Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, during the Oct. 3 presidential debate, proudly declared that Massachusetts has the number one education system of any state. Was the former Bay State governor correct?
Romney didn't provide specifics to support his statement. But according to his campaign, what Romney was referring to was the 2005 National Assessment of Education Progress in fourth and eighth grade math and reading. Massachusetts students either achieved the highest scores or tied for the highest scores. (Romney was governor from 2003 to 2007.) So those are specific, clear numbers in Romney's favor, even though he was speaking in the present tense.
But that's not the end of the story. Current Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a Democrat, was able to boast in a press release last year that 2011 was the fourth year in a row that Massachusetts students either stood alone at the top or tied for first on NAEP. That means the "winning streak" originated under Romney in 2005 and continued into 2007, also during his tenure, since the NAEP tests in question are administered every two years. (The NAEP is administered in January through March, so technically, some of it could have been administered before he left office in 2007, but that might be splitting hairs.) Of course, that also means Patrick can take a kind of political "credit" for at least the 2009 and 2011 NAEP scores.
In her excellent June story about Romney's education record in Massachusetts, my colleague Alyson Klein reported that some Bay State insiders attribute the state's educational performance to factors that were in motion before Romney took office. In terms of his policy initiatives, Romney championed the state's exit exams in high school as a graduation requirement, and persuaded the state school board to add science to the list of subject tests included in Massachusetts' accountability plan. Some of his initiatives seemed to foreshadow later federal education developments, such as tying teacher evaluations to student performance, but weren't taken up by the Democratic legislature.
As reporter Catherine Rampell pointed out in The New York Times, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank, gave Massachusetts the top ranking in terms of performance in its 2012 "Report Card on American Education." However, it's worth adding that in ALEC's "education policy" grades, Massachusetts fell back to the pack, coming in at 17th, with a B- grade.
Traditional education policy and union advocates might also highlight the fact that as of the 2010-11 school year, Massachusetts had the second-highest average salary for public school teachers of any U.S. state ($70,752), trailing only New York, according to a National Education Association survey. But it's not clear whether Romney, or many other Republicans for that matter, would include that as part of the state's description as an education leader.
And since Education Week does its own state rankings, it's worth noting that Maryland came in number one in our Quality Counts 2012 report, while Massachusetts came in second. Massachusetts scored higher on the report's Chance for Success Index and in the K-12 achievement category, but Maryland came out on top in terms of the teaching profession, school finance, and transitions and alignments categories. The latter category includes college readiness. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, quickly launched into the fray, tweeting that his state's schools, in fact, are number one, "and have been for the last four years in a row," according to Education Week rankings.
So Romney has some prominent numbers to back up his assertions. But it's relatively easy to use other numbers to chip away at his claim, not surprisingly.
By the way, there was an Oct. 3 story in the Deseret News that, indirectly at least, buttresses Romney's general assertion about Massachusetts schools. Michael Sentance, who served as Massachusetts' education secretary from 1991 to 1995, is reportedly a finalist for the superintendent of public instruction's job in Utah. So one state, at least, is impressed enough with his record in the Bay State to consider giving him its top education post. And if you want to trace Massachusetts' strong NAEP showing back in history far enough, it could be argued that Sentance deserves some credit.