Heidi Stevens recalls the day that got her thinking about uprooting her family from California to move to Massachusetts. Frolicking with her boys at a playground in 1998, she wished some teenagers a happy Independence Day.
She was met with blank stares. "You know, the Fourth of July," she offered. Then they smiled and nodded, and she prodded a bit: "Do you know who we got our independence from?" One guessed France, another Mexico, and the last one said the Indians. "They were not kidding," Ms. Stevens says.
She enrolled her older son in first grade that year but wasn't happy with the emphasis on "creative spelling" and art projects. So she traveled to Massachusetts and visited public schools in Northampton, a town that boasts five colleges and universities within a short radius.
"We knew Massachusetts was a fabulous state for public education," she says. And she and her husband, both graphic designers, figured they could work from about anywhere.
The enthusiasm and skill of the second-grade teacher at the school in the Leeds neighborhood of Northampton "blew me away," Stevens says. "Meeting her sealed the deal that we would buy a house in that district."
They haven't been disappointed living in a state that by many measures sets the gold standard for public education in the United States.
In national reading and math tests, the state's fourth- and eighth-graders have scored the best since 2005. Compared with the national average, greater shares of students here graduate from high school and score high on college-level Advanced Placement (AP) exams. The state even compares respectably with some of the top-performing countries.
Education's roots run deep in Massachusetts – home of the first public school in America and some of the best universities in the world. Its success, education leaders say, results primarily from a two-decade commitment to set high standards; hold students, teachers, and schools accountable; and offer funding and other key supports to help them reach expectations.
Other states have looked to the Bay State as a model in recent years as they've tweaked their own education strategies.
Massachusetts is "one of the major success stories in the country," says Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.
But now Massachusetts, like 45 other states and the District of Columbia, is revising its curriculum as part of a collaboration called the Common Core State Standards – a new chapter in education reform premised on the idea that to compete globally, the benchmarks for reading and math in all states need to reflect a richer set of skills to equip students for 21st-century demands.
Massachusetts could be a good test case for whether the Common Core approach lives up to that lofty rhetoric. President Obama has pushed for it through federal funding incentives, though critics say he has strong-armed states into de facto national standards, chipping away at state control.
For some education observers, Massachusetts has broken the axiom "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and is in danger of watering down a key element of its success.
Others say just the opposite – that the new common standards are at least as strong as Massachusetts' previous ones and could catapult more states to heights that the Bay State has already achieved.