Massachusetts versus Washington (Who Knew?)

The Times had an op-ed piece the other day by Christopher Eide (identified as "a Sammamish High School graduate, is a 2009 Master's in Education candidate at Harvard University.") which starts out wondering why the math WASL is a failure here and somehow migrates into the need for charter schools.

From the opinion:

"In 1999, 33 percent of Washington's 10th-graders passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning math section; that rate steadily improved until 2004-05 when the scores flattened out around 49 percent.

After no real evidence of progress in the past four years, what do you do? Do you look for another solution, or just hide it away, move on and pretend that it didn't happen? Washington lawmakers are poised to choose the latter rather than look for help."

Okay, there some real information here and he says Washington lawmakers are basically avoiding doing anything about testing for math. Okay, so how do you look for help in math?

Then he veers off into comparisions between Massachuusetts and Washington (and we are more alike than I knew) and says:

"As it turns out, a highly similar state chose the former. Massachusetts has accepted innovation and has seen its 10th-grade math scores more than double over the past decade.

In the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test, Massachusetts was allowed to participate as its own country and it scores ranked in the top 5 in the world. But as it turns out, that state is not much different from ours."


"But Massachusetts students have been outscoring Washington's on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) since the beginning of that test's score reporting in the early 1990s. Badly. They have been outpacing Washington students in all subjects by an average of 8 points per test.

In addition, Massachusetts 10th-graders were equal to ours in math in 1998-99 in comparison of state tests but have steadily climbed to a 74-percent passing rate over the same time that we spent floundering. So what has changed in Massachusetts over that time span?"

Okay, so what are they doing to have such great test scores (especially in math)?

"From 1996-2009, the number of charter schools alone in Massachusetts has risen from 15 to 54. This is only one category of an increasing variety of schools: parochial, pilot, discovery, charter, Horace Mann, private, public, to name a few. Selection of the right school invests all stakeholders in the education of the child and the result is increased student performance.

What is evolving from that is a highly competitive system in which schools are forced to improve or lose students. Now nearly 20 years into these reforms, Massachusetts schools are continuing to get better. A close look at the NAEP scores show its public schools are distancing themselves in all subjects from the national average in each year of the test. Washington remains about the same. No progress."

The explanation is more kinds of schools. Not a specific style of teaching, not smaller classes, no, nothing specific, just more kinds of schools. Yes, Massachusetts is doing better than Washington but how do you quantify how that is happening by saying we have lots of different schools? And can you credit one thing and one thing only for their amazing progress?

(Also, what is a pilot school or a discovery school? I know who Horace Mann was but saying it's a Horace Mann school is like trying to pin down Montessori. Neither is trademarked so you can do a lot of things and call yourself Horace Mann or Montessori. Ironically, the first item up on Google is the private Horace Mann School in lovely Riverdale, NY where the costs start at $23,000 for 3-5 and go up to $32,000 for high school.)

This is all a little unnerving as this is the direction Obama wants to go. I'm not against innovation or doing things differently. But t take a handful of rocks and stand far away from a pond and throw, hoping some will fall in, is not focused education. We already have some schools that are great, some that are okay and some that are bad. Do we just want more of them just because they are charters?

I want to know, in specific, what is working in MA that we would want to emulate and I sure wish Mr. Eide would have told us that part of the MA miracle.


seattle citizen said…
The following blog topic See bottom of comment)is from from (apparently Christopher Eide’s blog on what might be in an ideal “Academy”)
He makes assumptions ("consistently outperform schools in their sending districts"), without reference, to how great charters are. Stand by as further research tries to ascertain his motivation for such assertions.

WV: REMESS - what some middle school students do to cafeteria tables each lunchtime...
(Is Charter School Design Preferable to Traditional School Design?

"First championed by visionary union leader Albert Shanker (see picture) in the 1980's and then promoted by Bill Clinton in the 1990's, charter schools came into the national spotlight in the late 1990's when the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools had proven that they could consistently outperform schools in their sending districts. As of 2008, 40 of 50 states have passed bills allowing charter schools to operate as special public schools.

What makes charter schools different from traditional public schools is that they largely operate free from union restrictions and are therefore able to try things that traditional schools can't. For example, many charter schools opt for an extended school day and school year, giving greater opportunity for student achievement. Charter schools tend to be smaller and because of their smaller size can focus more on fostering a strong sense of community and purpose.

Due to the success of the majority of charter schools, many states are raising the cap on how many charter schools may operate. However, this has lead to increased opposition. Because public schools are typically funded according to a system that accounts for the number of students at the school site, those opposed to charter schools argue that they are siphoning money away from the public schools in the area and depleting the system. In addition, the students who typically attend charter schools come from homes in which the pursuit of education is proactive enough to seek out alternatives. These students consequently tend to have a higher degree of support at home and are thus some of the more higher achieving students. So, naysayers argue that not only is the money leaving the schools to attend charters, but so are the best students.

The strength of our middle class depends on the strength of our public schools and because of restrictions imposed by collective bargaining agreements between teacher unions and schools, there is very little room for reform at the school level. This, therefore, leads to the question: should "The Academy" be a charter school, largely free of union-based restrictions, or should it be a traditional public school with a strong leader that could potentially be made more effective from the inside?"
"Due to the success of the majority of charter schools",

I don't know where the author of this blog piece gets that information but my research shows that, overall, charter schools do NOT do better than regular public schools. KIPP schools do perform well (but they have a lot of restrictions and expectations, not a bad thing but not something that you will find happening in the majority of American schools without some huge shift) but other charters are just okay and many are disasters. One California district was left looking for thousands of seats when a charter group went under leaving the public education system to have to find spots for all their students.

I still believe in Seattle we have charters in our alternatives. I know that over at the UW's Center for Reinventing Education they largely do research on charters (I get regular e-mails from them). Maybe there is something new. Maybe the teachers' union holds back some ideas that may work.

But as far as charters are concerned, I want a go slow attitude so that if they do come, we have the best models possible.
seattle citizen said…
I'm SURE the union holds back some ideas. I'm also sure it serves as a buffer against some ideas that might be bad.

The concern for me are the educator qualification piece and the pay for educators.

I could imagine a scenario where a school (perhaps a corporation, such as Edison), freed from any hiring stipulations, decided to hire the cheapest possible warm bodies to prop up before a class of compliant students.
Scripted lessons closely follow WASL standards, no deviations for, well, anything.
Educator need not be able to handle peripheral issues, such as lesson planning (none: scripted) or home visits (None: student needing home visit is kicked out, too much trouble), "teachable moments," student crises, scheduling snafus (there will be none)....
So a warm body mouthing Math, Science, Reading and Writing "lessons" because that's all that's tested, that's the only accountability, that's where the money is.
Educator pay: Since the job is now stripped of any real teaching (maybe they'll substitute a PA speaker up front), the pay sinks: Who needs training or expertise? Any ol' body'll do...
Merit: Pay is based on WASL success of students and ONLY WASL success of students.

That's one equation: Sans union, sans controls, private companies contract with districts to provide glorified WASL prep, as students, parents and educators bemoan, "teaching is dead!" (see Doonsebury...see my photo

WV, Is "decto" that injury incurred going barefoot on the deck of a boat and running into a cleat?
Danny K said…
If someone who knows more were to post links to some other coverage of the Mass. school system, it would be great.

I'm always skeptical of people comparing two extremely diverse places and explaining ONE of the differences based on a single factor. Washington has more Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans than Mass., and our population is growing a lot faster. Our population density is lower, too.

To make a long story short, these comparisons of math scores are pretty meaningless unless you control for all the other differences.
And Danny you are exactly right. You'd think a newspaper would say to a potential op-ed writer, "look you only give one reason" and ask for more.

But we are now a one-newspaper town now and the Times has been headed this direction - educationally speaking - for a long time.
Jet City mom said…
They have a state income tax as well don't they?

Half of all Massachusetts public schools this year failed to meet achievement standards established by the state under the No Child Left Behind Act.

That includes 100 of 143 public schools in Boston, according to a report released yesterday by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The number of underachieving schools rose sharply from last year, when 37 percent failed to meet performance standards under the federal law.

The link is really long
is is from
Boston Globe/ September 20, 2008
katweb said…
Lets not forget that MGJ is a graduate of the Broad Foundation, a major supporter of charter schools.

Alt schools are our version of charters. She's now closed the doors of two, is teetering on another one and put one in a less than optimal situation. She also closed 3 minority schools that were actually improving and working on turning around.

Between all the praise she's been getting in the press, charter supporter's money and the need for change in the district, I wouldn't be surprised if charter schools were in our near future. The stage is being set.
MathTeacher42 said…
My wife and I are products of the schools of Holyoke MA and Boston MA, and both of us had college experiences in Boston.

I had my first k-12 experiences, after graduating in 1978, 6 years ago tutoring while beginging work on my math certification.

The debates over standards and over the WASL / MCAS and over funding and over curriculum and over unions and over everything happened earlier near Fenway than it did near Safeco.

Massachusetts did adopt better standards earlier, but, I don't know how much of their curriculum in the state is this Connected Math type baloney.

I KNOW that when you compare districts like Holyoke or Springfield to Lexington or Newton or Wellesley ... ha ha ha. I'll tell you what is the mo$t important variable - it i$ money, and all the re$ource$ money can buy.

Mr. Eide's observations are the kind of glib, superficial powerpoint nonsense which has formed the 'foundation' for appx. 950/1000 hours of my waste of time teacher training.

Given how American public and private sector managements have excelled, for decades, at getting bonuses and promotions for failure, Mr. Eide surely has a promising future as yet another reform snake oil salesman.
anonymous said…
If we had not taken the fuzzy math and Writers Workshop road, I wonder if we'd have seen the same progress?
seattle citizen said…
What progress? Eide is making broad and unsupported claims about how charters "consistently outperform" publics, how some sort of massaging of state test data shows Mass is better than Wash...

What "progress" are you refering to? As measured by what?
anonymous said…
I was citing the article:
"In addition, Massachusetts 10th-graders were equal to ours in math in 1998-99 in comparison of state tests but have steadily climbed to a 74-percent passing rate over the same time that we spent floundering."

Danny K mentioned that MA. success is probably not based on one thing - more types of school, and needed control for other differences.

In my opinion some of those differences may be a weak curriculum (fuzzy math and writers workshop) along with our very large class sizes. Not to mention that we have a super high rate of private school families, leaving our public schools with a disproportionate number of low income and minority students. I wonder how MA compares demographically?
Jet City mom said…
I wonder how MA compares demographically
Their suburbs are just as fancy as ours

From what I have heard ancedotally, from families in Lexington, is that taxes enable some of the public districts to operate like private schools.

Median family income for example in Lexington is $140,000.
Median home price is $650,000 and amount spent on vacations last year
Is $8,900
SolvayGirl said…
A friend who lives in Cambridge has had a wonderful public school experience for her child—class sizes of 16 in middle school, great curriculum, etc.
Charlie Mas said…
It is hard to believe that anyone in pursuit of a Master's degree could write a piece as faulty as this one. The feeble attempt to make a logical connection where none can be shown is distressingly bad.

It doesn't represent Harvard's graduate school of education in a very good light.
Josh Hayes said…
Probably this belongs in a thread of its own, but I keep seeing remarks disparaging charter schools. Every time we get one of those ballot measures, I ask proponents of charter schools, "How does a charter school differ from an alternative school?", and they can never give me an answer.

Clearly the main difference is that, apparently, they can be staffed by non-union teachers. Is there anything else to it? How can we claim that MG-J wants to close alts and replace them with charter schools when as far as I can tell the union thing is the only difference? I'm not trying to pick a fight, I'm really bewildered by the whole extremely-ambiguous idea of charter schools. Enlighten me.

(Wow; word check is INCHES from being a Very Bad Word. Hmm.)
anonymous said…
I'm not totally sure on this one, so please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Charter schools also have some flexibility with teachers credentials. As I understand it their teachers do not have to be certified.
beansa said…
Charter schools can be run for profit in some states. They are not necessasarily accountable to the school district where they operate, and they do not have to follow district procedures. Charters are run by and are accountable to private companies, but are funded with public money (sometimes they are also privately funded).

Some have been accused of refusing to serve special needs students. They can kick out low performing students or students with behavior problems more easily than public schools. It is supposed to be easier to shut down a charter school for low performance, but in reality that is not always the case.

The research on charter schools is mixed. Some are good and some are not, and there is no overwhelming evidence that students at charter schools are getting a better education. Certainly not enough to support the privatization of public eductaion. In my humble opinion anyway.
owlhouse said…
While each state has its own set of laws/policies governing charter schools, there is a national trend.

Josh and Adhoc are both correct- charters, generally, do not require trained or certified teachers, or even experienced adults with some knowledge of human development. Staff are not unionized.

Charters operate outside district over sight- are not accountable to publicly elected officials, may not open meetings to the public, nor make notes available.

Charters may cherry-pick their student populations- through intake "placements tests", parental contracts, disciplinary actions...

Charters are often public-private partnerships, affording tax breaks and incentives to corporations involved, investing public money in schools not accountable to the same regulations that guide and restrict public schools.

So, while it is possible that a charter school may have a philosophy and pedagogy similar to a public alternative school- the management, service delivery and all round student-care are very different.

As to the success of charters, data collected by interested parties shows much promise, particularly with historically underserved populations. Findings of third party research, less well funded and less available, reach very different conclusions.

Given that we have the means with in the public system to build a diverse network of schools to serve a wide variety of learning styles and needs, we don't need the influence of corporations to bring "innovation"- we need a district that upholds its commitment to alternatives within the public system.
anonymous said…
As I learn more and more, I continue to revise my views on charter schools. I am really uncomfortable with their lack of accountability, lack of certified teachers, ability to make a profit, etc. So in general, and currently, I would classify myself as anti charter schools.

I do love the idea of more specialty, unique, alt type schools and wish they could be funded by SPS, however, I feel that the alt school movement is stagnant here in Seattle - we haven't had any interest in opening a new alt school in many many years. It seems like the demand for alt schools has been replaced by the demand for more "rigor", traditional math, immersion and IB, and don't get me wrong, I support that too, I just feel like it leaves little room for any truly progressive, innovative new alt schools to be added here in Seattle. In addition I am also anti super standardization. I mean I'm just fine with general standardization as in kids learning the EALRs and the GLEs for their grade, but I do not like the lock step, everyone on the same page, doing the same thing, at the same time, on the same day type standardization, and I fear that this is direction that SPS (guided by MGJ) is headed in.
If I feel that this super standardization takes over our public schools, I may change my view once again, and support charter schools? We'll have to see......
Charlie Mas said…
There is nothing about alternative schools that makes them inherently less rigorous than traditional schools.

Just to site one example, I offer the NOVA Project, the only self-identified alternative high school left in Seattle that is not a safety-net school. NOVA does not offer AP classes, if that is your measure of rigor, but it consistently ranks at or near the top for average SAT scores in the District and students from NOVA go on to competitive colleges including Ivy League schools.

NOVA seems to draw a disproportionate number of APP students who select it over Garfield.

If the District were to offer a high school of math and science or another liberal arts high school there is no reason to believe that they would not be as rigorous - or more rigorous - than traditional schools.
anonymous said…
Charlie, I certainly didn't mean to insinuate that alt schools are not rigorous. But it appears to me that that many families are interested in more "traditional" rigor as is evidenced by the AP rage, addition of new IB and immersion schools, etc. As I said, I understand and support that, but I also wish we had more opportunity to form new progressive, experimental, and alt schools too. Especially now that we have lost Summit and AAA, and AS1 is in threat of closure.

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