Education Reform in Massachusetts
"Having no other mines to work, Massachusetts
has mined into the human intellect; and from its limitless
resources, she has won more sustaining and endearing
prosperity and happiness than if she had been founded
on a stratification of silver and gold, reaching deeper
down than geology has yet penetrated."
- Horace Mann, "The Ground of the
Free School System" in Old South Leaflets, v. 5. Boston:
The Directors of the Old South [Meeting House] Work,
1902, p. 20
Public education in Massachusetts began
when Horace Mann left his post as Senate president and
became Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education
in 1837. Mann did many things, but his main legacy was
to convince people that public education was a public
good that should be publicly funded. As a result, Massachusetts
had the first system of public schools in the country.
Mann framed his argument for government
support of public education two ways. First he argued
that the economy needed educated workers. At a time
when the Industrial Revolution was looming over the
horizon, this was persuasive to the self-interest of
industrialists. Mann also argued that public education
was the great balance wheel of society, that schooling
for all could help everyone reach his or her potential.
It is interesting that, over 150 years after Mann's
tenure, those two arguments about why we need good schools
- improving the economy and increasing basic equity
- are still current.
Over the years, citizens and leaders
have worked to improve the public schools. Since 1888
there have been over one hundred studies that examined
various aspects of public education in the Commonwealth.
Many of these were relatively minor efforts that took
a look at specific aspects of education - teacher training,
textbooks, immigrant education. About a dozen were more
comprehensive and looked at education more broadly.
The 1918-19 special commission on education
was typical in finding that the two major problems confronting
the schools were the need "for a more liberal policy
on the part of the State in the support of education,"
and the sharp disparity in school spending in different
districts. In the mid-1960s, the Willis-Harrington Commission,
perhaps the most successful and best supported reform
effort in the state's history, echoed these concerns
and criticized both inadequate state funding and the
fact that "accidents of birth" determined where and
how well an individual was educated. The mid-1980s education
committee study and the 1990s effort that led to the
current reform came to many of the same conclusions
as their predecessors and called for increased state
contributions for a variety of school programs, as well
as special funding to cut the spending gap between rich
and poor communities. (For more on education reform
history, see Robert Gaudet, "The Willis Harrington Commission:
The Politics of Education Reform," New England Journal
of Public Policy, Summer/Fall 1987).
Between 1962 and 1965, the Massachusetts
Education Study, better known as the Willis-Harrington
Commission, undertook the most comprehensive examination
of public education in Massachusetts history. The Commission
took 30 months and spent almost $300,000 to assess the
strengths and weaknesses of the state's school systems.
The study resulted in a 624-page final report that included
over 100 programmatic recommendations. Proceeds from
a new sales tax were to be dedicated to education reform.
When the dust had settled on all of
these endeavors, little had changed concerning the Commonwealth's
schools. Even the heady promise of Willis-Harrington
eventually yielded to the intractability of the vested
interests. By April of 1967, barely two years after
enactment of its major change of shifting educational
governance - replacing the "good old boy" clique that
comprised the old single board of education with a new
improved model that split governance between college
and pre-collegiate education - all was not well. Not
long after the hurrahs had echoed away, the Boston Globe
noted that "The education reform in Massachusetts is
a joke," (Boston Globe, 4/30/67, p. 1). The new board
and governance system simply had not triggered the kind
of real change that the reformers had sought. Twenty-five
years later, many observers have been similarly frustrated
by the difficulty of bringing substantive improvement
to public education. Willis-Harrington changed the process
of educational governance, but that was not sufficient
to change the results of education.
> Education Reform in the 1980's