Good basic education for all must remain one of our top priorities. Most children can master basic citizenship knowledge and some can advance to great heights of learning and creativity. It is critical for our economic future to develop the potential of all children. We cannot all be winners in a competitive economy, but everyone should be able to make a decent living and no one should fail to reach their potential for lack of educational opportunity.
As a state representative, I am a focused advocate for local educational resources, including Chapter 70 and Special Education. Materials elsewhere on this site address costs, revenues and local aid from multiple perspectives.
Over the past few years of listening as a state rep, I have also come to increasingly respect the statewide curriculum standards and the MCAS exam and the accountability that it offers. MCAS has greatly improved our service to kids whose ability to achieve in an academic setting is reduced by disabilities — socio-economic or personal. Testing is probably a necessary burden to assure continued increases in learning performance.
I am very concerned about high dropout rates in urban schools, but the evidence I see does not suggest that the MCAS exam is driving kids of out of school — one Rennie Center study showed half of dropouts in some schools had already passed the MCAS (see page 10 of the study). Early intervention with dropout candidates, supportive mentoring, and flexibility in how we deliver education are probably the keys to a higher graduation rate. Graduation rates have to be a larger part of our accountability framework.
I also concerned that MCAS has become a ceiling for achievement as well as a floor. Clearly, many kids can go well beyond the MCAS in their high school years and we need to support the full realization of the potential of all children. More and better options that support advanced learning are just as important, perhaps more important, to our long-term economic competitiveness as closing achievement gaps in basic learning.
Online learning may help support more advanced secondary school learning. Online learning may also better support kids with special learning needs. Internet-based education content will expand downward from the college level (where it is already very visible) and become a major part of high school learning and possibly middle school learning. It will support classroom teaching and also, increasingly, independent online learning. In the long run, especially at the college level, online learning will reduce both the expense of education and the personal cost of being educated — the loss of time from the workforce. We need to support these trends. Note that the “21st century skills” conversation embraces online learning, but only tangentially. It emphasizes skills like creativity and teamwork — skills which have been critical in every century — which are not necessarily best developed in a classroom environment.
I do believe strongly in early literacy efforts, but general school time expansion intended to improve outcomes in poverty schools — early education, extended day, summer school, community college — is secondary in importance to leadership and teacher quality improvements. Good leadership creates a positive team environment which is essential for effective teaching and good teaching does correlate with learning progress. Targeted school expansion initiatives should not be allowed to materially diminish statewide local education aid and need to be compared in value to other anti-poverty measures — housing, health care, crime control. I do not have fully developed views on how to improve leadership and teaching in poverty schools. Controversial ideas like charter schools, school choice and merit pay for teachers seem unlikely to help students in my own district, but I recognize that the dynamics can be very different in other communities.
We need to undertake a sober assessment of our education goals and place a greater emphasis on vocational training and basic job participation skills. Much has been made of the importance of a college education. Certainly, any one seeking a college education should have access and many good jobs do genuinely require college learning. But we may be overvaluing general academic learning. The jobs that are most resistant to international competition in our economy may not be the white collar jobs. International competition has hit manufacturing jobs hardest but more recently has reached customer service and information technology occupations. Soon we may see international competition playing an important role in professional occupations like accounting and medicine. Further, however, possible it may be for us, through education (both basic and advanced) and through targeted investments, to expand high productivity technology jobs, these are likely to remain a minority of the jobs in our economy. To the extent we are able to take kids beyond the basic secondary school curriculum frameworks which cover the knowledge essential for citizenship, we might serve them better with vocational training than with preparation for an expensive college program that may have little long run value to them.
It is critical for us to assure that people at all skill levels in our economy can make a solid living — but this is as much about issues like minimum wage, tax policy, collective bargaining rules, and housing as it is about education.