The Massachusetts Miracle

The Massachusetts Miracle: Tina Isaacs explains one state’s impressive but incomplete approach to setting higher school standards.

Students in classIt may be some small comfort to us in England that, pedestrian as our international assessment results are, the United States generally does worse. But not all of the US. If Massachusetts were a country, it would be right up there with the best. Its eighth graders would rank second in TIMSS science and sixth in mathematics. In last year’s PISA, Massachusetts comfortably outdid the rest of the US, with respectable scores of 514 in mathematics, 527 in reading and 527 in science. Finland, the country to which we love to compare ourselves – negatively – scored 519, 524 and 545 respectively. And on the home-grown National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), Massachusetts students ranked highest amongst the states in 4th grade reading and 8th grade mathematics, and tied for first in 4th grade mathematics and 8th grade reading, results in line with the last four rounds of NAEP testing.

How does Massachusetts manage it? Like all US states, it is responsible for its own education policy – funding, governance, school district structure, staff, curriculum, assessment policy, graduation requirements and accountability instruments ( It does have to comply with federal No Child Left Behind legislation, which mandates regular standardised testing, and its university-bound students take SATs like students in the rest of the country. It has also adopted the Common Core State Standards, as have 47 other states, although in November it signalled a ‘go slow’ for the assessments that complement those standards, arguing that they need to be phased in.

The key may be that Massachusetts started out on its education reform efforts earlier – and arguably more effectively – than other states. 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act (MERA), the main components of which were:

  • introduction of the ‘foundation budget’ that guaranteed a reasonable level of funding for all school districts
  • state-wide curriculum frameworks for all main subjects
  • state-wide student testing through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS)
  • increased high school graduation requirements
  • introduction of charter schools, state funded, but free from state control
  • increased teacher certification requirements.

MERA was intended to narrow the learning gap between the best and worst performing schools and districts, and between ethnic minority and white students, by combining more equitable resources with a system of accountability through a standards-based curriculum and assessment methods.


In the US, school funding is locally derived and unlike most of the rest of the developed world, schools in the most affluent areas are funded lavishly through local taxes. MERA was intended to even out funding differences between wealthy and less wealthy districts by requiring that all school districts spend a minimum amount per student. Where local taxation could not cover this minimum, the state provided additional funding. This new funding formula closed the gap for the three lowest funding quartiles, but not the highest, which still outspends other districts.

Curriculum frameworks

Massachusetts has a set of outcomes-based curriculum standards for core subjects. The standards were developed by committees of teachers, administrators and other subject experts and they define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, but do not define pedagogies. The standards have been revised over the past 20 years.


The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) was designed to support and assess the curriculum standards. Students in grades 3 through 8 are tested annually in English and mathematics, and in science in grades 4 and 8. Students in grade 10 must pass tests in English, mathematics and science in order to graduate from high school. Results are available at the student, school and district level, and the programme is used as an accountability measure for schools.

Charter schools

Charter schools have been operating since 1995 and there are over 100 of them state-wide. Many of them run a longer school day and year than other state schools, and some run a ‘no excuses’ model where student behaviour is tightly monitored. The majority of charter schools are in urban districts and there are over 53,000 students on wait lists for these schools.

Teacher accountability

In 1995, Massachusetts set out regulations on teacher evaluation that included student outcomes. These have recently been superseded by new regulations setting out performance standards in: curriculum, planning and assessment; teaching all students; family and community engagement; and professional culture. These are to be judged through self-assessment, supervisor assessment and student outcomes. The state has a collective bargaining system with its unions, but charter schools are exempt from it.

But not everyone believes that MERA has been an unalloyed success. Recent reports summarising its achievements over the past 20 years say the work is far from finished (French et al., 2013; Mass Insight Education, 2013). They point to the remaining learning gaps between students from higher and lower socio-economic backgrounds, between ethnic groups, between SEN students and others, and especially between those for whom English is a first language and those for whom it isn’t. They argue that MCAS has resulted in ‘teaching to the test’, limiting innovative curriculum and pedagogy. And charter schools are accused of getting good results through playing by different rules. Massachusetts has come far, but, apparently for some, not far enough.

Dr Tina Isaacs is Academic Director of the Centre for Post-14 Research and Innovation, Institute of Education, London. She is also a member of the CERP Advisory Group.

  1. Abdulkadirôglu, A., Angrist, J., Dynarski, S., Kane, T. & Pathak, P. (2011). Accountability and flexibility in public schools:  evidence from Boston’s charters and pilots. The Quarterly Journal of Economics,126, 699–748.
  2. Downes, T., Zabel, J. & Ansel, D. (2009). Incomplete Grade: Massachusetts Education Reform at 15. Boston: MassINC.
  3. French, D., Guisbond, L. & Jehlen, A., with Shapiro, N. (2013). Twenty Years After Education Reform. Boston: Citizens for Public Schools.
  4. Mass Insight Education. (2013). Education Reform in Massachusetts 1993-2013: 20 Year Anniversary Report.  Boston: Mass Insight Education.

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