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State Education Commissioner Seeks Business Backing for Reform

Posted on August 8, 2012

Chester.Mitchell“There is no more important time than now for the business community to keep the pressure on” for education reform, Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell Chester told business executives at an informal briefing this morning.

The discussion was hosted by AIM and co-sponsored by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable.

 Chester said he is focused on four principal initiatives:

  • providing students with a course of study (curriculum and instruction, in educational terminology) that prepares them for college and careers;
  • personnel policy built around impact, not credentials;
  • attention to the lowest-performing schools and districts; and
  • better use of data and technology.

A key initiative is the statewide educator evaluation system now being implemented, which Chester characterized as “mostly about professional growth and development.” Some persistently low-performing teachers will be removed, he said, but “we can’t fire our way to excellence.” Changes in compensation policy are likely to follow, he added.

With regard to technology, he noted, “we are probably the only sector that has yet to leverage technology to deliver greater effectiveness and efficiency,” explaining that while K12 education is moving forward on data management and analysis, there has been less progress on incorporating technology into the instructional program. The instructional potential of technology is “huge,” he said, but many of the touted initiatives nationally are “strictly developmental.”

The Lawrence public schools, which have been taken over by the state, are in effect a demonstration site for new policies, the Commissioner said, and opposition there has been building, especially from the teachers union (AFT). “We are undertaking some reforms here that are going to be very uncomfortable for the status quo,” said Chester, leading to pressure to slow down and back off.

“I need counterweights to those voices,” the Commissioner said, noting that both support and “prodding” from the business community were helpful. “We need support at the local level, district level, but certainly globally as well,” added Deputy Commissioner Alan Ingram, who faced fierce opposition to his reform efforts as Superintendent in Springfield. 

“Continue to be bold,” AIM’s Chairman, Gary Magnuson of Citizens Bank, who serves on his town’s school committee, urged the Commissioner.  “We can be complacent in Duxbury, we can be complacent in Massachusetts, but I don’t think the entire system is sustainable” in a competitive global economy.

 Chester said that Bay State students actually score with the highest-achieving countries on standardized tests overall, but that results are uneven across communities and demographic groups.  Another aspect of sustainability also concerns him, he added: the ability of an education system used to annual increases in funding to adjust to an era of perennial resource constraints.