Public Policy Updates: December 2021 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met Friday, December 17 at 9 am. The agenda can be found online here; the video is here.

Public testimony included several parents arguing to make masks optional in schools, as well as to limit districts’ abilities to impose local mandates; an eighth grader, noting the inconsistency of athletes need to wear masks in gyms where spectators do not, due to local decisions; and a high school junior, speaking of students gathering maskless outside of school for social events, while going maskless in schools, is frowned on.

There was also a parent who addressed the importance of evidence-based literacy curriculum.

In opening the meeting, Chair Katherine Craven addressed the public testimony: “we appreciate the frustration, we experience it ourselves, we’re feeling it ourselves.” She pressed the Commissioner on what she called “metrics for success,” asking for an offramp to needing mitigation from the pandemic in schools.

Secretary James Peyser ran through the allocations within the recently passed and signed ARP bill for education: $100M for ventilation in K-12, skills capital grants; $25M for other vocational/tech initiatives, $25M for YouthWorks, $10M for young adults who aged out, $10M for workforce in 766 schools, $10M for teacher diversity, $1M for training and assessing interpreters.

Commissioner Riley noted that there will be a report on vocational admission in January.

The Board then took up an early literacy update. While it was not mentioned during the discussion, some of it was reflective of recent reporting around popular reading programs.

Senior Associate Commissioner Heather Peske noted that the attention paid to early literacy had only intensified during the pandemic. Katherine Tarca, director of literacy and humanities, said, “It’s well known by this Board that achieving proficient literacy skills by grade three is a key to our students’ future success” and listed a number of longer term outcomes she said were related. She then reviewed the most recent statewide data regarding literacy, noting that scores among Black and Hispanic students declined from 2019 and the gap widened.Jennifer Hogan, literacy coordinator for Pentucket Regional School District, then spoke of her district’s shift from a “balanced” literacy program. The district created a literacy plan, training teachers in evidence-based practices, creating smaller reading groups and hiring additional staff to work with them through tiered instruction. Peske then noted that the intent of the Department is to require balanced literacy of all new all early childhood, elementary, moderate disability teachers by 2023-24 through work through the licensure programs.

Member Michael Moriarty noted that the grassroots of those interested in this subject and the regulatory of the Board are all “rowing in the same direction” on this issue. He wonders if particular curriculum or kinds of curriculum should be mandated. Vice-Chair James Morton asked about the connection with early childhood ed. Student member Eleni Carris Livingston asked about the connection with parents, at which it was noted that parents have been attending DESE events that are intended for educators. Member Martin West, noting that it takes a long time to change higher education, wondered about “speeding this along” in ensuring that new teachers are trained in such literacy practices.Peske said the state goal is tied to the formal review process for licensure programs.Member Amanda Fernández spoke of the importance of parent engagement. Member Darlene Lombos asked what culturally responsive looks like; this includes books in which students can see themselves, and selecting topics of interest and relevance, while having continual involvement with families.

Commissioner Riley next gave his monthly COVID response update. While he had planned an announcement regarding a decision on the mask mandate, but with omicron, that has now been pushed back to next month. The state has been further refining the test and stay program, now including children who attend before and after school EEC programs. Board members then did hear from a doctor at Children’s Hospital, who spoke of the children’s COVID-19 vaccine being safe and effective. She said while children don’t tend to get COVID “they are not immune to serious outcomes” and there is some evidence that they spread COVID to adults. Among children, 172 have died; it is among the top ten causes of death this past year for this age group.

To a question regarding side effects, the Board was told that COVID was worse. The Board learned that COVID can be spread even by those who are vaccinated. Regarding districts that have moved mask optional, the hope is that the community is also highly vaccinated. Craven asked Riley “what’s the measure of success here?” Riley said “we’re a local control state.” Riley noted the need for boosters to be encouraged for adults in schools, lest too many infections imperil in person learning.

After a recess, the Board briefly went back to the literacy discussion, in which Moriarty said that practices should be looked at in districts in which fewer than half the students are reading at grade level. Peyser stressed the need for “screenings and assessments” to ensure students aren’t falling off track. He said, “it may need a little more push on our part…building a coalition of the willing may be the best path to get there” but it’s a slow process and our children “don’t have the time to wait.”

The Board then voted their budget priorities for next fiscal year with no discussion.

The Board then received an update on the educator diversification project; the presentation is here.

In working to diversify the teaching force, the Department has started with three overarching main reasons why people of color don’t enter teaching:
1. belief there are better financial rewards in other professions
2. financial and testing barriers to entering the profession
3. negative experience in K-12 education

The intent then is for the Department to respond to that by:
1. provide financial supports and benefits to educators of color
2. advertise the benefits of becoming a teacher
3. improve the experiences of students and teachers in our schools

The state will be creating a data dashboard to share and track this information.

West would like to see it tracked relative to students of color: what are the chances that a student of color will have an educator of color? Morton asked about partnering with community organizations to get in front of potential educators. To the student member’s question regarding isolation of educators of color, the work around unconscious bias was briefly discussed. Lombos noted again the issues with the MTEL in pushing people out of the field. Craven noted that Massachusetts was asked to send a one pager to the White House on this.

The Board then heard of the proposed student achievement award in MCAS. Riley opened by noting that students of color “who were initially designated as gifted lost that designation within a few years” in past reports the Board has seen. He said,  “certainly part of the reason may be that we aren’t challenging our kids and meeting them where they are,” and he is interested in piloting competency-based schools. He said “but there may be a communication problem…they may never have been told that they are having this achievement.” He said, “while this one is based on strict achievement…I’m just as interested in improvement.”

“I also wonder sometimes if we talk more about the consequences than the celebrations for our kids,” said Riley.Regina Robinson, Deputy Commissioner, said that this is student-centered; she said, “we’re able to present some good news…to shine some light on students who have done a good job in the pandemic.”  Shay Edmond, Senior Associate Commissioner for Strategic Initiatives, said the thank you notes, which would not be required, but instead asking “how do we ensure that teachers that have had the opportunity of teaching them are aware of that successes?”

Hills said “as a Board member, I feel that this is what we want to see: new ways of thinking from the team, new ways of thinking about issues; they don’t have to be big picture policy issues…I think it’s a good direction.” He said, “This is the mark of a successful management team and the way you interact with the Board.” Member Mary Ann Stewart said the proposal raised several caution flags to here ; “I think we all need to be aware that for high needs students…many teachers would need to work with the student to help them write a thank you note.” Carris Livingstone said the student advisory council noted the contentious nature of MCAS. She also noted that other students who are high achieving don’t write thank you notes; is the connoation that these students could not have made it without special help? West said this raised some concerns with this, paralleling as it does research that was done on paying students for higher grades; this had a mixed record. Fernández:asked what it meant that students weren’t otherwise being celebrated. Craven said that she was looking to be a Commonwealth Scholar in the 1990’s and didn’t get there because the program was cut. Morton said he’d be interested in additional incentives. The item passed.

As a final matter, the Board discussed the proposal that the MCAS tests for chemistry and for technology and engineering. The numbers of students taking these two science MCAS hasc continued to fall. While this is the case, the Department was at pains to demonstrate that this has no relationship with the number of science courses being taken by students. Nonetheless, several members expressed their concern with this change, as they argued that this would lead to fewer students taking courses  in those subject areas, with Rouhanifard arguing, “we have devalued these subjects.” The plan is for the the test to be given this year and next, but with the class of 2026 to offer them no longer. Fernández asked what indication this gave to jobs in the future. Carris Livingston asked if enough students were taking the tests to set a standard. Curtin noted that the Department has years of data in making determinations. Carris Livingston asked it actually a concern or is it a hypothetical, to which Curtin responded that he didn’t believe there is a relation so far between the assessment and the enrollment in the courses.

Finally, the Board passed the modification of condidations sought by City on a Hill Charter.