New MassINC study on education reform finds state’s landmark legislation has had significant but limited success

Bold new steps are needed in order for the state to meet one of the primary goals of education reform, according to a new report released today by MassINC. Incomplete Grade: Massachusetts Education Reform at 15 assesses the impact of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 (MERA) and compares the relative performance of low-spending school districts with those of high-spending school districts. 

The study found that, despite producing gains in overall student achievement since its passage, the legislation has not closed the achievement gap that remains between high- and low-spending districts.  The report also found that shifting demographics in Massachusetts have produced increased percentages of low-income students in the lowest spending districts, raising questions about the effect of concentrated poverty on student performance.

“This new report provides very good documentation of the relative success of MERA.  At the same time, it shows we need far more in the way of creativity, innovation and courage to take on the achievement gap, the closing of which ought to be a statewide priority given our knowledge economy,” said Greg Torres, President of MassINC.

The report assesses the legislation’s impact in reaching three of its main goals:  1) to produce adequate funding to all school districts and reduce disparities in spending between districts; 2) to raise the level of achievement for all students; and 3) to close the achievement gap so that a student’s chance for success does not depend on his or her zip code.  The results have been mixed.

The report’s findings show that the funding levels of low-spending districts have been raised to meet statewide averages (bringing the lowest spending quartile up to the level of the middle two), largely through a doubling of state aid to those districts.  However, the gap between the average of the highest spending quartile and the lowest three quartiles has essentially remained unchanged since 1992.  This, and the fact that the districts most dependent on state aid are the most vulnerable to budget cuts in an economic downturn, raise questions about whether the disparities in spending will rise again.

In terms of overall student performance, it appears the architects of MERA have much to celebrate.  At the time of education reform, the proficiency levels of Massachusetts students were above the national average.  But the gains in performance of Massachusetts students as education reform has been implemented have outpaced those of their national and international peers as is evidenced by leading scores in NAEP and the international TIMSS.  Statewide SAT and MCAS scores have consistently improved as well. 

The gap between achievement in student performance between low-spending and high-spending districts remains large and unchanged, leaving one of the key goals of education reform unmet.  The reason the gap remains is that, at the time of education reform, the performance trends of the low- and high-spending districts were on different tracks.  The performance trends of the high-spending districts were on an upward trajectory at the time of education reform while the low-spending districts were trending downward.   

If we control for these trends, we find a significant impact from MERA on student performance in low-spending districts yet the fact remains there is still a considerable gap between their performance and that of their peers in high-spending districts.  What this tells us is that without education reform, the achievement gap in Massachusetts would be wider.

Furthermore, the report documents the growing concentrations of poverty in some school districts.  In particular, the study found that the districts that were low-spending at the time of education reform have experienced dramatic increases in the number of low-income students since 1992.  Between 1992 and 2006, the share of low-income students in the lowest spending districts increased from 40 percent to 54 percent.  In some districts, such as Chelsea, Lawrence, Springfield, and Holyoke, more than three-quarters of the students are low-income.  What this shows is that poverty and also, in some cases, language barriers have become even more concentrated within certain communities, adding a higher level of challenge to those districts’ ability to raise student achievement levels.

 “Progress on student achievement will ultimately be limited until a central issue,  the growing concentration of poverty, is truly addressed,” said Dana Ansel, Ph.D., MassINC Research Director.  The research was done by Thomas Downes and Jeffrey Zabel, both from the Department of Economics at Tufts University.   

Key findings include:

  • Spending per student was equalized throughout the 1990’s;
  • There is still a gap between the highest spending quarter of districts and the bottom three quartiles;
  • There has been a dramatic growth in the share of low-income student in the lowest spending quartile of districts; and
  • After taking into account baseline trends, there is a positive and significant impact from education reform on the relative performance of low-spending districts.

The report concludes that, despite the gains made, more of the same will not close the achievement gap and that we need precedent-setting initiatives, particularly those that are focused on cultivating high-performing, low-spending schools. The report includes several recommendations such as:

  • Placing the most effective teachers in high-poverty schools;
  • Rewarding teachers who are effective in raising student achievement;
  • Raising the cap on charter schools and allowing effective charter schools to operate additional schools;
  • Promoting policies that encourage socioeconomic integration;
  • Promoting policies that encourage longer school days; and
  • Enacting cost saving measures that could shift resources to areas that need it the most.  


This report was made possible due to the generous support of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and Bank of America, N.A., Trustee of the Lloyd G. Balfour Foundation.  Founded in 1996, the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth – known as MassINC – is an independent, nonpartisan research and educational institute.  MassINC is the publisher of CommonWealth magazine. 


The full report is available on-line at

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