Learning from the Bay State’s mistake

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Until last summer, education experts from across the political spectrum regarded Massachusetts as having the nation’s best academic standards and testing for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. But now that the state has adopted national standards and testing, it has become a cautionary tale about the dangers of ceding local control over public education.

Like so much of the Constitution, the words of the 10th Amendment are clear and eloquent: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

One of those powers, of course, is the power to educate our young. Unlike other nations, the United States never has had a “national” education system, but rather a collection of largely independent state systems.

In 1993, Massachusetts enacted landmark education reform legislation. The new law included high academic standards, high-stakes testing for students and teachers, charter public schools and accountability for everyone in the system.

These standards and reforms made Massachusetts the nation’s leader in public education. In 2005, Bay State students became the first students to finish first in all four categories measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

These tests, known as “the nation’s report card,” were administered again in 2007 and 2009. Again, Massachusetts swept every category.

On the whole, American students have fallen behind their international peers. In 2008, however, testing by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study demonstrated that Massachusetts students were globally competitive, tying for first in the world in eighth-grade science.

The state’s reforms also narrowed race- and poverty-based achievement gaps. NAEP data show that between 2002 and 2009, scores for African-Americans and Hispanics on both fourth- and eighth-grade English language arts testing improved more rapidly than those of white students.

“If you are a disadvantaged parent with a school-age child, Massachusetts is … the state to move to,” educational standards expert E.D. Hirsch Jr. said in 2008.

But Massachusetts has turned its back on that success. Last summer, the state board of education — without so much as a legislative hearing or vote — discarded standards and testing in favor of something weaker called the Common Core State Standards Initiative plus yet-to-be-developed national tests.

In addition to the Constitution’s clear principle, there are other reasons why states shouldn’t cede control over public education.

For one, states and municipalities pay 90 percent of the cost of K-12 education in America. Why would state and local taxpayers cover this tab only to rely on others to set the academic standards, select readings and texts, and determine parameters by which student performance is measured and evaluated?

The framers of the Constitution understood that children should be under the authority of parents, families, neighbors — and the elected officials who are most directly answerable to them.

Advocates of national standards, such as President Obama and the 4,200-employee Department of Education, aren’t directly accountable to the children who will be affected by centralized standards.

Academic performance is the bottom line. Improvement such as was achieved in Massachusetts is rare in a U.S. public education landscape littered with failure. Even so, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Indiana and Minnesota are among the states that can point to measurable progress.

Advocates of national standards — including trade organizations and special-interest groups such as Achieve, the Gates Foundation, the Council of Chief State Schools Officers and the National Governors Association — would be hard-pressed to point to a single program they’ve developed that definitively boosted student achievement.

The same can be said for the 32-year history of the U.S. Department of Education. The contrast between the triumph of local control in Massachusetts and decades of unproductive federal involvement in education couldn’t be clearer.

It’s time once again to honor the constitutional prohibition on federal overreach in areas such as public education.

James Stergios is executive director of The Pioneer Institute. Lindsey Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation. They are co-hosts of an event, National Standards and Tests, set for 12:30 p.m. July 27 at The Heritage Foundation.