Massachusetts Ed. Commissioner Says State Needs to Better Prepare Students

WORCESTER, Mass.

Massachusetts educators need to set higher standards for curriculum, assessment and accountability to ensure that students who graduate from high schools are better prepared for college or careers, the state’s incoming education commissioner said Monday.

Mitchell Chester, who is set to formally take office May 19, said Massachusetts educators have done a lot of things right to help ensure the rates of graduation are one of the highest in the nation.

But the state’s first school-to-college report recently showed a disproportionate number of minority students and those from poor families either failed to perform well or needed remedial courses once they are in college.

“We still have too many students graduating from high school who are not ready to take on college-level work, are not ready for a career, and so we need to improve the quality of high-school experience so that all students — not just some students — are experiencing an education that, in fact, prepares them for success after high school,” Chester said in an interview before a special meeting with the state Board of Education where he presented his vision for the state’s education system before its regular meeting on Tuesday. He didn’t propose specific policy initiatives.

Chester said education testing, including MCAS, may be one of the building blocks for a system of high-quality curriculum and instruction, but it is not enough by itself to assess the performance of schools, districts and students in the state.

He suggested schools might want to incorporate a system that encourages expert thinking, including well-understood relationships, initiative and skill at pattern recognition instead of memorized facts.

“I think that it’s essential that we measure how students learn how to read and do math … It’s essential, but not sufficient,” Chester said. “As a parent of children, I wanna know whether my children are learning the fundamental skills — the reading, the writing, the history, the science — at grade level expectations because that’s what is going to prepare them for success as they move up the grades.”

The state has an “obligation to provide help, assistance, support to make sure that the kind of curriculum the students are experiencing, the quality of instructions the students are experiencing, helps students to be successful against those standards,” Chester said.

He said the state must hold school districts — urban, suburban or rural — accountable for giving students a high-quality education.

“The state has the responsibility to ensure that happens, and that’s what I’m committed to,” he said. He said he looks forward to working with educators, parents and citizens on the state’s schools.

When the Board of Education appointed Chester in January, officials said he has the right mix of national, state and local experience. He comes to Massachusetts from Ohio, where he has been Senior Associate State Superintendent.

Jaime Gass, education policy director at the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute, a Beacon Hill think tank, an observer at Monday’s meeting, said Chester, the first commissioner coming from outside Massachusetts in nearly 20 years, brings a fresh viewpoint.

“I think he, as everyone, is well aware that Masschusetts is the highest performing K-12 state in the union, but the question is what is going to happen to take education reform to the next level, and also close the key achievement gaps that have plagued the larger, lower-performing urban districts in the state,” Gass said. “I got the sense that he takes that challenge quite seriously.”

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