Cross-posted from Education Week

David Driscoll casts a long shadow.  It was he who was at the helm in Massachusetts, as Commissioner of Education, when that state took the steps that ultimately led it to performance by some measures equal to that of the best-performing countries in the world.  Raising standards for student achievement, creating tests aligned with those standards and using the standards and exams to drive curriculum and accountability were the cornerstones of the state strategy for improving student performance.  So I asked David Driscoll for his views on the nation’s current struggles with standards, exams and accountability.  Here’s what he said…

Marc Tucker:
MCAS, the famous Massachusetts standards and assessment system, came long before Race to the Top, in fact long before No Child Left Behind.  How did it get started?

David Driscoll: It came about as a result of frustration on the part of the governor, the legislature, teachers, parents, and the public over the many attempts at reform that had previously failed.  A businessman, Jack Rennie, played the key role in mobilizing the state and developing a consensus around a plan and legislation to implement it.  It was referred to as the “Grand Bargain.”  The state would provide tools, including significant funding, and the districts would provide the results, using those tools.  The state committed to $1 billion in new money over seven years.  Some of that money went to the training of teaches and principals and some went to the Department of Education to design the standards and build and implement the tests and the accountability system.  But 90 percent of the money went to poor districts, mostly to reduce class size and address the costs of special education there.

MT: What were the key provisions of the law that established the new system?
DD: The key provisions of the law were higher standards and expectations for students; higher standards and expectations for educators and higher standards and expectations for schools and school districts.  Higher standards and expectations for kids meant assessments in grades 4, 8, and 10 with the outcome of the high school test being the determinant for graduation.

MT: This is, of course, many fewer grades of accountability testing than No Child Left Behind now requires.
DD: Yes. That is true.  Higher standards and expectations for educators meant a new teacher test for new teachers entering the classroom.  Of the people that had completed their college education and wanted to become teachers, 61 percent failed the new basic literacy and numeracy test.  So basic literacy courses sprung up on campuses.  There had never been a requirement that veteran teachers do anything to maintain their license, but the law changed that and required continuing education and training every three years.  Those two key elements, the test and the professional development that was required, greatly changed standards and expectations for teachers.

MT: But the law did not require you to test the veteran teachers or tie teacher promotion or retention to student performance.
DD: No, it did not.  But it did put the Department of Education in charge of their continuing training and much of that initially related to the new standards and assessments.  Higher standards and expectations for the schools and districts meant an accountability system for schools, not teachers, based on assessments and standards.  We looked around the country and liked Texas’ system of adequate yearly progress. It seemed to be fair and reasonable.  We realized we had to disaggregate our data because we were hiding behind our white students.  We set 2020 as the year that schools were expected to hit their targets, a much longer time to hit our targets than was provided by No Child Left Behind, so that schools could take two steps forward and one back and not be in trouble.  We also designed a system that took a common sense view of what the targets should be for schools in different communities.  The job for urban districts was to get kids into the basic level.  The job for suburban schools was to get kids out of the basic level and into the proficient level.  I should point out that, notwithstanding the fact that Massachusetts’ schools compare favorably to the best in the world now, under the federal law, all Massachusetts schools failed to make adequate yearly progress.

MT: So you anticipated the idea of basing accountability on growth rather than the achievement of absolute targets and you gave the schools much more time to show that growth before there were any sanctions.  What did you do to help teachers, principals, districts and schools get ready for much higher standards?
DD: We had a huge law to deal with and, at the same time, limited capacity.  Tom Birmingham, the President of the Senate and a key ally, said that the Department was moving at the speed of a glacier.  In one way that was right but we were using that time to bring teachers together and to learn from other states and countries what we needed to know to build a sound system.  We paid a lot of attention to the NAEP framework (below proficiency, advanced, etc.).  We heavily involved teachers, administrators, the general public and businesses as we set the achievement levels in English and math.  We looked at the work of New Standards.  We used a whole range of techniques to provide assistance to the schools –the Massachusetts chapter of the NCTM gave workshops on the math standards, we brought in the National Institute for School Leadership to train our principals statewide to lead implementation in their schools, lots of other things.  But sometimes the smallest gestures are the most important.  For example, we provided the schools with small amounts of money ($100-400 per school) to create study groups that allowed faculty to sit down and look at the math and English frameworks.  The key wasn’t the money, but the state’s understanding that it was important.  We gave the teachers credit for that time in continuing education.  For a small amount of money, we got a lot of buy-in.

MT: How long did the whole process take?
DD: The Massachusetts Education Reform Act was passed in 1993.  Once the frameworks were approved, we started assessment development with teacher input at every step.  It took three years to develop the standards and tests.  Every question was approved by teachers.  The first test was given in 1998.  Lots of kids did not achieve at the proficiency levels.  Although all of the assessments were aligned to the standards, teachers and principals did not know which questions related to which grade.  We had to revise the standards so the teachers at each grade would know what they were expected to teach.  There were no stakes attached to the tests until three years after the first test administration.  The results of 2001 sophomores was when the clock started ticking and the class of 2003 was the first graduating class where things mattered.

MT: So the whole process took 10 years, from the time the enabling legislation was passed until the first year the results were used for accountability purposes.  Are we going too fast or asking too much now?
DD: I don’t think so.  It is true that money has been tight, with the Great Recession the states have been given less time to get the job done by the federal government and there has been a lot of opposition from both the right and the left.  But the Race to the Top grants have provided many states with a giant shot of funds just for this purpose, the Gates Foundation paid for most of the standards development and the federal government is underwriting the cost of the tests, all of which our state had to pay for from its own funds.  Yes, the states have been given less time than we had, but we had to invent pretty much the whole process.  We made mistakes along the way that took time to correct.  Others should be able to learn from those mistakes.  What is astounding to me is that no one came to Massachusetts to study what we did and benefit from what we learned.  And, even though the feds have imposed tight deadlines, they are slipping everywhere and the feds are not withdrawing the money.  Though it is very important to support teachers and principals as they learn what they need to know to teach to higher standards, it is not rocket science.  Really good teachers have been doing what is necessary for a very long time.  As for opposition, people forget that we, too, had plenty of opposition from the right and the left.  We had parents threaten to keep their kids at home during testing time; school boards refused to award diplomas.  It is time to get on with it.

MT: What advice do you have for Secretary Duncan?
DD: I am a supporter of Secretary Duncan.  But I think that the process he has been leading has been too rigid and too top down.  Leadership is necessary, but it should take the form of guidance, with a lot of room for the states to adjust the guidance to fit their context.  We need the top-down approach to be balanced by an equally strong bottom-up process.  If that does not happen, there is no buy-in from those who have to do the heavy lifting.