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Massachusetts coalition report reveals growing achievement gap, especially among students of color

Books on  a shelf in an elementary  school room.
Elizabeth Román
Books on a shelf in an elementary school room.

Three years after the Student Opportunity Act was signed to address educational inequity — pledging $1.5 billion to the public education system by 2027 — low-income and students of color are falling even farther behind their peers in the wake of pandemic-era school closures and hybrid learning, according to a report released Wednesday.

The Massachusetts Education Equity Partnership, a coalition of education advocacy organizations, is making recommendations for lawmakers to take advantage of a surplus of federal and state funds to invest in initiatives from early education through post-secondary education statewide.

"Even before COVID-19, the same metrics that gave us our high overall rankings showed that the education Black and Latinx students, and students from low-income families received in Massachusetts was on par with that of the average student in the nation's lowest performing states. Our outcomes for English learners and students with disabilities were even more concerning," the report says.

The gap that existed before the pandemic has widened, advocates said. The percentage of Black and Latinx third graders reading on grade level dropped from 38 percent to 32 percent and 28 percent, respectively, while white students stayed steady at around 61 percent, the report found.

MEEP hopes to capitalize on pandemic recovery money – $3.7 billion of which has been earmarked for education since 2020 – as well as funds coming in from the Student Opportunity Act.

Recommendations include investing in early education programs that operate outside of the traditional workday, implementing statewide pay scales for early childhood educators to curb fast turnover in the field, funding high-retention residency programs for educators of color, and increasing the amount and accessibility of need-based state scholarship funding, including the MassGrant and MassGrant Plus.

"We are in a moment right now of immense opportunity with substantial financial and community resources on the table to really do things differently," Natasha Ushomirsky, state director for Massachusetts at The Education Trust, said during a MEEP panel Wednesday. "What we need is the will and the leadership to really take advantage of this moment."

At the early education level, MEEP recommends state leaders implement statewide quality standards and use financial incentives to expand access to hard-to-find care, including linguistically diverse programs and programs that operate outside of the traditional workday.

Wednesday's report, titled "There Is No Excellence without Equity," said that currently, there are 354,000 children aged 0 to 5 in Massachusetts, yet the early education and care system only has the capacity for 220,000, and costs of childcare for this age group in Massachusetts are among the highest in the country.

Advocates also recommend implementing a statewide payscale for early childhood educators, who are often paid less than K-12 public school teachers.

Ushomirsky also emphasized that the state should aim to have a workforce, both in early education and K-12 schools, that is "representative of the children and families that those educators serve."

The MEEP report recommends state leaders invest in "high-retention residency and community pipeline programs with a demonstrated track record of success for educators of color" in K-12 public schools.

Co-founder and executive director of The Teacher's Lounge, a nonprofit that aims to recruit and retain educators of color in Greater Boston and throughout the state, Devin Morris said it is important for students of color to have shared lived experiences with the educators in their classrooms.

He recited a quote popularized by South African disability advocate James I. Charlton, "Nothing about us, without us, is for us."

The coalition is also advocating for state standards that "elevate the history, achievements, and key writings of communities of color, and combat racial and cultural biases."

Ushomirsky referenced the "mirrors and windows" educational philosophy, an idea that students learn best when they see their own identities in the curriculum and classroom, as well as when they have opportunities to learn about others' experiences.

"In Massachusetts we have a system that oftentimes is, for our students of color, primarily windows, glimpses of others experiences," she said. "Our white students primarily see mirrors – just reflections of themselves. We have to make sure we have to change that."

When it comes to postsecondary education, MEEP is urging state leaders to focus on expanding access to and affordability of college. The coalition recommends implementing a statewide curriculum for postsecondary planning and career exploration, including required courses for middle and high school students.

It also advocates for the state to increase the amount of need-based state scholarship funding available, and to develop guidelines for public colleges and universities to make sure all enrolled students receive "the support they need to complete their degrees."

"We're at a crossroads," said Amanda Seider, executive director of OneGoal Massachusetts. "We could go back to doing what we did before the pandemic, we could go back into our old ways, and so many of these challenges and disparities will continue to be cemented into our system. Or, we have an opportunity, we can do things differently."

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