By Doug Page
Education is to Massachusetts what oil is to Texas -- it put the state on the map.
Since the Commonwealth's earliest days, when it was settled by the Puritans, education has been at the forefront, leading it to establishing world-renown universities and, in time, what many now consider the country's best public K-12 schools.
Since 2008, Massachusetts schools followed the lead of Mitchell Chester, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which oversees all public schools in the Commonwealth. Chester, one of the longest-serving state education officials in the country, shepherded Bay State schools during a contentious period -- the adoption of Common Core State Standards and a subsequent grassroots uprising against them. With a cadre of fans and critics, Chester served as a lightning rod for education issues, and now, with his recent, untimely death last month at 65, state officials face a situation not seen in nine years: a vacancy at the top of Massachusetts public schools.
See also: Bay State's Education Commissioner Dies
baystateparent interviewed a variety of experts in Massachusetts and across the country regarding what they would like to see in the next DESE commissioner, as well as the expected challenges he or she will face.
Todd Gazda, superintendent, Ludlow Public Schools: "Our next commissioner must be familiar with the issues facing schools, educators, and policy makers here in Massachusetts. It would be beneficial if our next commissioner was a practitioner who came from the ranks of those in the field, yet that individual also needs a solid understanding of the process of developing and implementing education policies.
"There is always an inherent tension between state regulatory agencies and those in the field (public school superintendents, principals, and teachers in the Bay State) who are subject to their directives and oversight. This can't be helped, but the educational policy environment in the Commonwealth in recent years has really worked to strain that relationship. Our next commissioner should have strong interpersonal and communication skills in order to bring the various stakeholder groups together so that we can work collaboratively to chart the course for our public education system here in Massachusetts."
Lisa Guisbond, executive director, Citizens for Public Schools, a Boston-based statewide public education advocacy organization: "The current Massachusetts school accountability system is completely top down and focused on narrow standardized test results. Teachers, parents, and school committees are asked for input, but that input is almost always ignored. Our next commissioner must recognize that teachers, parents, and students know what a good education is and what they need to make it happen. He or she must recognize and respond to the resource disparities that are behind 'underperforming' labels.
"I would like to see someone in the mold of Vermont Commissioner Rebecca Holcombe, who wrote to the state's public school parents about state test results: 'Many (if not most) successful adults fail to score well on standardized tests. If your child's scores show that they are not yet proficient, this does not mean that they are not doing well or will not do well in the future.'"
Frederick Hess, executive editor, Education Next, a journal published at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and director of education policy studies, American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think-tank: "The state's next commissioner has some enormous shoes to fill. Massachusetts is a state with a legacy of ambitious, bipartisan school reform, and a track record of impressive improvement. The state needs someone who can work closely with a popular Republican governor and a heavily Democratic legislature, and who will respect the state's impressive accomplishments while steadfastly believing that Massachusetts schools can and should do much better. That's not an easy task. The state doesn't need a "bull-in-the-china-shop" figure, but neither does it need a get-along bureaucrat who thinks the hard work has been done. It needs someone who will come in and ask hard questions; try to understand why Massachusetts NAEP performance has stagnated and voters rejected the push to raise the charter [school] cap; cultivate relationships on the right and the left; take care to understand the practical concerns of educators and communities in Boston and in western Massachusetts alike; and then set to work building on the quarter-century of hard work that so many have already put in."
Linda Noonan, executive director, Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, an association that represents more than 15,000 employers in the Bay State: "Nearly every good job today requires a career certificate or college degree, a high school diploma is no longer enough. Massachusetts should search for a commissioner who understands early childhood and higher education, as well as K-12 in order to continue the strides made during Mitchell Chester's tenure to align education across the entire pre-k-to-career continuum. It is also critical that the next commissioner continues to make decisions based on evidence of what works and serves the interests of students in order to maintain the Commonwealth's national and international leadership."
Tom Scott, executive director, Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, based in Lexington: "What we want is someone who has depth of experience in the K-12 public education sector, and certainly we think they should have a variety of experiences -- as an educator, in the classroom, at the district level -- so they understand and identify with the challenges and issues we face today. They should have that perspective and a clear sense of where they want to go with a system that is very good, want to lead to greater excellence, and where it could use additional improvements. We need somebody knowledgeable and understanding of what reforms have taken place and what new reforms need to be considered. They need to have a sense of compassion, be collaborative, and work effectively with a wide variety of constituent groups. They need to provide clear directions, but also be able to listen to different perspectives on how to get there. I think they need to be able to work effectively within the structure and DESE, but they also need to have the ability to excite and challenge the field. They need to be a strong cheerleader who inspires educators to greater excellence and challenge us in places where we need to improve.
"During [Chester's] years as commissioner, we certainly had our differences. We could agree to disagree. But he never folded his tent and said we could never discuss or talk about an issue again. He always kept his door open to try and find a resolution. In most cases, we found one. Mitchell was a firm believer, and his bottom line wouldn't change, but how we got there was open for discussion and that was a critical piece.
"We're fortunate to have [Acting DESE Commissioner] Jeff Wulfson there. He's a good, strong person."
Jim Stergios, executive director, Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based, non-partisan research organization: "The passing of the state education commissioner and the retirement of several longtime staff members make this a good time for reflection. What is the status of education reform? What leadership skills will advance academic excellence for all Bay State students?
"Without question, the 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act has been a historic success. It has catapulted the Commonwealth to number one in the country on the nation's report card - the NAEP test - and a top performer internationally in math and science. While Massachusetts remains a leader in student achievement, funding progressivity and charter and vocational-technical schools, any objective observer would have to note backsliding in key policy areas -- academic standards and testing, district accountability, and charter authorizing. The effect on student achievement, as evidenced by Massachusetts' stagnation and declining performance on the NAEP since 2009, has not been positive.
"Beacon Hill has grown complacent, to the point where legislators this year gave serious consideration to a retrograde bill that would have unwound testing in Massachusetts. The next commissioner must bring urgency to the work, understand the importance of academic excellence, and be a champion of good school options for all parents, especially those of poor and minority children. He or she must be willing to move the department from being a compliance-focused organization to one that offers rigorous accountability and constructive academic and data-driven assistance to schools and districts."
Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate DESE commissioner, and a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Education, who was on the search committee that chose Mitchell Chester as DESE commissioner: "I recall some of the criteria we were using to narrow down the number of finalists and semi-finalists we considered in depth. We used a good recruiting firm to locate potential candidates. We interviewed experienced candidates at the U.S. Department of Education, including our own, DESE, a foundation, or other large organizations with developed skill sets addressing budgets, teacher unions, state legislators, and the general public. Today we need a commissioner willing to listen to, include, and weight heavily the concerns of state-based parents of K-12 schoolchildren and college-level academic experts in decisions on the content of K-12 standards in all major subjects, cut scores for mandated state tests and the kinds of optional high school curricula available to all students across the state."