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Edward L. Glaeser

The education calling card

By Edward L. Glaeser
September 23, 2010

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LAST WEEK, Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker passionately supported the MCAS test, declaring that he was “not going to calm down,’’ about “the future of the kids of Massachusetts.’’ During Tuesday’s debate, he reiterated his passion for protecting MCAS against the federal push for national standards, saying that “our calling card is the quality of our education system.’’ Baker is right about the importance of education, and it’s heartening to finally have a substantive debate. But for real educational reform, both Baker and independent candidate Tim Cahill must move beyond the MCAS issue and produce a serious plan that will benefit all children in the Commonwealth.

Education explains why some older, colder, cities, like Boston, were able to reinvent themselves after the pain of mid-20th century de-industrialization, while others, like Detroit, were not. People’s earnings typically increase by about 8 percent as the share of adults in their metropolitan area rises by 10 percent, even when comparing people who have the same education levels. During the current recession, a 10 percentage point increase in the share of adults with college degrees in a metropolitan area was associated with a 1.7 percentage point decrease in the unemployment rate. Last year, highly-educated Middlesex County’s unemployment rate was 7.7 percent, while less-educated Bristol County’s unemployment rate was 10.7 percent. Our state’s future depends on continuing four centuries of public investment in human capital.

Until last week, the gubernatorial election was short on meaningful educational debate, not because the candidates are anti-schooling, but because they all appreciate the importance of human capital. Until the MCAS fracas, Governor Patrick’s challengers were unable to meaningfully distinguish their approach from his policies.

Cahill’s election website doesn’t even list education as a core issue. Baker had originally emphasized his support for charter schools, which might have separated him from early Patrick, who favored limiting those agents of change, but not the new-and-improved Patrick, who supported increasing the charter cap. Baker has now found an educational issue: his willingness to “fight to keep the MCAS exam a graduation requirement.’’

But the decision to accept $250 million in federal “race to the top’’ funds in exchange for embracing a more national test was not obviously wrong, and a robust defense of MCAS is no substitute for a well-worked-out education reform plan. MCAS has been effective, and Baker is right that whatever comes out of the federal process may not be as good.

But future US secretaries of education are unlikely to oppose Massachusetts requiring more than the national standards. Lower levels of educational management often do whatever they want regardless of the requirements imposed on them from above. Usually national objectives are subverted by dumbing down or teacher cheating, but they can also be pushed upwards by local leaders, and Massachusetts can surely do that and still get the $250 million.

Meanwhile, Patrick is now a genuine education reformer. The education bill he signed last January increased the number of charter schools, made it easier to fire inadequate teachers and tied future funding to better school management. If Baker and Cahill want to distinguish themselves from the incumbent, they must offer much bolder visions for education.

If Patrick favors doubling the number of charter schools, then his challengers would need to favor even more competition, ramping up the number of charters and imagining new ways to get choice into the system. If Patrick wants easier firing of teachers, his challengers need to do even more to attract great teachers with more rewards and to eliminate poorly performing educators. Perhaps, they might favor giving all parents access to test scores gains achieved by their teachers’ students relative to gains achieved by comparable students in other classrooms. If Patrick wants to funnel future federal money to inventive schools, perhaps they might favor tying a significant share of all state aid to school performance.

Massachusetts’ strength is its human capital, and we must never be complacent about our schools, which need constant innovation and improvement. The MCAS debate is a start, but the governor’s challengers need to advocate bolder visions of a more dynamic and competitive school system for the Commonwealth.

Edward L. Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard University and director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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