Outcry over BESE member’s remarks highlights state education policy’s systemic racism, need for change

The uproar over a state official’s remark last week about Lawrence and Holyoke shines a light on the systemic racism that underlies state education policy and causes untold harm to the children of Massachusetts urban centers.

That assumption is that city schools would be better off with less democracy, with state appointees determining more of what happens in the classroom.

Citizens for Public Schools maintains the opposite: Children learn better when their schools respond to their communities.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took an important step at its April 20 meeting: It cancelled the state’s “accountability” system for the current year due to the pandemic. State officials will pause their use of the algorithm dominated by MCAS scores to rate schools and districts.

In the discussion leading to the unanimous vote, board member Michael Moriarty said it was unfortunate that the pandemic was stalling state action in Holyoke and Lawrence schools. He said state accountability measures should be revived as soon as possible. “We know they can’t change themselves, ‘cause they never do,” he said.

That comment provoked calls for his resignation from the mayor of Lawrence, seven city councilors, a school committee member, two state representatives, a state senator, and a member of Congress.

Moriarty apologized, saying he was referring to school districts and did not intend to insult their children.

But those children suffer harm every day because of the arrogant assumption of state bureaucrats that they know what’s best.

When students get low scores on MCAS, the state stigmatizes, disrupts, and in some cases takes over their schools and whole districts.

The rating system ignores the kinds of achievement that don’t come through on standardized tests.

It’s not interested in any subject other than English, math, and science.

It doesn’t care whether students have basic financial security at home, or even whether they have a home.

Except for very recent immigrants, it assumes students speak English and gives them no credit for speaking other languages.

The inevitable result is that schools with low scores must focus intensely on what the test demands, often sacrificing the kinds of instruction and other activities that would serve their students better. The most harmful distortion happens in schools with the greatest needs.

The accountability system is billed as the savior of low-income children of color, but it actually victimizes these children.

That’s why, after 20 years of MCAS, and 10 years of the current school and district accountability system, racial and ethnic differences in school achievement have not improved and in some cases have grown larger, as CPS demonstrated in our recent report, MCAS is the Wrong Answer.

Rather than hurry to restore this damaging system, Massachusetts should use the one-year break as an opportunity to look at better models for assessing and improving schools, systems that put more control over goals and measures in the hands of those closest to the children—parents, educators, and community residents.

Such systems are being put forward in states like California and New York, and in Massachusetts by an association of eight school districts called the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment.

We need to rethink the accountability system, not revive the old one.

April 27, 2021