Heidi Stevens recalls the day that got her thinking about
uprooting her family from California to move to Massachusetts.
Frolicking with her boys at a playground in 1998, she wished some
teenagers a happy Independence Day.
She was met with blank stares. "You know, the Fourth of July,"
she offered. Then they smiled and nodded, and she prodded a bit: "Do
you know who we got our independence from?" One guessed France,
another Mexico, and the last one said the Indians. "They were not
kidding," Ms. Stevens says.
She enrolled her older son in first grade that year but wasn't
happy with the emphasis on "creative spelling" and art projects. So
she traveled to Massachusetts and visited public schools in
Northampton, a town that boasts five colleges and universities
within a short radius.
"We knew Massachusetts was a fabulous state for public
education," she says. And she and her husband, both graphic
designers, figured they could work from about anywhere.
The enthusiasm and skill of the second-grade teacher at the
school in the Leeds neighborhood of Northampton "blew me away,"
Stevens says. "Meeting her sealed the deal that we would buy a house
in that district."
They haven't been disappointed living in a state that by many
measures sets the gold standard for public education in the United
In national reading and math tests, the state's fourth- and
eighth-graders have scored the best since 2005. Compared with the
national average, greater shares of students here graduate from high
school and score high on college-level Advanced Placement (AP)
exams. The state even compares respectably with some of the top-
Education's roots run deep in Massachusetts home of the first
public school in America and some of the best universities in the
world. Its success, education leaders say, results primarily from a
two-decade commitment to set high standards; hold students,
teachers, and schools accountable; and offer funding and other key
supports to help them reach expectations.
Other states have looked to the Bay State as a model in recent
years as they've tweaked their own education strategies.
Massachusetts is "one of the major success stories in the
country," says Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of
Chief State School Officers in Washington.
But now Massachusetts, like 45 other states and the District of
Columbia, is revising its curriculum as part of a collaboration
called the Common Core State Standards a new chapter in education
reform premised on the idea that to compete globally, the benchmarks
for reading and math in all states need to reflect a richer set of
skills to equip students for 21st-century demands.
Massachusetts could be a good test case for whether the Common
Core approach lives up to that lofty rhetoric. President Obama has
pushed for it through federal funding incentives, though critics say
he has strong-armed states into de facto national standards,
chipping away at state control.
For some education observers, Massachusetts has broken the axiom
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and is in danger of watering down
a key element of its success.
Others say just the opposite that the new common standards are
at least as strong as Massachusetts' previous ones and could
catapult more states to heights that the Bay State has already
"One of the provisions ... was that no state would have to lower
its standards in order to adopt the Common Core.... So the
Massachusetts standards became a benchmark [in] developing the [new
standards]," says Mr. Wilhoit, whose organization is coordinating
the Common Core initiative.
Despite the state's attainments, there are always areas to
improve, education leaders here say particularly when it comes to
achievement gaps for minority and low-income students
"One of our greatest potential hurdles will be complacency," says
Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and
secondary education. …