November 2023 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met virtually on November 21, 2023. The agenda is here; the livestream is here.

The meeting opened with public comment.
Noah Berger of the Mass Teachers Association called attention to the foundation budget inflation rate, capped by the Student Opportunity Act at 4.5%, noting that it would, if uncapped, have been much higher last year, and was projected at this time to be 1% for the coming year, making the increase in aid $300M less than last year. He asked that this be set forward as a priority in the Board’s request to the Governor. He also agreed with efforts on mental health supports, efforts to diversify educator workforce, and early literacy, adding also paid family medical leave and additional pay for educational support professionals.
Both Sandra Makhlouta and Dr. Mary Grace Stewart requested a commission on gifted education. Gerry Mroz expressed concern for training in gifted education and in literacy.
Deb McCarthy, vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, announced that the MTA has surpassed the number of signatures needed for the ballot question regarding the MCAS.
Yuval Levy, a senior at Brookline High School, and Sarah Marzugi, a sophomore at Holliston High School, spoke on the rise of antisemitism in schools, reporting on their own and their classmates’ experiences. Marzugi closed “no student should feel threatened, unwelcomed, or ashamed of their religion.”
Three members of the Boston Public Schools task force on English learners who resigned in protest over BPS’s plan–Dr. Maria Serpa, John Mudd, and Dr. Fabian Torres-Ardila– all spoke regarding the plan for the district, expressing concern regarding the assignment of English learners to English immersion classrooms. Quoting a student on their experience in such a classroom, Dr. Serpa said,  “given the choice, I would like to forget it ever happened…the one emotion I can clearly remember experiencing that year is fear.” Mr. Mudd said that the plan failed to take advantage of flexibility under the LOOK Act. Dr. Torres-Aridila said that this misrepresents the role that a first language plays in developing a second one, and requested that the Department work with school districts to inform families of their options;  work with principals to increase hiring of bilingual teachers; and increase materials in home languages of students.

Chair Craven thanked the Board for their attendance at the Board retreat earlier this month, saying she thought the discussion had been good on early literacy, and said that as funding is considered, weighting or measuring to support those adopting literacy curriculum the Department finds to be of high quality. She noted her concern regarding the students discussing antisemitism. She said she has been discussing with the Commissioner what it means to have a graduation requirement, as the constitutional language of “cherish” doesn’t just mean money alone; it means “making sure that it isn’t a frivolous exercise” in spending money. She asked that the planned December update on the Boston Public Schools include updates on transportation, safe facilities, and equitable access in addition to the English learners discussion already noted in public comment.

Commissioner Riley, after noting that the Department is in the process of moving to Everett, said that he and the Secretary had recently attended both the Miliken Awards and the Mass Teacher of the Year. He noted that the Board could go deeper on the issues of hate crimes, and of the competency determination on the next agenda.

The Board then turned to their FY25 budget recommendation, which centers on three priorities:  early literacy, mental health supports, and teacher diversity. Member Stewart asked when the issue of inflation should be raised; the Commissioner suggested it be discussed at the December meeting. The priorities passed.

The Commissioner then presented his proposed measures of progress, as follows:

  1. By 2026, the state will return to pre-pandemic levels (or higher) of the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on the MCAS:
    a. Increase grades 3-8 ELA by 10 percentage points to 52 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations
    b. Increase grade 10 ELA by 5 percentage points to 63 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations
    c. Increase grades 3-8 Math by 8 percentage points to 49 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations
  2. Increase grade 10 Math by 9 percentage points to 59 percent of students meeting or exceeding expectations
  3. By 2026, the state will return to pre-pandemic levels (or lower) of the percentage of students who are chronically absent:
    a. Decrease the non-high school chronic absenteeism rate by at least 9.4 percentage points to 9.0 percent
    b. Decrease the high school chronic absenteeism rate by at least 9.1 percentage points to 17.3 percent
  4. By 2026, at least 85,000 high-school students will be enrolled in a designated high school college-and-career pathway or program (e.g., Career and Technical Education, including Chapter 74 and “After Dark” programs, Innovation Career Pathways, and Early College).
  5. By 2026, the percentage of diverse staff in schools and districts will increase by at least 4 points to 17.9 percent.
  6. By 2027, the state will offer structured professional learning on evidence-based practices for literacy for all teachers and administrators with responsibility for early literacy.

There was some discussion on interim steps towards these longer goals; the goals were passed by the Board.

The Board then turned to a discussion regarding chronic absenteeism, with the Commissioner building on his last month’s initial statement regarding changing the weight of chronic absenteeism in the state accountability system. Statewide, the rate has come down from high  of 29.9% in ’21 to 22% in ’23; it was just under 13% in 2019. The rate in elementary school alone has doubled from before 2019; in high school, nearly a third of students are chronically absent. There is a clear correlation between students chronic absenteeism and poorer performance on MCAS. In presenting this, changing the accountability system was framed as “one of the biggest levers [the Department] has.” Questions that will need to be considered as part of the proposed change:

  • how much of a change should the Department be putting on it
  • criterion reference system on a how a school is doing on meeting its own targets (normative and criterion references)
  • where does the weighting come from: “you only have 100% of the pie” so something will need to be smaller
  • there are multiple years of data: which years will weigh more heavily?
  • if achievement/growth impacted: have met federal requirement that achievement + growth are majority
  • impact on charter cap if it impacts achievement + growth
  • nominal versus effective weighing (be careful that your weighting is really about things that are different)

AAAC is meeting on December 6 for this discussion, at which the Department will hear any feedback on proposed change. They also  will have a public comment period, but this is not a regulatory change, thus length of public comment period is discretionary. The Board would then vote, and it would go to U.S. Department of Ed (as would require an addendum in the state’s ESSA plan).
Much of the Board expressed initial support for such a change. Student member Ella Gardner said, “no matter what curriculum changes or grants or things we throw at schools…the kids aren’t there…I sit many bare classrooms because kids just aren’t in school.” Member Moriarty said it was “rife with unintended consequences,” noting the recent case in Mashpee of a student who was being treated for sickle cell anemia whose family was summoned before the district attorney. He also listed off homelessness and lack of transportation. While he was told that there is an appeals process, the Department’s measure is if the child was or was not in school. Member Fisher asked about the proposed retroactive nature suggested in the discussion, saying “I do worry about judgment we make on that data, that they haven’t have the resources or support…I worry that skews data on what that data’s really telling us.” Member Stewart asked, as she did last month, about engagement with students and families. Assistant Secretary Tom Moreau, sitting in for Secretary Tutwiler, asked when, for how long, and what the process would be for returning to the prior system. It was noted to the Board that this was placed on this month’s agenda without, as yet, details, so that districts might know it was the Department’s intention.

The Board then received a report on districts updating their literacy curricular materials from Katherine Tarca of the Department and Worcester Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marie Morse and Manager of Curriculum and Learning Dr. Magdalena Ganias, who walked the Board through the process the Worcester Public Schools used in evaluated literacy curriculum, piloting it, and then making a decision on what curriculum to proceed with. Initially, programs were evaluated on curriculum alignment; systematic and explicit phonics instruction; content skills and understanding; universal design for learning; multilingual supports strategically embedded; special education supports and scaffolds; culturally responsive pedagogy; and quality of formative and summative assessments. Dr. Morse said, “if we know better, we need to do better…[and] change can be very very hard, but change was a non-negotiable.” Dr. Ganias noted the multiyear implementation process and the ongoing support for teachers. Dr. Morse noted it’s “raised the level of discourse immediately.”
Vice chair Hills inquired as to the impact of funding on speed of adaptation. Dr. Morse noted “money is always an issue” and that the district will need to continue to spend money to support the program. Member Moriarty praised the plan. Member Fisher asked what they might have found in gaps in teachers’ training; Dr. Morse said the district, which has teachers of all generations, was approaching from a “glass half full” perspective of all having something to contribute and said that they’re grateful for the colleges that they have.

Wyvonne Stevens-Carter then presented on the Department’s adult learning program.  The motto is “live to learn.” They put no-cost quality instruction, advising, job training, and career pathways within reach of all adult students in Massachusetts. The intent is to put public education within reach of everyone.