PROVIDENCE — Members of school committees from across the state gathered at Rhode Island College to discuss the Rhode Island system of education versus that of Massachusetts, and the professional development session presented an opportunity for educators to look at new and creative ways to conduct their local school districts.
Glenn Koocher, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, gave a lecture outlining the positives and negatives of the Massachusetts system of education, and also provided guidance as to how the approach could work in Rhode Island.
“I served on a school committee back in the old days,” said Koocher. “In 1993, various interests came to the table and developed the Massachusetts Education Reform System, which made some fundamental changes to the way things worked.”
Koocher cited that the creation of a standard-based education, one in which teachers and students alike were held responsible through various accountability measures. Curricula, for example, were developed consistently across the state, and standardized testing was implemented in reading, writing, and mathematics at multiple grade levels according to the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS).
“We now have the data to measure all kinds of stuff,” said Koocher. “As we go into the next era of post-education reform changes, such as the inclusion of student performance data, we have a real opportunity and challenge to determine the kinds of student outcome data that would be appropriate and to determine the extent to which they would be counted and used.”
The responsibilities of certain administrative positions were realigned in Massachusetts during the education reforms of 1993. Superintendents were given concrete and autonomous power, separate from the school committee, to hire school principals and to approve teacher hirings and discipline. School committees were limited to resolving budget and collective bargaining issues, as well as setting district policies and hiring superintendents.
“When administrators were appointed by the school committee, there would be a huge debate about who would be the social studies teacher, for example, and camps would line up,” said Koocher. “The biggest factor in the improvement of student achievement, in my judgment, has been the ability of the superintendent and principal to put people in the right place with some measure of autonomy.”
“Educator quality has improved dramatically and with the end of patronage, people who shouldn’t be in the business are no longer,” he added. “We focus on accountability, the data is public and our friends in the media report it as they see it.”
Koocher also discussed the financing system which Massachusetts schools have employed, the adequacy of which has been determined through what is called the Foundation Budget Formula (FBF). The ability of a given school district to meet its budget requirements is calculated through a town’s property values and the personal income of residents. The state, in turn, would provide whatever funds a school district needed to meet an adequate budget figure.
“We had seven years of the greatest economic growth we’d ever seen from 1993 to 2000, and in a booming economy, everyone was able to get to the Foundation Budget level,” said Koocher. “The state has appropriated money to keep districts at Foundation Level every year, and the funding has been there to help communities maintain that basic level, which is key.”
Koocher did outline the problems inherent in the revamped education system in Massachusetts, noting that the greater reliance upon standardized testing and teacher evaluations has burdened school districts in regulatory red-tape.
“Because of the creation of standards-based education, Massachusetts probably has the nation’s most rancid regulatory climate,” said Koocher. “The average educator spends 160 hours per person per year dealing with compliance and regulation issues. The superintendent has 108 compliance deadlines every year for the Department of Education.”
“We are also starting to hear about the stress of being a kid in public school,” he added. “We deal with what it is like to go through the college application rat race and constant testing. The average third grader takes standardized tests with the possibility that the ability of the teacher to retain his or her job could be subject to how those kids do.”
Issues such as corruption at the state legislative level and the implementation of every-day decisions according to the revised system also pose unique challenges which predicate difficult decisions for educators and administrators.
“Big money has been extremely influential, which may surprise you,” said Koocher. “We just lost the Speaker of the House in Massachusetts to federal prison for eight years because he took a bribe from a vendor to the Department of Education. Tons of money has been poured into special interests, which is tough for us.”
“There are significant areas of ambiguity, the grey areas that can make things sometimes difficult, about roles and responsibilities,” he added. “When is it an administrative question or a policy question? There are dozens of areas of ambiguity that we strongly urge school committees and superintendents to work out.”
Participants in the discussion asked questions specific to their school districts at the lecture. They also expressed their impressions of the Massachusetts system and the manner in which it could be adapted to benefit Rhode Island schools.
“Massachusetts has done the right thing in terms of responsibility for administrators,” said Maureen Cotter, Chair of the South Kingstown School Committee. “I was asking ten years ago why superintendents didn’t have the responsibility for hiring.”
“We have to be mindful of the context that Rhode Island’s school districts are in, but overall the principles of Massachusetts’ education system make a lot of sense,” she added.
Ultimately, state educators and administrators have a number of decisions to make regarding future reforms, and gathering information from outside sources will better inform them in the process of bringing quality education to the students of Rhode Island.