Public Policy Reports: October 2023 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met Tuesday, October 24 at 9 am in Malden. The agenda can be found here; the livestream is here.

The Board opened with public comment. There was public comment supporting state mandated acceleration policy for gifted students; among those speaking to this issue was a second grader from Brockton named Elijah. There was also public comment supporting the civics work that has come as a result of the changes in both frameworks and state law, including from Ed O’Connell, member of the Melrose School Committee. Off agenda, there was public comment regarding the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action and a request that the Board read the report of the racial imbalance committee;  the commenter further express concern over the rate of absence among students. Everett Superintendent Priya Tahiliani advocated on behalf of the Keverian school in Everett, for which one subgroup was identified as the bottom 5% across the state; she said that this was not a designation of their work, but one “cannot simplify issues that are complex.” She appealed to the Board to remove this designation. Finally, representatives of the United Way of Central Massachusetts thanked the Board for the after school and out of school rebound grants, as it allowed them to try new things, and to expand things that work.

Chair Craven announced that Member Darlene Lombos has stepped down and thanked her for her service. She said that the Governor would be working to fill the seat soon. She memorialized Charlie Lyons for his work in Massachusetts education.
There was a brief update from Member Mohamed on the Board’s budget subcommittee meeting, as they begin to outline priorities for the FY25 state budget.
Secretary Tutwiler noted last week’s celebration of STEM week. He also spoke of the convening on college admissions that happened Monday, calling it a “wonderful opportunity to declare our values” on the importance of diversity in higher education.
Commissioner Riley echoed Craven’s comments regarding Lyons. He said that there is new research on early literacy: “a redesigned educational system in Massachusetts” coming at Board retreat on November 1. He announced a family summit on Thursday the 26th in Marlborough. He also said that the Boston Public Schools are being invited to December meeting for a discussion.
He also announced that the next two Board meetings would be held at the Executive Office at 1 Ashburton Place in Boston, due to DESE moving to Everett; this was later changed to the November meeting possibly being hosted by the Worcester Public Schools.

The Board first took up a report on chronic absenteeism. Sharing recent headlines, Riley noted that this was not only a Massachusetts issue. He shared statewide chronic absenteeism data overall

statewide absenteeism

and by grade span.

Riley said the Department plans to issue an awareness campaign to work in partnership with families to stress the importance of students attending school. He plans to have a focus on the three quarters of the schools–which he stressed were in every kind of district–that are particularly having challenges. The state will be making $4M available for this work. He said he believed the break in school going culture was the cause for the rise in chronic absenteeism.

The Commissioner took this opportunity to also announce that he will not declare any schools underperforming or chronically underperforming this year. 

A panel of doctors then spoke of their own experiences with absenteeism among their young patients. They noted the services schools provide, the importance of routine, and the presence of nurses providing care at school.
Chair Craven asked how often the Department receives attendance data from districts; most of the time, it is daily. Vice Chair Hills asked if the focus should be on working with districts. Chief Officer for Data, Assessment, and Accountability Rob Curtin said that the Department is able to track it on a pretty routine basis to see where we’re standing during the school year, and to communicate with districts to ensure they’re using the data that they have in their hands in the best possible way.
Riley said that he was seriously considering bringing to the Board an increase in chronic absenteeism in the statewide accountability system.
Member West said he encouraged the Department to “dig into the research further,  saying “schools do have agency” over absenteeism. He was concerned that there was to be no declaration of underperformance this year.
Member Stewart said she was encouraged by the focus on families and asked if there were plans to get feedback from families on this topic. Riley planned to address the family gathering Thursday on this issue.
Member Fisher encouraged the Department to work with those on the ground level: wraparound coordinators, adjustment counselors, and others–to support those who are trained to work on these issues. She expressed concern over a heavier weighing of absenteeism in accountability when at the same time, such work is being funded, urging the Commissioner to allow the districts time to work on the issue.
Member Moriarty outlined what he viewed as the distinction between truancy and absenteeism.
Member Mohamed asked if the Department spoke with families on absenteeism, saying that there are many different causes. Riley said that they’d be working with districts and superintendents.
Tutwiler said that he believed “very deeply” in this, from his time at Lynn as superintendent.

There then was a presentation on civics. Reviewing first the update to the history and social studies frameworks, and the 2018 law, the presentation culminated in a video of 8th grade students at last year’s civics showcase. The aim, the Board was told, was to prepare students to be participants in democratic society and a complex world, which requires civic knowledge, civic dispositions, and civic skills. There is work ahead: there are additional reviews of curricular materials K-12; an expansion of Investigating History for grades 3 and 4; and a rollout of civics MCAS (which includes a performance task).
Student member Ela Gardiner credited civics education with her presence on the Board.

The Commissioner then presented on his goals, which he has divided under three strategic objectives:

  1. whole student: health framework; chronic absenteeism; safe and supportive school environments; mental health and well being; family engagement
  2. deeper learning: high quality instructional materials; approach to early literacy; high dosage tutoring in math and literacy; math programming; acceleration academies; support English learners; students with limited or interrupted
  3. diverse and effective workforce: educator diversity cohort; recruitment and retention; staffing support; pipeline development; supports for emergency licensed educators

Vice Chair Hills advocated for there being 3 or 4 “power goals,” commenting,  Board needs to buy in; Board needs to vote “so we need to know at the end of the year” that this is what was decided. He said, “this isn’t about holding the Department accountable; this is about okay, what worked what didn’t.” Mohamed agreed, saying that it would allow for a midyear correction if needed. Stewart said she was pleased to see family at the center. West said that the part of the “logic model” he saw missing was the outcomes; he’d like to see the impact. Hills said it was less about specific strategies, more about “if we’re addressing the right goals.” This will be discussed further at the Board’s retreat on November 1.

Finally, the Board had a presentation on the state alternative to MTEL pilot. The pilot will end in June 2025, and the intent is for the Department to have recommendations to offer the Board before then. The pilot was to “strengthen equitable access to education” and allow prospective teachers to “demonstrate in other ways while maintaining high standards for literacy skills and content knowledge.” There are five approved alternatives for communications and literacy (877 participants so far); there are 18 approved alternatives for subject matter knowledge (1043 participants so far in MTEL Flex; 56 in preparation program attestation; additional still enrolling). The Center for Analysis for Longitudinal Data in Educational Research (CALDER) has been following the pilot, and presented some of what they have found so far, particularly regarding the demographics of those choosing the alternative, their relative success rates, and the likelihood (so far) of their joining the profession. that said one of the opportunities this pilot is giving us is to bring people into the profession who otherwise wouldn’t have joined (because they didn’t pass the test the first time or never would have tried the MTEL). Director of Educator Effectiveness Claire Abbott said they  hoped in a year or year and a half hope to be able to fill some findings both in terms of expansion of workforce and the impact.

The Board was adjourned; they will next meet for a retreat at the State House on November 1.