After five years as Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Paul Reville recently returned to HGSE as a professor eager to continue his work in the field.
During his time as Governor Patrick’s top education adviser, he established the Executive Office of Education and had oversight of higher education, K–12, and early education, and played a leading education reform role on matters ranging from the Achievement Gap Act of 2010 to the Common Core State Standards to the Commonwealth’s highly successful Race to the Top proposal.
Reville’s outstanding work has earned him multiple honors including honorary degrees in 2013 from Clark University and Lesley University — where he also spoke at commencement — and the Massachusetts Teachers Associations (MTA) 2013 Friend of Education Award. The latter recognized Reville’s ability as a policymaker to work with practitioners.
“I always felt it was critical, as a policymaker, to have labor at the table as a full partner in the development of school reform strategy,” he said. “We all appreciate a pat on the back from time to time. But there's so much unfinished business in this work that it’s hard to stand up and feel like the job is done, or that you can take a big bow for what you’re accomplishing. And really, this is what my relationship with the unions, like MTA, is about, the fact that none of this work can you do by yourself. You do it with partners. You do it with other people. You do it with other organizations. You do it with the field. And recognizing that, I think it’s a really important lesson in how you get things accomplished.”
We recently sat down with Reville to discuss his work, the unfinished business of education, and his future at HGSE.
In your past 42 years working in education, what do you consider your most significant contribution to the field? My most important contributions have been in helping to shape the architecture and strategy of school reform in the state, which has now become the leading student achievement state in the country, and the leading jurisdiction, in many respects, in the world.
I was fortunate to have been able to play an important role in shaping the Education Reform Act of 1993, the most recent Achievement Gap Act of 2010, and to have served the Board of Education, first in the early '90s, appointed by Governor Weld, and then much later appointed as chair by Governor Patrick, and then ultimately as his secretary of education. These positions, and many others earlier in my career, allowed me to shape not only the sort of major policies that move through the legislature, like the two acts that I mentioned, but importantly to keep with it, to stick to it, and to work on the implementation of all the details of that work.
I have always seen school reform work as the pathway to equity. We delivered on the promise of having an education system where “all means all.” We actually now do a much better job of educating those whom our system has historically failed. Nonetheless, we still have a long way to go in educating those children to levels that have heretofore been reserved for the elite.
Was it difficult to leave the Secretary of Education position with initiatives like third grade literacy, increasing early childhood education, and grant work still works in progress? Yes and no. In a way, I'm not leaving. Even though I stepped down from the secretariat, I'm totally committed to continuing the work. I'm just going to work at it from a different angle. For most of my professional life, I've been more of an outside-in reformer than an inside-out reformer. But I had this incredible opportunity to be secretary of education and to lead the state’s education reform efforts at all three levels: higher education, K–12, and early childhood. In some senses, it was an unaccustomed role, even though I’d been on boards of education and I've worked with government for a long time. To be at the center of the government’s work is only one way you get this work accomplished. It’s the outside partners, the thinkers, the research people, the practitioners, the advocates — all of these and more — who contribute mightily to getting the job done on school reform. Now, I'm just joining the chorus again.
How do you plan to continue the work? Looking ahead, I intend to do some particular work that envisions the next chapter of education reform: What should the future of school reform in Massachusetts, and across the country, actually look like? I’m interested in building 21st-century learning systems.
So, it’s continuing the work and building on the experience I have as secretary, but not being so confined just to that particular role, where you're actually working for somebody else in a government, and trying to work in multiple sectors simultaneously. Now I have the luxury of being able to concentrate more deeply on what the next stage of reform ought to look like, and how we close those persistent gaps, by building on what we’ve learned from the work that we've been engaged in so far.
Did your job as Secretary of Education impact your views on reform and where education is going? I've had a lot of intense experiences over the past five years as secretary. It’s taught me the strengths and virtues of the approach we took in standards-based reform in that it catapulted us from the middle of the pack to the top of the pack as a state. But, at the same time, it taught me the limitations of those strategies, how it’s impossible to achieve our educational goals with our current “schools alone,” undifferentiated approach in dealing with learners who face vastly differing challenges. Despite our best efforts within this framework, we’ve only gotten so far. The gaps remain. So it has crystallized, in my mind, the need for a much bolder, much broader, deeper kind of an approach to youth development and education than the one we inherited from the last century.
I think there's a certain power in this message emerging from leadership in a state, which has done better than anyone has done with this regime, but can still say it’s necessary but not sufficient. We need to move beyond our historic conception of what schooling is to a way of embracing our young people, giving them what they need to be successful, and having systems that differentiate between these young people as much as the healthcare system does, and provides them with the ingredients for success in each and every case.
Do you feel we’re getting close? We’re not there yet. We have a batch processing, mass production system of education, which, at its best, provides everybody an equal treatment for the same amount of time. But that isn't enough to make up for the advantages and disadvantages that happen outside of school, and contribute every bit as much to achievement gaps, as anything that happens in school.
The fact that a few extraordinary schools have been able to defy the odds has not proven that we can defy the odds as a system. We’ve not been able to do that. We’ve got to think more broadly. We’ve got to get outside of this 19th /early 20th-century box that we’ve inherited and start to design a system for this century. I think we can do that. I think that’s appropriate work for the School of Education. I think it’s really the most exciting work of our time.
What was the driving force to bring you back to HGSE? The people and the relationships here; the amazing work in research, policy, and practice that happens in this institution; and the commitment to equity that exists in this community of scholars. On the practical level, the freedom to construct an agenda, to focus on what’s important in terms of educational reform as we go forward, the opportunity to be reflective, to travel and learn from effective practice in the field. These are many things I'm unable to do when I'm working in government that I can do here.
What will your role be at HGSE in the upcoming year? I'm going to continue to teach and advise our students. I’ll continue to focus on education reform, particularly on the state’s role in school reform. But the larger theme of my work is going to focus on envisioning and designing a 21st-century learning system that prepares all children for success. I want to keep working at solving the problem that, notwithstanding the great efforts we’ve made in Massachusetts over a couple of decades in setting high goals, measuring progress, holding people accountable, and investing and building the capacity of the system to deliver, we’ve still been — however successful we’ve been comparatively — unsuccessful at: closing persistent achievement gaps. This suggests to me that schools alone are not enough, and that we need to broaden and deepen our approach, and basically build a new engine to drive, not only education, but youth development in our society.
I feel like the most challenging, educational work going forward is to envision what that new engine looks like. What are its component parts and how do they fit together? We’re working on a lot of those system parts already: early childhood education, technology, extended learning time, wraparound health and human services, career readiness, closing enrichment gaps, etc. However, we don’t have a vision of how these essential parts fit into an integrated, comprehensive whole. Such a vision is a necessary North Star toward which to navigate future reform initiatives.
We need to come to grips with what it’s going to take to genuinely deliver on the promise of educating all students to a high level, which I think is now very much in our national interest to do. In other words, we can't build this economy, we can't sustain the economy, we can't sustain our democracy, we can’t grow personal and societal prosperity unless we educate virtually all of our children to a level that we previously reserved for an elite few. And we haven't been able to do that yet.
Our challenges are clear and they line up with socioeconomic status, students with disabilities, and English language learners. And it’s going to take an approach that’s more potent than just what we can accomplish in K–12 schools in the merely 20 percent of children’s waking hours that they spend in those institutions. It’s time to start projecting an integrated vision of what a more holistic approach looks like, and how we navigate from where we are to that much more powerful, robust system.
So I’d like to do some work on envisioning that and doing some really design work of what a 21st-century learning system actually looks like. So I hope to teach a course on that topic and to create some kind of an institute for the exploration of these subjects that would have a national presence, as well as a presence in the school of education.
Do you think your experience as Secretary of Education will impact your role as a teacher at HGSE? Yes. Any time you have a direct experience to inform your beliefs or your theory about how to do the work of education policy it adds power to your teaching. I think it resonates with students. It enhances your credibility as a faculty member. And it illustrates the points that you're trying to make in a more effective way than just a theorem or an axiom. However, maybe more importantly, experience can cause you to rethink your theory in the first place. For the past six years, I’ve operated in a realm of trying to use scarce resources and create possibilities within a highly constrained, political environment. That’s a very different way of formulating strategy than it is to do it on the basis of research. Where does the evidence take us? Which, in turn, is a different way than having conversations with practitioners and saying, “Well, what do you need to get the job done?”
Somehow it is bringing all of that together. As I often say to students, politics is the way we decide things. It’s a legitimate system. It’s a way in which we make decisions about tough issues and differences of opinion about strategies and theories and ways of achieving our goals. So, we shouldn’t try to wash our hands of that, or condescend to the political process. But we should be aware of it and skilled in it because our capacity to do what we think is right on behalf of children, what we think is supported by the evidence, and effective in terms of the research that undergirds it, won't be able to get done unless we know how to work the system by which we make decisions in this country. And so it behooves you, if you have an interest in making a difference in the lives of children, to understand the policymaking environment, and how to be effective in that environment. My most recent experience gives me a lot of direct engagement with that and I hope to translate that in ways that will be helpful to students.