Top Scorer: Business group key in Massachusetts’ educational performance

Cover Detroiter -- Top Scorer

It stands to reason: The better educated a region is, the better its economy performs and the better its businesses do. Demands for knowledge-economy workers are plentiful – and rising.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report in 2013 showing job and education projections through 2020. Nationally, 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education. For Michigan, the number is 70 percent. But a deeper question lies in what businesses can do about this: What can they do to make sure the educational system feeds these demands?

A good place to look is Massachusetts. The Bay State is a perennial top scorer in the country’s leading reference for state educational performance, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But it hasn’t always.

In the mid-1980s, Massachusetts was in the middle of the national pack. The business community was concerned enough that it organized a plan to influence education policy. Many business leaders were already engaged in education-related initiatives, such as tutoring, teacher appreciation days and gifts to schools.

Systemic results were needed though, and businesses knew they could not get them by working individually. In 1988, they banded together to form the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) to expand these activities statewide, while pushing for standards and accountability. Businesses saw a moral obligation to help children, but also an economic development obligation to improve the economy in which the businesses operated and sourced talent.

“They saw a clear self-interest,” said Paul Reville, co-founder of the Alliance who went on to become Massachusetts’ education secretary and is now an educational policy and administration professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “They turned the corner from ‘This is a nice thing to do’ – for window dressing and community service – to ‘This is something essential to do.’”

They also knew it had to be a long-term effort. The Alliance hired four researchers who spent the first year and a half of the organization’s existence in the field studying the education system. The blueprint that came out in 1991 recommended standards and accountability, changes to the system, such as allowing charter schools, giving more power to superintendents and channeling more money toward students in poorer districts. The package of recommendations was known as the “grand bargain,” a term all too familiar to Detroiters because it asked educators to accept reforms in exchange for increased funding. The funding model changed to provide a minimum per-pupil expenditure, regardless of the district’s property tax revenues.

“It was a floor, not a ceiling,” Reville said. “The state doubled its commitment to public education over seven years. … A massive amount was directed to the lowest-income communities.”

The Alliance’s recommendations directly fed the state’s development of education standards, which came out in 1993 and laid the foundation for the state’s leading role in public education. Other states have followed suit. Colorado, Nevada, Idaho and North Carolina are among states that now have business groups devoted to education policy.

More recently, the Alliance did a study to decide whether to throw its support to Common Core standards or stick to those existing state standards it worked so hard to get more than 20 years ago. It went with Common Core, saying the two sets of standards largely mirror each other, but Common Core brings added critical thinking emphasis.

The MBAE’s annual budget ranges from $500,000 to nearly $1 million, depending on the needs of a given year. Its staff of three full-time employees and one part-timer stays close to legislators, bureaucrats, teacher unions and associations for superintendents, school boards and principals.

March 18, 2015 | Detroiter Magazine (Detroit Regional Chamber)