Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

A new report from the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE) looks at the past, present and future of education in the commonwealth and calls on policymakers to “unleash greatness.”

The plan for successfully transforming the state’s education system includes several recommendations, one of which is to expand access to high-quality early education. This call adds to the growing chorus of diverse stakeholders supporting pre-k, including business leaders, members of the military and law enforcement, and bipartisan political leaders.

The report, “The New Opportunity to Lead: A Vision for Education in Massachusetts in the Next 20 Years”, sets goals for the years 2016 and 2020, so that by 2030, Massachusetts will be an innovative, global leader in education. The report was authored by Sir Michael Barber, a globally renowned education reformer who has led projects in more than 40 countries. Nearly 200 stakeholders were engaged in interviews, focus groups and workshops to provide input during the development of the report.

The report is “a comprehensive assessment of the commonwealth’s education system, sounding the alarm that student achievement has leveled off and the state risks

falling behind global competitors who are outpacing the commonwealth in educating a highly skilled workforce and informed, engaged citizens,” according to a press release.

The result is a hard look “at Massachusetts’ persistent education achievement gaps and growing workforce skills gaps, two dangerous trends business leaders say will threaten the long-term economic well-being of the commonwealth.”

In an op-ed on the news website Wicked Local, Linda Noonan, MBAE’s executive director, explains, “Nearly 40 percent of students entering public colleges and universities need to take remedial courses before earning credit. That number jumps to 65 percent of students entering community college. Many of those students will never earn the degree or certificate they will need to be successful in Massachusetts, where 72 percent of jobs will require education beyond high school by 2020.”

Noonan adds: “It’s time for a different approach. Our kids live in a rapidly changing world. If they are to gain the skills they need for the 21st century, our schools must reflect the new world in which we live.”

The report has generated significant press coverage, including a front page story in Education Week.

Challenges Facing Massachusetts

The report points to six challenges that Massachusetts is facing:

 • the employability gap between what the economy demands from workers and how school systems train students

 • the knowledge gap between what a 21st century worker needs to know and “what graduates of the school system actually know”

 • the achievement gap between Massachusetts students as a whole and students from disadvantaged families

 • the opportunity gap between the children of well-off families and children from lower-income families

 • the global gap between how well Massachusetts’ education system works compared to top-performing education systems in other countries, and

 • the top talent gap between “top-performing students in Massachusetts and top-performing students in the best-performing education systems in the world.”

 To tackle these issues, the report calls on Massachusetts to become a global leader in education as quickly as it can by having world class curricula, standards, assessments, and teachers. In addition, the state should revamp its funding model, become the “epicenter of education innovation,” and close persistent opportunity and achievement gaps by investing in high-quality pre-K programs.

Early Education and Care

In a section called “Closing the Opportunity Gap,” the report says, “It is, therefore, vitally important that all children start school with the foundations in place and ready to learn. Over the next decade this will surely demand universal pre-K, with state funding for all 3 and 4 year-olds from low-income families.”

As Massachusetts designs effective pre-K programs, it “should take into account the growing evidence about what kind of pre-K education makes the most difference.”

The report notes: “The case for greater investment and reform in early education is supported by a range of academic studies and data. This evidence suggests that large scale preschool programs can make a vital difference to children’s early learning, but only if they provide excellent quality and strong levels of instructional support that focus on specific aspects of children’s learning such as language and literacy, math or socio-emotional development.”

While the evidence suggests that “preschool programs can benefit all children, the benefits are greatest for low-income students, particularly in the long term.”

The MBAE report also calls for setting minimum qualification requirements for early educators and ensuring that high-quality pre-K programs are actively marketed to low-income families.

The report also offers an international perspective, pointing out that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also called for high-quality early education — and identified five levers for improving quality:

 • setting out quality goals and regulations

 • designing and implementing curriculum and standards

 • improving qualifications, training and working conditions

 • engaging families and communities, and

 • advancing data collection, research and monitoring.

 Massachusetts, the report says, can learn from other countries including Japan, which “has focused on improving the quality of the early years’ workforce, especially for the youngest children…” The report also praises early education efforts in New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Korea.

“Massachusetts should aspire to lead this national and international trend towards expanding access to pre-K education. To become a global leader, it must commit to phasing in high quality universal pre-K education over the next five years, with the first phase of the plan focusing on children from low-income backgrounds and disadvantaged minorities.”

Massachusetts should demonstrate what quality looks like “so that legislators and voters can clearly see what they will be getting for their additional investment.”

Moving Forward

“To be a global leader 20 years from now will require more than simply topping the international tables for tests in core academic subjects, although that would be a significant marker of success. It will also require that ALL Young people leave the Massachusetts school system genuinely college- and career-ready with the competencies needed for lifelong learning and active citizenship,” the report’s executive summary says.

“Our central conclusion is this: with the determined pursuit of the right strategies over a decade or more, the creation of the world’s leading school system in Massachusetts — a system which meets all these requirements and enables all students to succeed — is an ambitious and achievable goal.”

That goal starts with building a world class, high-quality early education program in Massachusetts that prepares children for lifelong success.