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Is top-ranked Massachusetts messing with education success?

Massachusetts public schools produce students who are top in the nation in reading and math. Here's what the state did to get there, and here's why its shift to the new Common Core standards worries some experts.

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Rising fourth-graders show their teacher their books about marine animals at a free summer program focusing on math and language arts in Boston on Aug 1.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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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.

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