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Discussion of education issues in this year’s race for governor has often centered on the state’s recent decision to join the effort to adopt common national standards for K-12 education.  The debate as to whether the national standards will be as rigorous as our current standards, however, is the wrong one.  In order for our Commonwealth to continue to benefit economically from a highly educated workforce and for our students to achieve success in a technology-focused and demanding global economy, we must push for standards that are even higher than our current benchmarks – particularly in math, science, and engineering.

In 1993, as the state was emerging from a serious fiscal crisis and economic downturn, the business community, the Legislature, and the governor’s office came together to pass the historic Education Reform Act.  The provisions of that act – comprehensive and forward-thinking – were implemented thoughtfully over the next 10 years.  At the center of the law was a new set of curriculum standards and a series of statewide tests, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System.  Critically important was the requirement that students pass the 10th-grade English language arts and math MCAS exams in order to receive a high school diploma.  The results speak for themselves:  Massachusetts has moved from the middle of the pack to lead the nation in the quality of our public schools as measured by performance on the National Assessment of Education Progress, often referred to as the “nation’s report card.”

This past January, with the federal government offering significant and competitive grant funding based on a series of reform criteria, Massachusetts elected officials again took steps to promote continued innovation in our schools. The legislation that was adopted provided for the expansion of charter schools and granted districts and the state new powers to turn around chronically low-performing schools.  The result was the award to Massachusetts of coveted “Race to the Top” funding, which brings tens of millions of one-time grant dollars to our state in an effort to continue to drive innovation and excellence in our public schools.

Given these achievements and current challenges, whoever is elected governor this fall would be forgiven if he decided to focus exclusively on the Massachusetts budget deficit and economic growth. That would be a huge mistake and a disservice to our children and our long-term economic prosperity.  It is no time to rest on our laurels, and in fact is an important time to once again push hard on the boundaries of what is politically possible and fiscally reasonable in order to give our public school students the ability to compete not just nationally but also internationally.

The most important education decision for the next governor will once again center on assessments.  There are many good reasons for our country to push for national (high) standards, and we have shown in Massachusetts that high standards have the greatest impact when aligned with a rigorous, high-stakes assessment system.  With Massachusetts’s agreement to join the effort to adopt national standards (an important consideration in our Race to the Top award), the political leadership in the state is now on a course to embrace the national assessments being developed to measure their efficacy.

Supporters argue that the national standards are as rigorous as those that Massachusetts has had in place and that we can, with our participation in the national initiative, help raise the bar for all American children.  Opponents argue that the national standards are inferior to the standards that have been the backbone of the achievement gains we have made in recent years and will set back education efforts in Massachusetts.   

Yet, there is good reason to believe this is the wrong debate. It was a hard fought battle to set Massachusetts standards high and to insist that all students reach them.  For many states, agreeing to standards as rigorous as those now in place here will be a stretch.  For many states, the vaunted No Child Left Behind Act became a reason to lower standards in order to ensure that their schools would pass and not be financially penalized and their political leaders would not be embarrassed by failing grades.  We chose a different path in Massachusetts, and while it was difficult, our children benefited from the high standards we set and assessed. But even those more rigorous standards are no longer good enough for our students.  In the face of continued demands for increased academic proficiency by employers and the singular focus of, and significant progress by, other countries to raise achievement levels of their students, Massachusetts must be bold and insist that any new standards adopted and implemented through testing be significantly higher than our current standards. 

There are other, less controversial, steps the next governor can and should take, including expanding support for the Massachusetts Math + Science Initiative, which provides high quality AP instruction to more students, particularly to underserved populations.  The governor should also continue to work to ensure that our K-12 and higher education systems work in a more seamless and integrated way.  Many states have adopted early college high school programs, where juniors and seniors begin to take college courses to enrich their curriculum and make higher education more affordable by giving students the ability to graduate in less than four years.  While Massachusetts has a handful of regional early college high school programs, expanding this to a statewide initiative would be a benefit to the rigor of our high school programs and a relief to families who struggle to afford four years of college. 

But none of this should be done in place of a focus on the core issue of setting very high expectations for all students in our state’s public schools.  Our standards should continue to be the highest in the country, because we’ve proven that our teachers, students, and administrators are up to the task.  Our students’ progress toward meeting those higher standards should be assessed by enhancements to our existing MCAS, which has demonstrated its value as an education measurement.  It is often said that history repeats itself.  In the case of Massachusetts education policy, all political and education leaders in the state should be working to repeat the education policy response made by leaders of both major parties during another difficult economic and fiscal period.  If we do, our children will be the big winners.

Jane Swift was governor of the Commonwealth from 2001 to 2003.  She is senior vice president of government strategy and solutions at ConnectEDU, a Boston-based company that provides online college and career planning tools.