The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 2008 Task Force on 21st Century Skills called for refocusing public school curricula on fuzzy concepts like “cultural competence” and “global awareness.” But Massachusetts citizens were less than excited about trading in the success that flowed from the commonwealth’s liberal arts-rich academic standards.
Four years later, the board is back pushing essentially the same ideas in the guise of recommendations from another task force, this one on “Integrating College and Career Readiness” (ICCR).
Massachusetts’ laser-like focus on academics has produced historic results. In 2005, Bay State students became the first ever to lead in all four categories on tests known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” Since then, they have repeated the feat each time the tests have been administered.
American students may not be globally competitive in math and science, but Massachusetts students are. They shined on 2008 international testing, even tying for best in the world in eighth grade science.
The performance of the commonwealth’s students wasn’t always so impressive. But when Governor Bill Weld and legislative education committee co-chairs Tom Birmingham and Mark Roosevelt crafted bipartisan education reform legislation in 1993, they insisted on liberal arts-rich state standards.
These framers of education reform not only knew literacy and numeracy are the best routes to genuine college- and career-readiness, but that providing all the commonwealth’s schools with a liberal arts curriculum is the best way to bridge class- and race–based achievement gaps. In contrast, by promoting fads, the ICCR task force’s strategy is to close these gaps by lowering academic expectations.
In an introductory letter to fellow task force members, Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) member Gerald Chertavian, who chaired both the 21st century skills and ICCR task forces, writes that their recommendations promote “what works.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
The task force would make academics just one-third of a three-legged stool, sharing equal time with “workplace readiness” and “personal and social development.” And we thought parents were responsible for kids’ personal and social development.
But it is the idea of education as workforce development training that is most demonstrably misguided.
Massachusetts BESE members and other soft-skills advocates have often pointed to West Virginia as a beacon when it comes to incorporating workforce development and 21st century skills into public school curricula. Yet in its recent state-by-state report card on public postsecondary education, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gives that state a “D” for “meeting labor market demand.”
Underprivileged kids are among the biggest victims of the education as mere workforce development model.
An analysis by Dr. Matthew Ladner, a research scholar at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, found that West Virginia was one of only eight states in which reading and math scores for low-income students declined between 2007 and 2011. During the same period, scores rose by an average of 10 points nationally and Massachusetts’ scores went up by 13 points.
But the move away from academic content is nothing new. When the BESE voted in 2010 to replace Massachusetts’ English and math standards with less rigorous national standards, it chose to reduce by more than half the amount of classic literature, drama, and poetry public school students will read.
Instead of building on Massachusetts’ academic successes, the ICCR task force would build a bigger state education bureaucracy. Its recommendations include one that would “increase staff and resource capacity” at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Another one calls on the department to develop an entirely separate set of career readiness education standards.
The result would be a state bureaucracy that grows even as public school enrollment shrinks. Statewide, there are about 24,000 fewer students than in fiscal 2003 and Boston’s enrollment has declined by over 6,700 in recent years. This drop is projected to accelerate in the commonwealth’s urban and rural areas.
Longtime supporters of K-12 education as workforce development training were buoyed by Massachusetts’ ill-considered decision to adopt less rigorous national standards. But the content-light recommendations of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Task Force on Integrating College and Career Readiness deserve the same icy reception they got four years ago, when they were packaged as 21st century skills.
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts think tank.