Gov. Deval Patrick's blueprint for education reform was 18 months in the making. It involved hundreds of people in a soup-to-nuts appraisal of the needs of students from pre-school through adulthood. It was unveiled last week over three days of events, for maximum impact. Chances are pretty good that it will end up as just another glossy report gathering dust on a shelf, another victim of the politics, vested interests and inertia that bog down most efforts to fix the nation's schools.
Gov. Deval Patrick's blueprint for education reform was 18 months in the making. It involved hundreds of people in a soup-to-nuts appraisal of the needs of students from pre-school through adulthood. It was unveiled this week over three days of events, for maximum impact.
And chances are pretty good that it will end up as just another glossy report gathering dust on a shelf, another victim of the politics, vested interests and inertia that bog down most efforts to fix the nation's schools.
That's too bad, because education is more important than ever, not just to the students, but to the economy we all depend on. Americans are competing for jobs against workers from India, China, Europe - and we're falling behind.
By many measures, Massachusetts leads the nation in education. Our students have the highest scores on standardized tests. Our workforce is highly educated, at least compared to other states. We spend a lot of money on public education. We've got some of the finest private colleges and universities in the world.
But it's not enough. The MCAS tests required for high school graduation have had failed to reduce the number of college freshmen who require remedial courses before they can do college work. The achievement gap between white and minority students remains large, even in suburban schools where they sit side-by-side. Out of every 10 students who enter Massachusetts high schools as freshmen, only three or four go on to get a college degree.
That's not good enough for 21st century jobs, and it's mostly because we're stuck with a 20th century model of education. We have a school day designed for stay-at-home moms and a school calendar designed for farmers. Our schools were organized to train factory workers to do jobs that were anything but intellectually demanding. We put our kids on the assembly line in pre-school and they are molded, stamped, painted and polished through a succession of shop floors - elementary, middle, high school and college. What they are taught at each stage is entirely determined by what education bureaucrats have determined is proper for their age group, and has little to do with what the individual needs to learn, let alone what he or she wants to learn.
What public education needs is a paradigm shift. Up to now, the paradigm has been we will give every child the same schooling - 12 years, 180 days a year, six hours a day, in classes with one teacher and 20 to 30 students, all reading the same textbooks and taking the same tests - and accept a wide variation in the knowledge and skills of those who are handed diplomas at the end of that ordeal.
The new paradigm reverses that. It says we will expect every student to graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for intellectually demanding work, but we will accept that different students will need different schooling to get there. Some will need more than 180 days, some will need one-on-one tutoring. Some will need to spend their summers learning English. Some should be able to start doing college work in 10th grade. Some will need the school to provide services their families cannot afford.
Patrick understands the chasm between where our schools are and where they need to be. So does Paul Reville, Patrick's incoming secretary of education, who's charged with bringing the state's schools into the 21st century. The theoretical underpinnings of the Readiness Project, the education reform agenda introduced last hinge on bold, innovative thinking.
The 55 specific recommendations, however, are more prosaic. They range from encouraging consolidation of small school districts to making course credits transferable between community and state colleges, from improving teacher training to expanding pre-school. Patrick proposes "Readiness Schools," which, like charter schools, give teachers the autonomy to innovate but, unlike charters, are under the control of local school committees. He wants a longer school day, a longer school year, a statewide teachers contract, free community college tuition and more focus on lifelong learning and workforce development.
Many of the ideas are good, a few are controversial - in-state tuition at state colleges for children of illegal immigrants, for instance - and most of them will cost money the state doesn't now have.
Patrick has tried to kick the financing plan down the road, naming a commission to offer up a price tag and ideas for finding savings and revenue by the end of the year. His hope is to generate enough excitement about the project to make it easier to find the money to pay for it. But there's nothing in this grab-bag of good ideas - most of them with details still undetermined and some of them little more than suggestions for future discussion - that you could fit on a bumper sticker.
Given the achievement gains seen at charter schools and schools in Patrick's Extended Learning Time initiative, I asked Reville the other day, why not just call for every student's school day to be increased from six to eight hours?
"There is no silver bullet," he answered. There's no one thing that will make the schools right. We have to do a lot of things, short-, medium-, and long-term. The Readiness Project is set up as an initiative that will take 12 years to be fully implemented.
But without a galvanized public to push the whole package, it may be nibbled away to nothing by the forces of the status quo. Teachers unions don't like the idea of a statewide contract that takes away their power to negotiate work rules and school management minutiae. Nor do they like Patrick's proposal to pay teachers in tough schools or who teach certain subjects more than others. School committees and superintendents will resist giving up day-to-day supervision of Readiness Schools. The charter school lobby is already upset that Patrick doesn't want to lift the cap on new charters. We've seen communities up in arms over efforts to change the nickname of the high school football team. Using too heavy a hand to consolidate them into large districts will spark a rebellion hat could scuttle the whole enterprise.
Reville knows the challenge. He was a key player in the last education reform effort. The Education Reform Act of 1993 was a grab-bag of initiatives too, some of which went nowhere. What lasted were MCAS tests, charter schools, and a revised Chapter 70 formula that funneled billions in new state aid to school districts.
The 1993 effort faced long odds as well, but it had several things going for it. A lawsuit was pending that could have thrown out the state's system of funding education altogether if the Legislature didn't act. There was enough new money available to reward school districts and teachers unions for accepting the tests and restrictions they didn't like, and the '90s tech boom generated enough new revenue every year for the Legislature to keep its commitments.
And the 1993 initiative had champions in the Legislature - notably Tom Birmingham in the Senate and Mark Roosevelt in the House - who turned a business-backed initiative into state law.
There's no lawsuit pushing Patrick's reforms, and the extent of its business support is uncertain. It's no coincidence one of the events launching the project was held at EMC's headquarters in Hopkinton, but we'll see if the CEOs are on board when it comes to finding the revenue the project will require. The economic boom that could fatten state coffers is nowhere in sight, so it will take new taxes, casinos or some other infusion to pay for Patrick's ambitious agenda.
Then there's the Legislature. Neither House Speaker Sal DiMasi nor Senate President Therese Murray were visible as Patrick and Reville made their rounds this week. DiMasi later made noncommittal comments calling it a "bold initiative" that will face challenges. Murray has refused to comment at all.
Reville thinks Patrick will champion his education initiative with an energy Gov. Bill Weld never brought to the 1993 reforms, making up for lukewarm support from the Legislature's leadership, and maybe he's right. Patrick was elected with help from a grass-roots army that he has yet to mobilize in support of his legislative agenda. That's one reason this activist governor has had so little success against a Legislature prone to foot-dragging.
Education transformed Deval Patrick's life. But for an invitation to a Massachusetts prep school, this product of Chicago's slums would likely have been on the wrong side of the achievement gap. Reshaping education is his passion, Patrick says, and he intends it to be his legacy.
The Readiness Project will likely be the test by which Patrick's governorship is measured. He's putting together quite a blueprint. We'll see if he can build it.
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at email@example.com.