Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education
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Advice to Governor-elect: Stay the Course

Stay the course on standards and assessments. That’s MBAE’s position on the Common Core standards and the transition away from MCAS. And now it’s advice to Governor-elect Baker coming from the Boston Globe.

In Friday’s editorial, Noah Guiney of the Globe editorial board advises Baker to “stay the course on the Core” and let school districts have time to adapt to the Common Core standards and the transition away from MCAS. Guiney accurately points out that implementation is the key issue here, not the standards themselves, which surveys show get more support from teachers the more time they have to work with them.

We hope Governor-elect Baker is receiving the same counsel from his advisors and transition team. The standards are in their fourth year of implementation, and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is taking a slower and more deliberate approach to PARCC than other states. Students taking PARCC this year will have their tests scored but those scores will not affect school ratings, as part of DESE’s “held harmless” policy. It’s a rational way to address change.

After 17 years of the same test, a switch to a computerized 21st century exam is a big move, but one worth making. As MBAE Executive Director Linda Noonan recently wrote in a letter to the Globe, it is time to modernize assessment, not scrap it altogether. Using an outdated method of measurement like MCAS serves neither the teachers, nor the parents, nor the students. If we want to stay on top in education, we must have an honest measure of skills students need to be successful in the future.


Public Opinion About Education

MBAE congratulates and looks forward to working with Governor-Elect Charlie Baker and the newly elected and returning legislators who are taking on the responsibility to ensure our public schools educate every child for success.  Reaching that goal, we believe, will require major changes to modernize just about every aspect of education.  Do voters, business leaders and the citizens of Massachusetts have the gumption it will take to get the job done?  Some recent polls have found a desire for change that would indicate the answer is YES!

Earlier this year, our own poll conducted by MassINC Polling group for MBAE, with support from Associated Industries of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, surveyed employers about their perceptions and concerns regarding public education in Massachusetts.  84% called for moderate to major changes in our schools.

The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy has just released results from a survey of the New England states that is quite consistent with our Massachusetts findings.  Among those who thing “major changes” or a “complete overhaul” in our education system is needed, 78% want change in the way education is delivered. 77% believe schools should be structured to allow students to move ahead to more advanced material at their own pace once they have demonstrated the skills to do so.

Whether we can act on the information gained from recent surveys in Massachusetts and our neighbor states will depend largely on the will of those calling for a new direction, and the ability to engage in civil and constructive debate and deliberations with the end goal in mind – our children’s future.


The week before the November election, USC professor Morgan Polikoff had a very illuminating post on the  Flypaper blog referencing other polls and providing even greater insight into public opinion.  I am pleased to share it with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s permission.

What Do Americans Really Think About Education?

Election Day is less than a week away. Given the heat around major education policies—especially Common Core and teacher evaluations—there is increased attention to public attitudes about education. A number of polls from major news organizations, education groups, and universities have been commissioned over the past several months, and education pundits and advocates on all sides of current reform debates have endlessly parsed the results.

Unfortunately these pundits are mostly misguided, and public opinion polls on education don’t mean what people think they mean. What follows are three conclusions, all based on data from these various polls, and a discussion of what they ought to mean for education policy and advocacy going forward.

Conclusion 1: Americans’ views on education are incoherent.

The most straightforward conclusion from existing polling data is that Americans’ views are all over the map and, depending on the issue, either nuanced or contradictory. The clearest example of this is on standardized testing. The 2013 Phi Delta Kappa (PDK)/Gallup poll found that just 22 percent of the public thought that standardized tests have helped local public schools. But when asked about specific test-related policies—some of which are even more ambitious in scope than our current testing regimes—Americans express strong support. AnEducation Next poll, for example, shows 71 percent of Americans support mandatory high school exit exams. And despite 54 percent of respondents telling PDK/Gallup in 2014 that standardized tests aren’t helpful, between 75 and 80 percent were “very or somewhat supportive” of college entrance tests, promotion tests, and high school exit exams.

Using test scores for teacher evaluation and tenure decisions shows further contradictions. PDK/Gallup found that 61 percent oppose including standardized tests in teacher evaluations, yet Education Next found that 60 percent support requiring the demonstration of student progress on state tests as a condition for tenure. Predictably, testing opponents latched ontoPDK’s results but ignored Education Next’s, suggesting that they either cherry-picked supportive research or misinterpreted the public’s true views on this issue.

In other areas, Americans appear split between “traditional” views and more “reform-friendly” ones. For instance, people generally think that we should spend more money on our public schools, a cause célèbre of the anti-reform left. Education Next found that Americans favored spending increases over decreases by a 44-to-9 percent or 60-to-7 percent margin, depending on the question. (Of course, when asked if taxes should increase to pay for higher spending—and how else would we pay for it—the margin shrinks dramatically to 26 to 18 percent.) And virtually every poll shows that Americans support more local control of education.

Voters overwhelmingly favor charter schools, a typical reform position. On the 2014 PDK poll, support for charters was between 63 and 70 percent, depending on wording. A PACE/USC Rossier poll showed 57 percent thought California should increase the number of charters.Education Next found strong support for other choice options, such as scholarship tax credits (60 percent favor, 26 percent oppose). And voters seem to be skeptical about the role of teachers’ unions, with PACE/USC Rossier finding that 49 percent of voters believed teachers’ unions have a negative impact on California education, versus 31 percent who believed the opposite.

Conclusion 2: Americans don’t pay attention to education or get involved.

If Americans’ views on education seem incoherent or contradictory, perhaps it’s because they aren’t paying attention. Take the Common Core. Despite having been adopted more than four years ago in nearly every state and covered with thousands of news articles per month for well over a year, vast swaths of the American public report not knowing about the standards. TheEducation Next poll showed 57 percent had never heard about the Common Core; NBC Newspegged it at 47 percent. When you factor in folks who report only knowing a little about the standards, the proportion jumps to 67 percent in a University of Connecticut poll and more than 80 percent in the PACE/USC Rossier poll.

This lack of basic awareness carries over to numerous other policies. California recently revamped its educational funding plan, implementing a new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the state’s most significant reform of education finance in a generation. Despite the policy having been passed several years ago, and despite requirements to involve the public in LCFF meetings, 76 percent of Californians reported having heard “nothing” or “not much” about the policy. Similarly, in 2013, 56–57 percent of voters had never heard of Race to the Top or waivers to No Child Left Behind.

The most obvious explanation for this basic lack of knowledge is that citizens don’t participate in education-related activities. PACE/USC Rossier found that less than 20 percent of voters attended school board meetings, joined a parent-teacher association, or volunteered in schools. And just 20 percent said they could definitely name a member of their school board. Voters appear to have little interest in education at the local level—even though 56 percent support greater local control.

Conclusion 3: Much of what Americans think they know about education policy is simply wrong.

Even when they claim to know something about education, alarming numbers of Americans believe things about education that are factually wrong. For instance, Education Next found that 69 percent of those who claimed to have heard about Common Core thought it meant that the federal government would collect detailed data on individual students’ test performance; another 51 percent thought that the federal government required states to use the standards. The UConn poll gave voters three options describing the Common Core, and voters selected the factually correct one at just above chance (37 percent).

Voters are also wrong about charter schools. PDK found that 57 percent of Americans think charters can charge tuition, and more than two-thirds think charters can choose students on the basis of their ability. Forty-five percent of California parents in the PACE/USC Rossier poll believed charters perform better than traditional publics (just 4 percent believed the opposite), despite that being untrue in the state. Voters are even off the mark on educational spending, consistently guessing figures that are much too low.

So, where does this all leave us? We know that voters demonstrate little knowledge of education and its major reform efforts. We also know that when they do claim to know something, they’re often factually incorrect. And yet advocates on all sides leap at the chance to construe single data points from individual polls as validating reform (or anti-reform) agendas. Clearly, none of this makes sense.

Usually, the best way to use public polls to make responsible, informed judgments about attitudes toward policies is to consider results from multiple polls, with different wording, conducted by different outfits. Yet, in the case of education, this might not work. The beliefs of the average voter probably aren’t a good guide for ed policy when a large proportion of the information underlying those beliefs is just plain wrong. Indeed, given the overwhelming evidence that American voters are uninformed and hold substantial misconceptions about numerous policies, incoherence may well be the defining characteristics of Americans’ attitudes toward our public schools. That is, it may not be that Americans’ views on education are all that nuanced after all; rather, they may reflect profound ignorance and misunderstanding of our education system and the policy efforts we have pursued over recent years.

Polls are a useful guide to what people know about education and the misconceptions they hold, and not much more. Politicians might use them to see which way the wind is blowing and how to frame issues in a way that resonates with the public. But policymakers might be advised to take poll results with a big grain of salt.

New Reports Show Local Districts and Teachers Leading Curriculum Development

Is Common Core really taking control away from teachers? According to a new report, the answer is no.

Latest research by the Center on Education Policy (CEP) finds that it is local teachers and districts that are leading the charge in creating Common Core State Standards-aligned curriculum for their classrooms, discrediting claims that the standards lead to nationalized curriculum.  The report is based on a survey of a “nationally representative sample of school districts in states that had adopted the Common Core in the spring of 2014.”

CEP reports that “in more than 80% of districts in CCSS-adopting states curricular materials aligned to the CCSS are being developed locally, often by teachers or school districts.”  They found professional development is also being delivered locally and “large proportions of districts also reported that teachers themselves are providing Common Core-related professional development.”

That leadership is on display here in Massachusetts, where Teach Plus has been conducting teacher-led professional development sessions on the Common Core. Massachusetts teachers are also contributing to BetterLesson and ShareMyLesson, providing sample lesson plans written and developed by master teachers and made available to other educators. A Primary Sources poll released in early October found that the more training a teacher has the more likely they are to support the Common Core.

Localized curriculum aligned to the Common Core enables teachers to hold students to the same rigorous standards as their peers in other states while maintaining the Massachusetts tradition of high expectations. The right professional development, training, and support for teachers is the key to ensuring that the standards, reviewed and customized by dozens of local educators from K-12 and higher education, are brought to life in our public schools.

Business Stake in Education for US Competitiveness

At Harvard Business School the faculty leads the U.S. Competitiveness Project which is “…a research-led effort to understand and improve the competitiveness of the United States – that is, the ability of firms operating in the U.S. to compete successfully in the global economy while supporting high and rising living standards for Americans.   The Project focuses especially on the roles that business leaders do and can play in promoting U.S. competitiveness.”

Listening to a webinar by Professor Jan Rivkin on “Transforming America’s Schools: How Business Leaders Can Help” makes it clear that the U.S. shortfall in educational achievement is a business problem. The data is compelling and the charts Professor Rivkin uses are clear.  (More information can be found in this report and short video.)  On the issues of improving public education, business cannot stand on the sidelines.

Two key points of this research stand out for me. First, a mis-allocation of resources from business to schools. There is too much emphasis on alleviating symptoms and on pet projects; not enough on broader and more impactful policy efforts. Second, support for Common Core standards. The emphasis here for business has always been that higher standards matter.

The research work of the U.S. Competitiveness project is yet another call for transformative progress for Americas PK-12 education system. Their reports are well worth a read for business leaders interested in meeting their workforce needs in the years ahead.


HBS is collaborating with the Boston Consulting Group on this project, which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


New Vision Project Report Warns of Future Shortages

The Department of Higher Education’s latest Vision Project report sounded the alarm for more college graduates in the Commonwealth. The threat to Massachusetts is a “perfect storm” of contrasts, with our economy’s need for more college graduates increasing at a time when the number of high school graduates is projected to decline.

Confirming the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education’s survey of employers, which found 69% are having difficulty finding people with the right skills for open positions with their companies, Vision Project research includes the following glaring ratios illustrating our skills gaps:

  • A current ratio of 5:1 of health care job openings to the number of recent graduates holding a related associate’s or bachelor’s degree;
  • A current ratio of 6:1 of IT and computer science job openings to recent graduates holding related associate’s degrees and certificates;
  • and IT and computer science jobs out-numbering recent graduates with related bachelor’s degrees 17 to 1.

In a state where the economy is built on innovation and which houses thriving healthcare and IT sectors, these kinds of numbers are frightening.

We must meet the challenge to turn out more graduates qualified for these jobs by aligning higher education and needs of the workforce, which involves getting K-12 students on a path towards college and career readiness. We need to make sure our elementary and high school students are learning both the knowledge and skills to succeed in the 21st century workforce is imperative if we are going to continue to lead the nation on education and economic scales. Closing the achievement gaps and reducing remediation rates will not only get more students to college but also lead them to the completion of a degree because they matriculate straight into credit-bearing courses.

High standards and aligned assessments are the key to ensuring today’s public school students get to college and have the skills to be ready for the workforce. Holding all public K-12 students to the same high standards, and knowing they are ready for higher education and careers at the end of high school should be the immediate goal. The current state of our economy, and the urgency behind the need to produce more graduates, should prompt more action to make it so.

Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education