WORCESTER – Issuing a call for urgency in the face of complacency over the success of the state’s public education system, Massachusetts Secretary of Education James A. Peyser on Thursday outlined the state government’s efforts to improve career training, early childhood education quality, and other key areas.
Speaking at the 32nd annual meeting of the Worcester Regional Research Bureau, held at the DCU Center, Mr. Peyser started his speech by arguing an oft-pointed-to distinction for Massachusetts – the superiority of its schools compared to other states – has also been its vulnerability in recent years.
“We really need to regain the sense of urgency” state leaders had when they enacted the last major public education reform in 1993, he said. “I feel we have become complacent because of our success.”
That success is also hollow in some areas – Mr. Peyser cited, for example, statistics showing the achievement gap between the state’s white students and students of color was actually one of the widest in the country – and less impressive in certain contexts. On an international stage, for example, Massachusetts is good, but far from the best at educating its students, global assessments have shown, he said.
But the secretary said Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration is trying to recapture the state’s momentum, identifying several key areas where the public education system needs to be stronger. Specifically, in his speech he pointed to five categories: reinforcing the foundations of the state’s ’93 reform; improving the quality of early education programming; empowering students and teachers; expanding STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and career pathways; and addressing the college affordability crisis.
In terms of bolstering the state’s reform initiatives, Mr. Peyser referred, for instance, to the administration’s efforts last year to begin addressing the state aid formula for schools, which has become insufficient for many districts to meet the increasingly complex needs of their students. The governor’s budget for the current fiscal year included a tweak of the health insurance calculation that provided millions of more dollars for schools, he pointed out, although many systems, including Worcester, have been asking for more expansive changes.
To improve early education, the state has provided additional money for centers, and is also working on developing and strengthening quality standards in the industry. Empowering schools has happened through transferring decision-making responsibilities in struggling districts from central offices to staff at individual schools, Mr. Peyser said. He cited as an example the Springfield Empowerment Zone, which despite being relatively new has produced “evidence … that suggests it is moving in the right direction.”
In an effort to train more students to go into economically vital STEM jobs, the state recently rolled out initiatives aimed at forging partnerships between public school systems and local colleges and employers. And to alleviate some of the burden – particularly for students who don’t fit the traditional mold of being college material – of paying for increasingly necessary higher education, the Baker administration has launched incentive programs offering free college credits at the high school level and tuition discounts for students who commit to public college and university degree pathways.
At the conclusion of his speech, Mr. Peyser argued there is evidence those and other efforts are worthwhile. Analysis of recent Programme for International Student Assessment science assessment results, for example, showed much of the success of Massachusetts students could be attributed to what their schools are teaching them, he said.
“If you ask most researchers, they’ll tell you” school quality has less to do with student success than factors like parents’ education level, family income, and geographic location, Mr. Peyser said. “What (these PISA results) suggest is that what goes on in school matters, and it matters a lot.
“We have to keep the pressure on ourselves.”