Public Policy Update: January 2024 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held their January meeting on January 24 at the Department’s new location in Everett.
The agenda of the meeting can be found online here; a livestream of the video of the meeting is here.

Governor Maura Healey has appointed Dálida Rocha to the Board for the labor seat. Member Rocha, a labor and community organizer, is the executive director of Renew US. She is a graduate of Madison Park High School in Boston and the parent of three children in the Worcester Public Schools.

The Board meeting opened with public comment. The meeting opened with a parent from Brookline, a student from Newton, and several parents from Newton speaking of antisemitism in schools. The parent from Brookline shared survey results from an anonymous survey of Jewish and Israeli students at Brookline High School. The student said that the Board cannot allow the support of hate, and asked why schools cannot support Israel as they did Ukraine. Parents noted that their children feel unsafe on a daily basis. One called for the entire curriculum to be vetted to remove anti-Jewish content, with another saying that Israel should not be singled out.
A Lowell Public Schools parent, representing the MTA, spoke of the good work of her children’s school in supporting student attendance, in giving them access to high-quality learning that is of interest, of working on mental health supports. She also noted that transportation issues can also impact student attendance. She called on the Board to support such efforts.
John Mudd, a longtime Boston advocate, spoke of the Boston Public Schools facilities plan and English Learner plan, saying both were inadequate. He said, “I assume you know that neither of these plans were approved by the School Committee; they should be,” and, while “many of us opposed” state takeover of the Boston Public Schools, “…we did not oppose accountability.” Kahris McLaughlin advised the Board to develop an equity committee that is on the ground, and recommended that every school be reviewed every year, using data the Department already has.

During the Chair’s comments, Chair Katherine Craven recognized a panel that she had invited to speak, which was not on the agenda, regarding their experiences since October 7. They noted the importance of antisemitism in schools being properly reported and accounted for. They spoke of a “concerted campaign to discredit Israel,” which started with boycott, divestment, and sanctions and led to delegitimization of Israel as a country. They warned against the use of colonization, apartheid, and genocide as terms used in describing or discussing Israel. They spoke of the importance of Holocaust studies in combating antisemitism. They described liberated ethnic studies as antisemitic, saying that it intends students to feel solidarity with Palestine. They said the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea” is antisemitic and calls for an end to Israel. 
While the Board moved to recognize the teachers visiting, they did return to this for a discussion that was not posted after the recognition. Member Moriarty said that he stood in solidarity with the students who spoke to them in November, and that the Department needs to be more proactive in combating antisemitism in schools. He said that “shouting loudly” doesn’t solve anything, and using terms of genocide and colonizing are “aligned with ancient antisemitic blood libel.” Member Mary Ann Stewart said she was moved by the testimony, and would appreciate having some of the ideas shared again, suggesting that the Department should have a webinar and perhaps the Board should pass a resolution. Chair Katherine Craven said that this come back at a later meeting, with more of a perspective of what is going on with the districts. 

Member Rocha was then given a chance to introduce herself. She took the chance to advise all to take care of themselves after the prior presentation. She said she is a “proud African immigrant,” and spoke of her own Madison Park education and her children’s education in the Worcester Public Schools. 

Secretary Tutwiler wished all a happy new year, saying this administration remains deeply committed to the opportunities that exists for every single student in the Commonwealth
He said that they look forward to delivering that for the year ahead; the theme “stabilize heal transform” is very much the work, as schools are still experiencing challenges “that are many in number and deep in nature.” Without stepping on the Governor’s budget release scheduled for Wednesday, he noted her “articulation of a commitment to universal preK” and “addressing early literacy across the Commonwealth.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Riley thanked the Governor and Secretary for that commitment, noting “our NAEP scores frankly have been flat for a long time, and we’re in danger of falling behind.” He observed that students were not in school in Newton due to the teachers’ strike, commenting we “have to focus on kids first” and that he was heartened by a judge’s decision to “put teeth” into the court order for teachers to end the strike. He said that the Boston Public Schools coming in was subject to scheduling.

The Board then moved to recognize 2024 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year De’Shawn C. Washington and Milken Award winners Michelle (Shelley) Terry and Andrew Rebello. Terry of Plymouth North High School spoke of her love for her department’s use of locally created and curated materials, saying, “what I personally love about my department is we are not required to use a certain program or textbook.” She said, “having the ability to create magic in the what keeps me coming back day after day,” and urged the Board to “put books in people’s hands” and extend education on screentime. Rebello of Diman Regional Vocational introduced himself as a “proud New Bedford High graduate,” and spoke of the work the school has done to improve attendance and graduation. He said they’ve worked to “turn the impossible into the inevitable” and that their motto in this work is “one size fits none.” Washington of Maria Hastings Elementary School in Lexington noted that he is the first Black man to be Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. He said, “building up the child in who they’re going to be and in who they are” is his work. He said, “I am still learning,” and in this year of his being Teacher of the Year, “”The call of service is a real thing…I get to do an awesome activity called listening…what’s happening in our schools, what’s happening in transformative learning.”

The Board next turned to a presentation on school safety by Safe and Healthy Schools Coordinator Anne Gilligan. In introducing the agenda item, the Commissioner said the Governor’s office is doing some additional work with police and fire, so this is an abbreviated report specifically look at evacuation plans and medical/behavioral emergency health plan. Gilligan noted the importance of having “the big three” at the table for planning: school leadership, fire, and police. She noted the Department support in online webpages and in the allocation of federal grants. She praised the collaboration seen between public districts and private schools across the state. 

The Board then took up the Commissioner’s recommended changes to the state accountability system, which are outlined in this memo and incorporated into the system as a draft here. Noting that it is coming up on the sixth anniversary of his starting as Commissioner, Riley said, “we’ve been through some things together…we’ve had some really tough votes before,” and that he sees it as his job to bring forward what he thinks necessary, but whatever the Board decides, “we’re totally fine with it.”
Riley said that chronic absenteeism has “skyrocketed,” and that, while Massachusetts was one of the most improved states in the country last year, one in four children is chronically absent. He said that this proposal is part of a “comprehensive program,” which also involved grants to schools, templates for parent communication, and an advertising campaign featuring the Secretary. He noted that the White House last week urged bold action on chronic absenteeism, that state should add it to their accountability systems if they don’t have it already or to do more if they do. 
He then turned the presentation over to Chief Officer for Data, Assessment, and Accountability Rob Curtin, who outlined with this presentation that two recommendations were before the Board: 

  • adding a year to the data used in chronic absenteeism
  • increasing the weight of the indicator

Regarding the first, the plan since 2018 has been to add years over time; traditionally, DESE has used multiple years on indicators of this kind to give a better sense of performance trends over time. Due to the pandemic, only two years (2022 and 2023) are currently available and are weighted 40/60. The proposal is: 

school percentile, which measures schools against one another, would weigh 2022 at 15%; 2023 at 25%; 2024 at 60% 
target percentile, which is how a school itself is changing over time, would weigh the change in 2022-23 at 40%, and the change in 2023-24 at 60%

Regarding the second, Curtin said this recommendation is “to highlight the importance of this emerging post-pandemic problem.” The proposal increases chronic absenteeism solely in the criterion referenced part–the target of schools, not the weight of schools compared to one another–with normative calculation staying as is; the proposal thus has no impact on school percentiles and on the charter cap calculations.

Curtin noted that with this change, an additional 6% of schools would have moved up into substantial progress towards targets or meeting/exceeding targets last year.  He stressed that the effect of the weighing would be small. This season is the high point of absenteeism, from past experience, as well, with more students attending more days as we head into spring.
This would be a timebound proposal, only for this year, with the language requiring that the Commissioner come back to the Board next year. 
The Board then spoke to the proposal.

Member Ericka Fisher said, “for me, I’m really struggling with this for multiple reasons…this feels like we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit.” As someone in education, she said she wants to see assessment, research, results, then accountability. She wanted to know if it’s the culture, the curriculum, is transportation a problem. She said, “to borrow the words of our Miliken [award winner]: one size fits none…this jump into the accountability system is one size fits none.” She said, “if we change the accountability system, we’re not actually changing the problem…It feels somewhat performative rather than action and solution oriented.” 
Chair Craven argued to Fisher that the accountability system changes behavior and asked that she expound on this point.
Fisher said that “for me, this assumes that schools and districts don’t want kids in seats…I have more faith in our districts.”
The Commissioner commented that this is to view the system as punitive, which he did not agree that it was.

Student member Ela Gardiner said she kept coming back to one key thing, and that is that “I feel that we are failing to recognize that the key stakeholder is the individual student.” The question of why a student is not coming to school is the key. As president of the State Student Advisory Council, she brought the question of why they attend school to them, and the answers largely were twofold: social connection and interest. Students come not only for friends, but for teachers, guidance counselors and others with whom they have made a connection. They also come because they are interested in what they do at school in academics and in extracurricular activities. She said, “ultimately that is what I believe we should be putting our time and our effort.” She also noted that outreach to families only does so much good; ultimately, the students themselves need to feel confident in their decision to go to school.
The Commissioner reiterated that he saw the change as a positive one.

Member Farzana Mohamed asked what the consequences of the changes would be, and why it was being rolled into the accountability system. Riley, noting that it is already in the accountability system, said that it was to “get out in front of some federal directives that may be coming down the pike in the future.” Curtin said, in terms of consequences, schools with very low percentiles can end up being federally reported, or could be named by the state as underperforming, but that much of this is a public reporting exercise. Curtin also confirmed for Mohamed that schools and districts receive this data as a separate metric.

Member Marty West said that he understood the proposal as one of trying to change norms. He said, while some changes from the pandemic were improvements, that state policy makers had indicated that attending school was less important by closing schools during the pandemic. He said that this would focus attendance on school attendance, and, while he didn’t know if it would work, that it was consistent and he was inclined to support it.

Vice Chair Matt Hills said, Hills: “I struggled with the policy part of this for awhile…I’m not able to sit here and say that the policy implications of this are wrong [but]…there’s a lot of analysis behind the top line numbers which I’m not seeing.” He said it seemed to him that at some point, they’re doing harm to the accountability system. He also questioned the process, saying, “I don’t love the idea of getting an email late in the year after the December meeting was cancelled…and that’s the point at which I found out that public comments were open for like two weeks.” He said, “the more we stray from typical practice, the more we cheapen…the outcome.”
The Commissioner agreed that the meeting being cancelled was an issue, but said that this is as early as a proposed change has come forward.
Chair Craven noted that they did not have the information on this proposal ahead of the December meeting.

Chair Craven said, “to me this goes back to…if you want to change the accountability system.” She asked if the Board wants to use them to drive behavior, some go to reward districts that have adopted a science of reading based curriculum? She asked why the Board should limit themselves only to the change proposed, suggesting that the Board could add the use of curriculum that the Department sees as meeting particular standards as an accountability function. She asked, “Why limit ourselves today?”
The Commissioner said, “you’re speaking my language here…I have been worried here about local control…we probably need to give our districts some time” but “I love the idea of being a little more directive on” literacy curriculum.
Curtin said, “the changes you’re discussing, Madam Chair, can’t happen in a one month period of time.” He also described the task force that has begun meeting to look at the state accountability system “from scratch.” 
Craven said that she didn’t want to be stuck with the Board stuck with making changes only when another body comes back, saying, “we’re already in it now.”
Riley noted that districts will say that they don’t have the money to make changes in curriculum,
Craven: “but apparently they didn’t need it for liberated ethnic studies.”
Riley said that this shines a spotlight on the good work that districts are doing and further propels them further.

Member Michael Moriarty, saying that he loved the conversation, said his concern was that if this was voted down, the discussion would end on the topic. He said he preferred a stable accountability system, and that districts, in order plan, should have that lead time. He said, “If I’m reading the room, it’s looking like this is not going to happen” but that he didn’t want that to end the discussion.

The Commissioner said, “Guys, look, I work for you, and I’ll respect whatever you decide. I think we have to talk about curriculum. I do think we have to talk about English learners need five to seven years to be proficient and yet we count them much earlier than that. I’m flexible. I wouldn’t be doing you a service or myself a service if I believe in it, if I didn’t bring it forward.”

Member Rocha said that her concern was with the why, and asked what other elements might push her there. In response to her question about rates this year, Curtin said that rates of absenteeism come down after this point in the school year. Rocha then asked what the urgency was, as they’re coming down; Curtin noted that they can come down further. West interjected that the rates are still higher than they are pre-pandemic. Rocha said, “I need more meat, even though I’m vegan.”

Riley then moved towards ending the discussion; Member Mary Ann Stewart was then recognized. Stewart asked about seed money. She said with five months to go, she was inclined to support this, because there is an opportunity to build in a way that is supportive to schools themselves.

The Board having been presented with a motion that included both changes had to work through how to vote. Vice Chair Hills proposed tabling the entire discussion to February; Curtin noted that nothing could be tabled, as no motion as yet had been made. He said that the weighting of the 2024 data did need to be determined.

Craven asked, “can I go back to my plaintive cry from being at the State of the State?” raising again the question of adding literacy curriculum to the state accountability system. She said, “give me a couple of percentage points” which schools could receive if they had the curriculum or if districts answered what they had. Moriarty noted the Board statutory limitations, saying, “We can’t make laws on our own.”

The Board was presented with a motion that included only the additional years. 
On the original proposal including both changes, the Board voted 7-2 (Stewart and West in favor) against.
On the proposal to add 2024 to the years in the system, the Board voted in favor.

Postponing the budget update to another meeting, the Board then adjourned. 
The next meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, February 27.