Massachusetts may be seen as the nation's leader in student achievement but students in many of our communities are suffering as their schools grapple with both academic and financial issues. Despite our accomplishments, we face an urgent need to improve if we are serious about helping every student achieve proficiency.
For Monday release. Massachusetts may be seen as the nation's leader in student achievement but students in many of our communities are suffering as their schools grapple with both academic and financial issues. Despite our accomplishments, we face an urgent need to improve if we are serious about helping every student achieve proficiency. The Board of Education has already taken steps in the right direction while consistently raising expectations: Last year the board raised the MCAS English and math standard for high school graduation to the level of proficiency, and added science to the graduation standard beginning with the class of 2010. We are encouraging districts to strengthen teaching and learning at all levels and to add more Advanced Placement courses. At the national level, the federal No Child Left Behind Act demands proficiency for all students by 2014. Educational outcomes and standards have been the focus for much of the past decade, in the nationwide quest for excellence and equity in public education. However, policymakers should not become so focused on outcomes that we lose sight of the resources and strategies needed to achieve the ambitious goals we have set. In too many districts, financial issues have led to cuts in services, resulting in academic declines. Randolph is one such community. This South Shore district of nearly 3,500 students is suffering from severe financial distress and clearly related academic problems. Escalating costs and uneven state aid in recent years have together forced Randolph officials to take drastic measures. More than 75 teaching positions have been cut. Class sizes are up. One school has been closed. Foreign languages were cut at the middle school and Spanish is the only foreign language offered at the high school. And as a last resort, officials cut busing this year, saving the district nearly $500,000. Not surprisingly, Randolph's problems go beyond financial challenges. The Educational Management Audit Council (EMAC) and the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (EQA) have recommended that the Board of Education declare the district to be underperforming. Randolph is also listed as "in need of improvement" for subgroup performance on both the English and math MCAS exams. Local authorities say that the cuts they have made, while drastic, were necessary to keep the district afloat. Since 2003, three attempts to pass Proposition 2½ overrides have failed. At the same time their total spending has grown by 6.6 percent since FY02 to more than $38.4 million each year. Why? Put simply, costs are rising, even as student enrollment is declining. Everything costs more than it did a decade ago, from health insurance to salaries to electricity to tuition for students with severe special needs. In most communities, these additional costs can be offset by local contributions and state aid. But in places like Randolph, where the money is going out the door faster than it's coming in, something is wrong. State aid and local support have, for a variety of reasons, been unable to keep pace with rising costs and as a result, educational services have suffered. If left unattended, these conditions may create a serious impediment to the high achievement that is vital to every student's future. We need to pay attention. This is precisely why the Board of Education is holding its meeting Tuesday at Randolph High School. We, as a Board, want to shine a spotlight on this community's school finance situation. As stewards of the state's accountability system, we are concerned about the impact these cutbacks will have on the educational achievement of the children of Randolph, as well as those in similarly struggling communities. We have important questions to ask. Let me be clear: Financial distress does not absolve any community of accountability requirements; their schools still must improve. But the board does have an obligation to scrutinize this situation, ask tough questions and report on what we find. We have also asked the Department of Education to do a broader investigation into other distressed communities across the state to determine what is going wrong and how to rectify these situations. Research shows that more money does not always equal better performance in education. At the same time, it would be naïve for those operating a potent accountability system not to recognize the importance of maintaining basic services as a foundation for the achievement of high expectations for all. If we are to hold our educators and school systems accountable for achieving appropriately high standards for all students, we must ensure they have the capacity to meet these goals. This is a moral and educational obligation we cannot ignore. All children, regardless of where they live or what their background is, deserve a high quality education. When there is evidence that some children are being shortchanged in the classroom, we, as citizens, educators, parents, community, business and labor leaders, must pay attention. Paul Reville is chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education The Patriot Ledger