Understanding MassCore: Academic Standards in BPS


On April 30 the Boys and Girls Club, BPS, and we hosted an event to support BPS’ High School Working Groups, established by Interim Superintendent Laura Perille to bring BPS High Schools to the next level. Collaborative sessions were guided by a BPS leader of each working group, and there was great energy and enthusiasm in the room to stay connected to this work. 

In the spirit of enrichment and connectivity, we offer this three part series on the topic of MassCore. Part 1 features a blog post: Understanding MassCore, and a podcast that looks at the current context of graduation requirements in BPS High Schools. Stay tuned for parts two and three that will be released over the next two Wednesdays in podcast form, and include a fascinating discussion with Paul Reville


Understanding MassCore

It’s (allegedly) springtime in Boston, which means school commencement season is upon us. So let’s meet three different high school graduates and see if we can make a prediction about their future...

  • Student #1 had near perfect attendance in high school, worked hard, but managed only mediocre grades in classes that were also kind of mediocre in terms of the challenge of the content.

  • Student #2, in spite of less-than-perfect attendance, had a strong GPA, and also took a fairly light course load.

  • Student #3 also missed more days of school than we’d like to see, had so-so grades, but took a full load of challenging courses each year.

Who do you think has the best shot at walking across a stage four years later with a college diploma in hand, which we know is a critical ticket for these high school grads to punch in order to enter the middle class? 
If you guessed Student #3, you’ve probably been around high schools for a while. Or perhaps you’ve already read the critically important report put out by the Boston Opportunity Agenda that explores how indicators from BPS high school students’ experiences line up with their success in 2- and 4- year colleges. The authors look at things like grades, attendance and the rigor of students’ coursework to see how those factors align with post-secondary enrollment and completion.

We don’t want to oversimplify the findings of this research, so we urge you to read the whole report. But the data show that students who completed a course of study known as the MassCore had a clear leg up in college over their peers who did not. And we also learned in the report that this is a particular pain-point for BPS, where only 27% of high school graduates that were tracked in the Opportunity Agenda study completed the MassCore curriculum. 

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So, what is MassCore?

In the most basic sense, it’s the following:

  • 4 years of Math

  • 4 years of English

  • 3 years of lab-based Science

  • 3 years of History

  • 2 years of studying the same Foreign Language

  • 1 course in the Arts (at least) 

  • 5 additional core courses

  • Some type of Physical Education experience each year

Part 2 of this series, next week's podcast, delves into this topic and features a fascinating interview with Paul Reville, a former Chair of the Board of Education and Secretary of Education who was instrumental in putting the MassCore policy in place over a decade ago.

BPS is now studying  what it would take to set the MassCore framework as the baseline graduation requirement for all of its high school students. That would represent a major shift in policy -- but at least on paper, that move might not be as heavy of a lift as it may seem. Our understanding is that most BPS high schools already prescribe the requisite number of core content classes for students and are mainly lacking the Foreign Language and Physical Education component of MassCore.

That means the real challenge ahead for the district is not just about requiring the right number of courses for a high school diploma. The difficult work lies in figuring out how to provide the right level of support to ensure those courses are intellectually engaging and rigorous.

This is not just a Boston problem. The Opportunity Myth study by TNTP shows how far we as a nation have to go in meeting that goal. TNTP analyzed over 1,000 lessons and  20,000 pieces of student work across 5 districts to get a sense of how frequently kids felt engaged and challenged. What they found was striking: 4 out of 10 classrooms with a majority of students of color never received a single grade-level assignment.

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We’ve never met a teacher or a school leader who didn’t want their students to be challenged with engaging, thoughtful work every day. We know that the absence of MassCore in BPS is not because our educators aren’t motivated to hold students to high academic expectations. One of the key questions to moving this forward is: what support is needed to design and deliver tasks that are consistently motivating and challenging students?

Now is the time for all of us to rally around BPS as it thoughtfully implements any shifts in graduation policies in a manner that advances the kind of teaching and learning that will truly prepare our students for success after high school.

Click the below to hear part 1 of our Understanding MassCore Podcast.