United States President Barack Obama gets a hug from a child at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, in Decatur, Ga. He visited the school to
United States President Barack Obama gets a hug from a child at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, in Decatur, Ga. He visited the school to highlight their pre-kindergarten program. (Associated Press)

For Massachusetts and more than 30 other states, the educational priority is no longer No Child Left Behind, but about today's children -- tomorrow's adults -- getting a head start in college and careers.

Last February, Massachusetts received a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, which requires states to ensure all students, regardless of ability, be proficient in math and English by 2014.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who granted states the waivers, has lauded NCLB for its initial intents -- holding all students to the same high academic standards and providing transparency of and accountability for student progress. But critics say NCLB's standards and subsequent labels of "progress" and "failure" did not fairly represent how schools were actually doing.

"It mandated one-size-fits-all interventions, regardless of a school's needs, preventing critical resources from being targeted where they could do the most good for kids," Duncan said.

Thirty-four states and Wash ington, D.C., have since been approved for this flexibility, in exchange for state-developed plans that set a high bar and are accountable for improving educational outcomes by closing ach ievement gaps, increasing equity, and improving the quality of instruction.

As part of these steps toward improvement, all waiver-app roved states have adopted college and career readiness standards and have committed to other reforms.


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What this means for schools is new assessments, new data, and new strategies for instruction. It also means a significant investment of time and money into new partnerships, professional development programs, and technology.

In August 2010, the U.S. Dept. of Education awarded Mass achusetts a $250 million Race to the Top grant to pursue goals for student performance and closing the achievement gap. However, a large question mark looms on the full price tag of new education reform, which will likely include contributions at the local, state and federal level in the forms of public dollars and private investments to ensure student success.

"Our schools need to prepare students for the world after high school," said Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education. "Everything we're doing is designed to make sure every student in the commonwealth gets an education that prepares them for college or a career."

As Massachusetts moves away from NCLB and its looming deadlines, officials, educators and state leaders have established four categories of initiatives to help achieve the goals:

• Revise statewide curriculum, primarily by adapting and implementing national state standards known as the Common Core, for English language arts and mathematics. Standards for other subjects like science, history and the arts are also being developed.

• Developing and implementing a new educator evaluation system to ensure teachers are delivering quality classroom instruction.

• Creating and implementing a new system that holds school districts accountable to student achievement and progress.

• Installing a system and assessment to make sure students graduate high school and leave with the knowledge colleges and employers require to be successful in higher education or the workforce.

Chester described the state as "both a monitor and a partner" for schools and districts in the process of moving toward full implementation of these new systems.

The state is involved in a national consortium known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Cynthia Brown, vice president for academic affairs at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, said that Berkshire County is working to respond to the new mandates and guidelines through the Berkshire Compact for Education and the Berkshire Readiness Center, which are countywide efforts both based at the college.

The groups have already held educator and school administrator trainings and information sessions across grade levels on Common Core and PARCC, and will be hosting other sessions in partnership with the state this spring and summer.

Brown said the majority of reform efforts will take place in the forms of advance training for current and new teachers, re-mapping curriculum, and educators defining what student success actually means.

"Change is here, but it's not going to happen with the push of a button where everything cha nges at the end of the day," Brown said.

She said one of the challenges of aligning high school and college curriculum, for example, is just finding time for educators to meet, since most of their time is spent in the classroom.

"I think there is going to be a lot more discussions, and I hope a lot more directly with families, about what it means for students to be successful in terms of college and careers. For example, students should have the soft skills of being able to work in groups and share their ideas. We've found many employers say these skills are critical for success in the work world, but they're also skills for success in the classroom," said Brown.

After hearing President Barack Obama's State of the Union address earlier this month, both Brown and Commissioner Ches ter said that these educational measures will take even greater priority throughout the nation. The president put particular emphasis on preschool education, college access and affordability, career readiness and to "redesign America's high schools so they better equip graduates for the de mands of a high-tech economy."

"I think it's a priority. [People] know changes are here, they know assessments are changing," said Brown.

"We've made the decision in Massachusetts to invest in our K-12 system and for districts to return at a high level. I think that the investment is paying off, and we are continuously raising our game," Chester said.