Editorial: A new school year, and some heartening news

Schools open Monday for students in Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) and the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School for the start of a new school year. This morning, The Times features a collection of comments from Island education leaders, who describe in brief terms what’s new and who’s new for the 2,200 or so children who will answer the bell.

None of the comments reflects upon the good news that underpins this fresh academic year, although each one ought to have, because, as The New York Times reports, Vineyard educators and their colleagues across Massachusetts have been up to a great deal of good during the past two decades. As Kenneth Chang, writing on September 2, [Expecting the Best Yields Results in Massachusetts] “Conventional wisdom and popular perception hold that American students are falling further and further behind in science and math achievement. The statistics from this state tell a different story.

“If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, according to Times — the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, which surveys knowledge and skills of fourth and eighth graders around the world. (The most recent version, in 2011, tested more than 600,000 students in 63 nations.)”

The data shows, Mr. Chang concludes, that “behind Massachusetts’ raw numbers are two decades of sustained efforts to lift science and mathematics education. Educators and officials chose a course and held to it, even when the early results were deeply disappointing.”

It wasn’t educational reform (made law in 1993), or new buildings, or MCAS testing, or fancy new digital enhancements to pedagogy, or abandonment of an array of time-tested methods for assessing student performance, it wasn’t teaching for the testing — although each and all of these contributed to the achievement. It was commitment despite criticism, “sustained efforts” despite doubts, and leadership that followed through.

Educators here have every reason to be proud of the ways in which they have adopted, committed to, and persisted in the effort to improve the performances of Island teachers and their students. In particular, superintendent James Weiss, has earned high marks for his reasoned approach to changes and his determined application of new teacher and student assessment practices across what is a monstrously complicated, expensive, inefficient, and fractious educational ecosystem. It’s a terrible job, but he seems to like it.

Of course, as Mr. Chang points out, the work is not done. Massachusetts is among the wealthiest of the 50 states, with a public that is better educated than is the case elsewhere. But, despite two decades of progress, there are hurdles in poorer Massachusetts cities and school districts, where demographics work against education. Lifting the educational achievement of youngsters in such areas, and even on an Island where sunshine and presidential visits mask stunted economic growth, tough work remains to be done. Plus, here, Island taxpayers spend more than $43 million to support seven schools with a total enrollment of just 2,274 students. That’s more than $20,000 per student, a big price tag, big even for a Weston or a Wellesley, enormous for a tiny, not so well endowed community like this one. Most Massachusetts cities and towns cannot match that level of spending, and even so, they have participated in a long-distance educational effort that has delivered the goods.