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Massachusetts' Mitch Chester on Common Core, Gov. Patrick's K-12 Plan

UPDATED

One of the arguments made by opponents of the Common Core State Standards is that the state of Massachusetts' standards offer a superior model for states seeking to develop their own, high-quality academic expectations for students, as well as an alternative to the common core in terms of how states can learn from each other. In the course of putting together a story about the common core, I spoke with Massachusetts' Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester, to get his views on critics' frequent invocation of his state's experiences, as they criticize the broader standards effort.

When Chester took over as commissioner in 2008, he said a regularly scheduled reexamination of the states' curriculum frameworks was getting underway. In the course of this revision, Chester said the movement to develop the common core got underway, as well. He said he looked at how the content standards for common core were being developed, and simultaneously examined whether they would hurt or help his state's revision of its frameworks. The bottom line, he concluded, was that the core would contribute positively to the state's frameworks under consideration.

"The common core development was very much an iterative back-and-forth that involved Massachusetts very heavily," he said, stressing that Massachusetts experts, in turn, contributed to how the common core was created.

He also discounted the notion that he would have gone along with the standards for political reasons, or because of pressure from the state's business community (which weighed in positively about the core before Massachusetts adopted it), if he determined the core would have hurt the state's frameworks. To highlight the flexibility retained under the core, Chester said Massachusetts has kept its "author list" used to assign books, which was in place prior to the state adopting the new standards. The author lists the state used for various grade levels can be found and compared for both 2001 and 2010, for example.

Common-core opponents at the Pioneer Institute have said that the state dropped The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from its K-12 offerings due to the state's adoption of the common core. (Huck Finn is mentioned by name in the 2001 frameworks, for example, but isn't in 2010.) Chester, however, said some of Mark Twain's works have remained in the frameworks, and that Huck Finn was never specifically eliminated due to the core. (UPDATE: A spokesman for the Massachusetts department, JC Considine, has written me to clarify that authors, not specific books, are officially recommended in the frameworks, and to stress that Mark Twain is in both frameworks that I cited above.)

I also asked Chester about Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed K-12 budget for fiscal 2014, which includes a little over $45 million in targeted increases for public schools, such as $2.5 million in interventions for the state's lowest-performing schools, and an additional $25 million for Kindergarten Expansion Grants.

In general, Chester said the budget incorporated many of his ideas for K-12, and that the state wanted to maintain its broadly successful approach while also providing targeted help to English-language-learners, students from low-income backgrounds, and others who have traditionally lagged behind the state's general achievement numbers. (Massachusetts often finds itself in the spotlight as a result of its consistently lofty educational performance. Remember that the state's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress actually became a subject of discussion in in the presidential debates last year.)

"The governor has been very responsive to the recommendations that I've put forward through my state board around giving us fiscal support for the work we're doing with our lowest-performing schools," Chester said.

The goal is to guarantee all districts that at least 17.5 percent of their budgets would come from the state funding, he noted, as well as to give every district at least a $25 per-student funding increase.

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