Massachusetts Becomes Dumber So the Rest of Us Can Be Smarter

Published February 14, 2018

It is not likely that even an exhaustive review of commentary on education in 2017 could turn up quotes compelling enough to qualify as classic nuggets of wisdom. However, perhaps my favorite of the year in the non-wisdom category came from Massachusetts state Sen. Michael Barrett (D-Lexington).

In responding to mounting evidence of the Bay State’s decline from its undisputed number-one perch in K–12 student achievement since replacing its own standards with the Common Core nationalized blueprint, Barrett said the following: “It’s crazy to think that people in Massachusetts should learn more and better content than people in Mississippi. That’s no way to make sure that tide lifts all boats in America.”

The Lowell Sun delivered an appropriately acerbic editorial response: “Barrett and others believe the best way to lift all boats is to drill some holes in this state’s vessel of educational excellence.” However, give the good senator a bit of credit. He did not try to deny the data that clearly show Massachusetts losing its educational edge. Instead, he stood by the progressive credo valuing equality over excellence, even if that means bringing some privileged high achievers down several pegs so that all folks are on one level playing field.

In other words, dumbing down education is fine when it yields social leveling.

Of course, the progressive ideal ignores lots of realities. One is that the children who benefit from high standards such as Massachusetts developed from its 1993 education reform signed into law by then-Republican Gov. William Weld are by no means all kids from privileged homes. Indeed, some come from disadvantaged backgrounds and began to bloom intellectually only after schools raised expectations for them. Leveling hurts them, too.

Another false assumption is that lower-achieving states will benefit educationally from Massachusetts lowering its standards by going with the Common Core flow. In reality, grassroots groups in several states have presented Massachusetts’ pre-Common Core standards as the model of excellence they would like to see their own states adopt after nixing the nationalized standards. In spring 2017, a bill went into the Ohio legislature’s hopper to accomplish that objective.

A different course would be for those of us living in states other than Massachusetts to take Barrett’s leveling-down philosophy to heart and to send friendly Yuletide cards thanking him and other progressives for allowing us all to feel smarter than we might really be.

This is the deal: Prior to the advent of Common Core in 2010, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts led all other states in the intellectual depth and productiveness of its home-grown K–12 standards. In 2005, Massachusetts became the first state ever to rank numer-one in all four categories of basic-knowledge testing done by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly called the nation’s report card. It retained that distinction for several years, until the corrosive effect of sacking its world-class standards in favor of the federally subsidized Common Core began to become painfully obvious.

Between 2011 and 2015, the Bay State was one of 16 states to experience falling scores in NAEP reading and math. For instance, it no longer ranks first in the nation in 8th-grade reading. The decline in SAT scores since 2006 is also striking: 9 percentage points in reading, 10 percentage points in math, 15 percentage points in writing.

In an analysis of a recent state rewrite of the 2010 standards, the Boston-based Pioneer Institute surmised the large decline in writing likely is a reflection of Common Core’s wrenching of classroom focus from classic literature to workforce-oriented “informational text.” (Pioneer found that the 2017 standards re-do remains squarely in the Common Core mold.)

“These standards rely on process- and skills-based ideas, which brush aside knowledge of Western and English literary traditions,” remarked one of the Pioneer analysts, Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein. “The result is a set of standards light on content but heavy on fuzzy subjective terms such as ‘high quality’ and ‘challenging.’ Great works of literary art and the history of the English language, not to mention the American patrimony, disappear.”

Instead, the new-age standards offer a heaping serving of multiculturalism, plus the preposterous notion of 21st century mathematics that renders obsolete principles validated centuries ago. This how the dumbing-down so beloved by social levelers proceeds.