Globe Editorial

Don’t let national ed reform push down standards in Mass.

March 18, 2010

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MASSACHUSETTS JUMPED wholeheartedly into the fight to raise academic standards when other states were content to maintain a low profile and low expectations. Now, the Obama administration and the National Governors’ Association are trying to prod those other states into action by setting national standards for achievement in English and math. If the federal government starts awarding grants for adopting those standards, Massachusetts could stand to gain — but not if it is required to lower its own curriculum standards in the process.

State officials should dedicate themselves to ensuring that the still-evolving national standards are high enough to meet Massachusetts’ level. If not, the state should be prepared to go it alone.

Massachusetts can be proud of its decade-long head start on raising requirements, crafting curricula, and testing content. The gains came at great expense in time, commitment, and taxpayer dollars. And the investment, for the most part, has paid off. Massachusetts students rank at or near the top of national and even international tests.

Such progress could be disrupted by a shift to national standards even if they purportedly match the level of those already in place. Significant adjustments in topics to be covered, for instance, could require time-consuming investments in rewriting courses and retraining teachers. To be sure, Massachusetts school districts here have some important lessons to learn from other states, especially about bringing low-income and special needs students up to speed. But the problem is with the implementation ofstate standards, not the standards themselves.

“I won’t recommend to the state board an adoption of anything that represents a step backwards,’’ promises state education commissioner Mitchell Chester. That’s a welcome message, echoed by state education secretary Paul Reville. But Chester is also getting a little testy, lashing out at local critics for sending an “isolationist message.’’

But even the toughest critics are playing a constructive role. The conservative Pioneer Institute, for example, has pored over proposals and highlighted where they fall short. Early drafts of the national standards, note Pioneer researchers, taught too few mathematical topics, including equations and formulas, in the elementary grades. A Pioneer analysis of the latest draft offers a strong case for adding the necessary math skills needed to prepare students for Algebra in 9th grade. The Pioneer study also takes issue with the national standards writers for ignoring dictionary and explicit vocabulary skills, which could prove “a recipe for reading failure at the high school level.’’

The Obama administration isn’t going to force states to adopt the new standards. But it is implying that uncooperative states could hurt their chances for federal grants. There ought to be a way that Massachusetts can qualify for such funds without making unnecessary curriculum changes. The final standards aren’t due for a few months. Massachusetts should continue to provide help. But if the final product is disappointing, there is no course but to walk away.

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