening to lectures, and taking tests is like sending students back to the industrial era rather than forward in the 21st century.

The good news is research and experience tells us that all learners do very well when they have access to well-designed, more tailored modern educational experiences.

Educators in Springfield are showing us a path forward — in places like the Springfield Renaissance School, where students leave the science classroom to test water quality at the Abbey Brook Conservation Area.  Because of approaches like this, and other system-wide changes, high school graduation rates in this city have improved by over 20 percent since 2012.

In order to go further, among many things, we need to make a regular practice of listening to the voices of those who've traditionally not been heard. This will mean confronting issues like racism and other things that divide us still. But it will be worth it, because in today's world, our futures are tied together.

These are uncharted waters for many of us, but there are tools and resources to support us in these courageous conversations.

Only when we’re able to talk openly about these thorny issues will we be able to move away from a fundamentally impractical and unjust status quo to a fairer, more effective approach to public education.

Nick Donohue is president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.