Public Policy Updates: May Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on May 23 at 9 am. The agenda is here, 

The Board opened with two public comments, both on topics they have previously spoken on: one relating what they see as lacks in the state’s gifted education to the meeting presentation on the vision of the Department and the superintendent of TECCA again asking to meet on remote MCAS administration.

Vice Chair Matt Hills briefly noted that the subcommittee on the evaluation of the Commissioner had met. They will receive a self-evaluation from the Commissioner, and then the subcommittee members will meet individually with each Board member before compiling the Commissioner’s evaluation for the June meeting.

Secretary Patrick Tutwiler noted the excitement with which he views the Senate budget, particularly the $1M set aside for mental health screening, saying he would comment more when the Board got to their section on budget.

Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said it has been a busy month of traveling across the state, highlighting in particularly recent events honoring teachers. Regarding Boston, Riley said the district has compiled reports on four areas–safety, special ed, transportation, and data–and are working on a more detailed plan. He said,  “we’ll be looking on next year as a bellwether year.” Chair Katherine Craven asked what progress has been made already from this time last year. Riley said that progress is being made not only in assessment but in the beginning of the planning He said,  “Obviously, the Boston administration came before us and said they have this. We’ll know in the fall.”

The Board then moved on to an overview of early college in the state, outlining recent program expansion and state funding supporting it. There are now now 48 designated programs involving 58 high schools, and the state is projecting 8200 students across the state being involved next year. There was not further data shared regarding the students involved, but it was stated that early college students succeed in college at a higher rate despite earlier academic levels. The first early college students are as yet in their third year of college at the most, so outcomes in terms of college completion are not yet available. In response to Board questions, it was noted that scheduling is one of the challenges in working with the program, and thus one of the requirements in spelling it out. Member Michael Moriarty referred to early college as “good stuff without the bad stuff,” saying it is “the way government is supposed to be working” in how it has crossed political and administrative lines.

The Board then received a report on early literacy; in response to a question, Commissioner Riley said he is using the term “evidence-based literacy,” as he feels the term “science of reading…has been politicized.” The presentation opened with the statistic that only 44% of MA third graders met or exceeded expectations on ELA MCAS last year. The report called attention to the Mass Literacy Initiative. The presentation also outlined state grants including targeted grants for screening assessments; GLEAM grant; accelerating literacy learning grants. Regarding educator preparation,  beginning in 2024, programs will be evaluated on literacy-specific preparation, with programs able now to opt-in to a formative reviews. The report also noted the rising use of high quality instructional materials, in part informed by the state’s CURATE review of curricular materials.
In response to a question by Member Moriarty, the Board was told that the state does not know what every district uses for curriculum, though they have requested that information. Chair Craven then initiated a discussion as to how to “incentivize” school committees (“since they select curriculum”) moving to curricula endorsed by the state as “high quality,” with Craven recalling a discussion she has had with Member Moriarty about “why we haven’t mandated” particular curricula for all. Moriarty noted that it would be “a moving target…I do question why it is okay to ignore a deep level of technical assistance we provide to our districts.” Member Darlene Lombos said, “”we have a solution that we want to propose and it’s a bottom up process.” Member Paymon Rouhanifard asked if it were traditionally lower performing districts that have or haven’t adopted; Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston said that adoption was very high among such districts. Moriarty observed that one cannot simply drop a curriculum on a teachers’ desk, that ongoing professional development and support is necessary for success. Member Mary Ann Stewart suggested perhaps the higher performing districts may be more reluctant to adopt; kids often come in reading, and issues with the curriculum may be masked. Member Marty West said that adoption of such curriculum may be even more important there, as it’s the high performing districts “where the norms for good practice come from.”

The Board then heard from a panel convened by the Department of districts that have either banned or severely restricted cell phone use in schools. Commissioner Riley introduced the panel by saying that the Department would be likely to create a $1M matching grant program for districts moving towards more restrictive policies, noting it was “not a mandate at this time…[but we are] certainly interested in piloting more of this.” In the ensuing discussion, Member Stewart asked about cell phones as a technological tool.

The receiver of Holyoke Public Schools, Anthony Soto, next spoke to their Board regarding the district, noting he is a lifelong resident of Holyoke. He also related his presentation to two earlier discussions, saying that they’d barred cell phone use at the middle school and planned to extend that upward in the coming years, and that they were also implementing early literacy across the district. Soto opened his time in Holyoke with listening sessions with the community. He outlined the five focus areas emerging from their strategic planning process: early literacy, learning experiences, inclusion, whole child, educator development. He highlighted their opportunity academies, working on dropout rate and bringing students back to an environment that works for them. He noted students in advanced coursework now more closely mirror demographics of the district. With the implementation of the Student Opportunity Act, Holyoke Public Schools has begun to have the resources they need; even so, Soto said challenges remain: staffing consistency and vacancies; mental health needs for students; more developed multi-tiered system of supports; more students needing out of district placements. The district has adopted the motto “Junto Podemos” or “Together we can.”
Asked by Hills what has been easier under receivership, Soto cited their district rezoning and their cell phone policy; he said what was tougher was everyone pointing their finger at him. Lombos asked the Commissioner “what are the next steps, given all this progress, in getting out of receivership?” Riley said, “we have been meeting with the mayor and receiver in Holyoke…It’s an ongoing process.” He added, “We don’t want to be hasty; there could be unintended financial consequences.” Craven said when receivership was discussed about Boston, “we were hit with a whole lot of rhetoric” and with this data, “we can see that’s not true.”

Changes to the regulations regarding virtual schools were adopted without discussion.

The annual request that the Board delegate their authority to the Commissioner to approve management contracts for charter schools over the summer, so the Board does not have to convene to exercise this oversight was outlined with additional attention this year. The three contracts expected are renewals of those for for Excel Academy Charter School and UP Academy Charter School of Dorchester, plus a new one of the newly approved Worcester Cultural Academy Charter School with Old Sturbridge Village, Inc, a relationship into which the Worcester School Committee has requested state investigation. Member Lombos made a motion for the Worcester charter to be considered separately. During discussion of this amendment, Member West asked why she had made the motion: Was she proposing that they convene? He added, “I hope you aren’t proposing that we would keep the school from moving forward.” Lombos noted the outstanding questions regarding the relationship. Moriarty noted that this was “the usual process,” and Craven said that the state had nothing to audit until the contract was signed. The proposed amendment to consider the Worcester charter separately failed, 2-9 (Lombos and Stewart in favor); the original motion to delegate authority passed, 9-2 (Lombos and Stewart opposed).

The Department then outlined a Departmental vision. This reviewed the Commissioner’s intake plan of 2019, reviewed current projected, and worked to align them. This was not presented as subject to public review or to Board vote.

Chair Craven said the Board would take up the budget update at their June meeting, after the Senate has completed deliberation, and the meeting adjourned.