Part six of an ongoing series on higher standards in New York State
By themselves, new education standards cannot solve New York’s skills gap or remedial education epidemic, but they are an important piece of the puzzle. Here’s how it works: With clearer standards to guide educators, a higher percentage of high schoolers should graduate with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, and fewer of them should require remedial courses. A reduction in the need for remediation should increase college attainment rates. Economists have shown that higher levels of college attainment lead to a more productive workforce. College-educated workers earn higher wages, which enables them to contribute more in tax revenue and rely less on state assistance programs.
New York’s neighbor to the east, Massachusetts, provides a convincing case study of how raising standards is an important step to improving educational outcomes and economic productivity. In the early 1990s, a group called the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education issued a report that became the blueprint for a bipartisan reform bill. The reform package included three main components: (1) More money to urban schools and pre-Kindergarten programs; (2) ambitious academic standards; and (3) a new set of testing requirements, including high school exit exams (analogous to New York’s Regents Exams), known collectively as the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). When the MCAS was first administered in 1998, students in urban schools performed terribly. Improvement was so slow at first that researchers thought the reforms had failed, but State Superintendent David Driscoll insisted on staying the course.
Over the next ten years, Massachusetts became the envy of the nation for its education outcomes. In 2005, Massachusetts scored at the top of all four categories measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (4th and 8th grade ELA and math). In 2008, Massachusetts 8th graders tied for first in the world in science on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study exam. From 2002 to 2009, NAEP scores for Massachusetts African-Americans and Hispanics on the 4th and 8th grade ELA improved faster than those of white students. If Massachusetts were a country, its 2009 PISA scores would place it in the top ten, with countries like Singapore, Korea, and Finland. Economic outcomes have improved as well. The share of adults with a college degree has grown more in Massachusetts than in any other state, and worker productivity has grown more quickly in Massachusetts than in all but two other states.
If our policymakers wish to replicate Massachusetts’ outstanding educational trajectory, they will have to resist political opposition to tougher standards and tests, continue to gather high-quality data via standardized tests and other means, and throw their strong support behind policies that have the best chance of improving student outcomes. Understanding this, New York’s business and higher education leaders—from IBM’s Stanley Litow and Xerox’s Ursula Burns, to SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken—have been vocal supporters of the Common Core standards, vigorously urging their colleagues, policymakers, and the public to see them through to full implementation.
Please click here to read part five in this ongoing series.