MALDEN, Mass.—Massachusetts education officials voted unanimously Wednesday to replace the state's math and English public school curricula with national standards pushed by the Obama administration, despite critics' concerns that the state will no longer be considered the nation's education leader.
The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, in a 9-0 vote, agreed to join 27 other states in adopting the so-called Common Core Standards. They specify what is taught in math and English classes at each grade level.
Education Secretary Paul Reville called the switch a "watershed moment" for the state, ensuring Massachusetts will continue to be an education leader.
"We have the opportunity to be first in the nation against the recognized standard," said Reville. "The nation will pay a lot less attention to us if we are off on the sidelines, not participating."
The guidelines were developed by a consortium of states but have been heavily promoted by the Obama administration, which has linked their adoption to the administration's $4.3 billion Race to the Top education initiative.
Massachusetts has applied for $250 million under the program, and states get credit if they have adopted the national standards by Aug. 2. The remaining $3.4 billion in the program will be awarded in September.
Advocates for the change argue the national guidelines are stronger in some areas than the state's and will boost academic achievement in the state.
Opponents contend the state's standards are responsible for a series of first-place finishes by Massachusetts students in national assessment testing. They say adopting national standards will inevitably weaken the state curriculum, as well as trigger abandonment of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests, known colloquially as the MCAS.
Those tests, and the requirement that students pass them to graduate, are commonly cited for improving student achievement in the 17 years since they were incorporated as part of a law passed during a landmark 1993 education overhaul. The law also sought to distribute money more equitably among school districts.
Two major players during the overhaul, former Senate President Thomas Birmingham and former Gov. William F. Weld, also expressed opposition this week to the national standards.
Before the vote, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charles Baker urged the members to deny the change. He testified that Massachusetts would lose control of its education decision making.
"My opposition to this decision is about ensuring that Massachusetts determines what is good for Massachusetts, not some combination of other states and the federal government," Baker said.
Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, standing in for Gov. Deval Patrick, said adopting the national standards will further strengthen the state's education guidelines by raising expectations for students. The Democrat said if the state did not adopt the national standards, it could lose its standing as a leader in education.
Murray also acknowledged the possibility of receiving federal funds played a role in the administration's decision to support the switch.
Murray said the state has no intention to eliminate the MCAS, but is working with other states to create a national assessment. It could be adopted as early as 2014.
"Those who charge us with walking away from the MCAS just don't have the facts," the lieutenant governor said.
Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said there is a 90 percent overlap between the Common Core and state's standards, so any MCAS changes would not be "substantial."
Chester said the state will now convene panels of educators to determine where the current Massachusetts standards are stronger than the national standards.
States that adopt the standards are allowed to revise up to 15 percent of the Common Core. The state's revised standards would be brought to the board for another vote.
Chester said other states will look to see what changes Massachusetts makes to the Common Core.
"There is no question that Massachusetts, in this effort, is looked to as leading the pack," he said. "We will not dilute our standards and lose our standing."
Reville, the education secretary, also said the change will allow for better comparisons between the state's education systems and those elsewhere in the country.
Two former education commissioners, Robert Antonucci and David Driscoll, also came out in support of the proposals.
But Jim Stergios, the executive director of Pioneer Institute, which pushed the 1993 law, said education in Massachusetts will suffer in the long run.
"This puts a ceiling on how fast we can improve," Stergios said.