Public Policy Updates: May Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had their May meeting in Everett on May 21. The agenda is online here; the video of the meeting can be accessed here.
The Board opened with public comment.
There was public comment referencing the recent Commonwealth Beacon piece referencing widening of the achievement gap in Massachusetts, and arguing for more granular sharing of student data, which is redacted below set numbers so as to preserve student privacy.
The new director of the Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy Charter School, whose charter was recommended at the meeting for probation, spoke of her plans for the school.
Two residents of the city of Everett spoke of their concerns regarding “the political machine running our city and schools.” They outlined concerns with the use of space; with overcrowding while a purchased former Catholic school is not used; of the superintendent search in which “somehow this nationwide search ended up with an Everett guy,” and of retribution against those who speak out. They called for more attention to be paid to the Everett Public Schools.

Chair Katherine Craven announced that the Board would meet virtually on the evening of June 17 for a presentation by Harvard economist Thomas Kane on the research regarding the achievement gap referenced above. The Board will then meet as usual on the 18th, and then meet jointly with the Board of Higher Education on June 20.
Secretary Patrick Tutwiler reminded all listening that the FAFSA still can be completed; MassGrants, for students attending Massachusetts public colleges and universities, has a deadline of July 1 now.
Acting Commissioner Russell Johnston said that the Lawrence receivership board voted 5-2 to hire Ralph Carrero as next superintendent; that decision now comes to Johnston, who is reviewing all information. The Southbridge, School Committee voted to adopt local expectations in their work with the Department. The Holyoke School Committee is continuing to work on their transition plan out of receivership. Felix Virtual Charter’s leadership is meeting weekly with DESE staff, who plan to come back to the Board in the fall with a tuition rate. The Brockton Public Schools continue to receiver support aligned with general targeted assistance. There is good news on chronic absenteeism, which as of March now below 20%, but Johnston noted that pre-pandemic, it was 13%. The state’s federal ESSA plan was adopted in 2017; the U.S. Department of Education has asked that the plans be updated, and the proposed amendment is open for public comment until June 7.

Chair Craven said that the extended RFP period had yielded an additional response for the search for a new Commissioner; both RFPs would be reviewed later this week to see if either met the requirements.

The Boston Public Schools were present to update the Board on progress on their agreement with the Department. Johnston noted that it was the second year of the plan in introducing Superintendent Mary Skipper and Boston School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson. Skipper said the district “has made steady progress” to address decades of opportunity gaps and is “laying a solid foundation.” She recognized that all changes needed will not happen overnight; progress “must be the measure of our success.” Her presentation focused on inclusive education, facilities management, and transportation.
Inclusive education has been organized around:
1. increase access to grade-level learning
2. inclusive deliver of interventions, supports, and services
3. team-based planning and collaboration
4. reset district systems of support and accountability

On facilities, Skipper said there is a new department to manage capital planning. There has been an evaluation of current facilities, resulting in comprehensive datasets that are publicly available. They are shortening planning phases and moving buildings more quickly into design and construction. More work has been done in recent months than has been done in the past 40 years.

On transportation, there have been structural changes to improve on time arrival and cover uncovered routes. There is both a new vendor contract, and a new bus driver contract (with vendor). There are now paid training opportunities. The Boston Public Schools started fully staffed this year with drivers; monitors were fully staffed midway through year. In further efforts to improve service, the district is moving towards three tier bus schedule (7:15; 8:15; 9:15)

Chair Robinson framed her comments in her experience as a lifelong Bostonian,  who was one of only 10 Black students in her 1966 graduating class at Girls’ Latin School; she “has seen and experienced both as a student and a parent the racism and challenges” of the district. She said the district was at a turning point.

Craven, noting her own background of one of the only Boston Public Schools graduates on the Board, said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast;” and asked about approach on corporation. Skipper said that it was crucial to remind that we are one district, “we are not 119 schools.” That requires both self-accountability and district accountability. She said the central office “drastically understaffed in key areas” like special education and multilingual education, which she has moved to fix. Her endeavor is to ensure there are systems that will outlast any one leader.

Member Michael Moriarty said, that while he appreciated a positive tone, he was “having a little difficulty gleaning where we stand overall” and asked about school safety operations. Skipper said, “we see progress not just in checkoffs of the benchmarks,” as there is “just deeper work that needs to be done… sometimes the checkoff box has three boxes under it.” They have ensured there is a staffed safety office, that parents here of events involving their child’s school from the district first. She said also that they recognize the limitations to the things that bring safety, rather than people. The district thus has expanded social emotional positions, and are working in partnerships with clinical resources outside the district. They have created well trained safety specialists, with a new emphasis on community connectors, to ensure what were experiences spilling into T and elsewhere, are defused.

In response to Member Marty West’s question regarding chronic absenteeism, Skipper said that numbers were moving in the direction they wanted. She said further that she sees the “secondary level is a crisis in our country.” Those students “have ability to vote with their feet,” which is different than other grades. She said that high school students had some of the same awakening of choices that some adults did. Students also have let the district know that they need to work for their families to survive, and the district needs to make plans for education to be relevant for students to be able to live as they wish and have career as they wished.

The Board next turned to the proposed goals for the Acting Commissioner. These were presented by Vice Chair Matt Hills and phrased as follows:

     • Policy: 1)Literacy and 2)Student Learning.
DESE has a range of high-quality initiatives and programs that support literacy and other student learning objectives. At the same time, our state has significant challenges from
o learning loss from the pandemic, including widening gaps among student groups
o pre-pandemic “flatlining” and widening gaps among student groups
Our literacy and student learning goals include a summer/September discussion, ending with Interim Commissioner and Board agreement
o A cohesive summary of DESE’s strategy to successfully address these challenges including potential additional initiatives you may introduce
o Realistic options to further accelerate progress
o Specific metrics to use in evaluating progress
     • Governance. Continue developing open, trusting and collaborative relationships with Secretary Tutwiler and the Board to improve decision-making, enhance overall buy-in, and improve student                   learning/other outcomes. Periodic Board updates may include policies and initiatives, specific district initiatives involving DESE, and other priorities. We are not suggesting metrics
     • Community. Continue growing collaborative and trusting relationships with school districts, and community and parent organizations. We are not suggesting metrics

These were passed by the Board.

Regarding the two charter school items, the Benjamin Banneker Charter School request for amendment, to allow it to have a building in Somerville (as the location is in the charter for charter schools) was passed; Johnston said he would impose a subcap of 10 Somerville students as part of this; Somerville has been close to the NSS charter cap for some time. The Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy Charter School was put on probation by vote of the Board, making it subject to a list of conditions proposed by the Commissioner.

Acting Commissioner Johnston next gave the Board an update on the work on the Department’s educational vision, as he is now doing in each meeting. This fell under three categories: the MTEL literacy and communications test; updates to district standards and indicators; and an update on the MCAS contract.
The Department is currently working to update the framework the MTEL assesses to ensure that it is an assessment of culturally and linguistically sustaining communication and literacy skills. The plan is to move the test to assessing: communicating with learners; communicating with families and caregivers; communicating with colleagues and external stakeholders; and literacy. The plan at this time is to move this to public comment next month through September, with implementation starting next year. Member Moriarty attempted to move this towards assessing literacy teaching skills, which it is not an instrument. Member Ericka Fisher said this builds on the research on communicating with students, with families, and how that impacts student achievement. She said to ensure accessibility to the test for a diverse group of future teachers is really about training teachers to be able to reach all learners, by  creating that pipeline of people who know how to engage how to be the best teachers they can be.
The Department recently closed public comment on the revised district standards and indicators, which are the framework under which districts are reviewed. Full changes proposed can be viewed here. The framework was last updated in 2018. There are six standards, which, as they are in state regulation, remain unchanged; each of those has three or four indicators for a total of 21 indicators, and each indicator has a “look for” which are specific practices for each indicator. It is at this more granular level that there are proposed revisions. The intent is for revision is to reflect most recent and highest-quality research around best practices; an explicit equity lens; and a cohesive vision for effective district systems that is aligned to the DESE educational vision. Craven asked why this couldn’t be used to determine which literacy curriculum was being used in districts, and was told that, while that information can be requested by the Commissioner, it cannot be required.
As the current MCAS contract expires next month, the Department started the procurement process in June 2022. There were three responses to the bid, which were reviewed by equal representation of the Department and districts. The decision was unanimous for Cognia; negotiations opened in the winter, and the new contract was signed in May for a three year contract with option to renew in FY28 and FY29. The total five year costs $179.6M; annual costs are in line with recent years but with new components. These include:
o continuing rollout of 8th grade civics test (2024-25)
o science in grades 5 and 8 (operational in 2025-26)
o revisions in ELA test to decrease testing time; reduction of number of essays; stand alone items to test language standards
o translation of Spanish in grades 3-8 in math, science, and civics, in addition to math and science in high school (currently offered)
o increase use of automated scoring; portal for families and caregivers to access results directly and receive other resources and information
In response to a question from Member West, it was noted that this is keeps the educator-focused development of the past. This is also not intended as a test that informs instruction the next day, as there are many other assessments that do that. This is a summative assessment.

The Board then received a brief update on the Senate budget, then in deliberations. CFO Bill Bell also said that as of end of April, the claim rate is at 60%for ESSER III. That leaves about $669M left to claim; he expects some districts to use late liquidation.