Public Policy Updates: June 2020 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on Tuesday, June 30 remotely to close the school year. The agenda is online here; the videos of the meeting (of which there are three in sequence) begin here.

Chair Katherine Craven opened by commenting that the Board intends to continue to allow for some form of remote public comment even after the meetings are back together, as it has allowed for greater participation of more people from across the state. She also recognized newly appointed member Darlene Lombos of the Greater Boston Labor Council who is filling the labor seat vacated by Ed Doherty. 

Public comment opened with Ruby Reyes of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, sharing the addition concerns that the Boston Public Schools MOU with the state have added to the stress everyone is under already, as there is little knowledge of the process. DESE, she said, does not have a good record of supporting underserved students, and the timing and lack of information, she said, “is outrageous.” The Student Opportunity Act has been undercut in Governor Baker’s budget, she said, and there is “no realistic way that BPS can improve outcomes” after three months of closure. The district, she said, needs resources, not greater instability.
Several parents testifying in support of the creation of a comprehensive online assessment system with a “low floor and a high ceiling,” connected to a state system of support for all children, but particularly with a concern for gifted children. 

Andre Green of the Somerville School Committee, vice chair of Division IX, said that as the father of a rising first grader, “nothing would make me happier” than getting her back to school. He observed, however, that the Department’s guidance makes it harder to do and will only further inequities. “It’s clear that these guidelines were written to answer the question ‘How do we get students back in the buildings in September?’ not the more important question, ‘How do we best serve and protect our students in the fall?” he said. “Perhaps never before have the words ‘where feasible’ been asked to do so much.” Those districts “with money, space, and populations with resources and without special needs will be able to do more [while]…urban, low-income and high need districts will be faced with a cruel inequitable choice.” Green said that the Department’s guidance sets those districts up “to fail their students in both health and academics…when the simple cold truth is, you have failed those schools, those educators, and most importantly, those students.”

Eric Schildge, who teaches in Newburyport, likewise raised questions with the state guidance, saying that he had assumed that regular testing would feature, which it does not, saying that “really worries me.” He noted the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color; after a mention in the opening letter, “The plan doesn’t seem to address these inequities.” Leaving each district to purchase supplies on its own would drive up costs. He said, “…the plan calls for schools to use overflow space to shift students into small group cohorts. This will likely stress our well-resourced district. It will likely be impossible in districts that are already stretching for space and resources.” Most of the guidance is about reopening schools completely, he noted,”when it seems likely that a second wave of infections is going to require us to curtail in person teaching again in the fall.” He asked if there was both guidance and resources to support that. He said, “this plan seems to have been reversed engineered from our shared goal to get all students back in school as soon as possible,” while he hoped the Department would manage the public’s expectations realistically.

There was testimony related to the guidance being issued later in the meeting regarding early literacy.

Tyrone Mowatt noted that he had offered testimony regarding the inequities of gifted support for Black and brown children last June, at the time the Board was receiving a report on gifted education. There are systemic barriers that hold such children back. He called into question earlier testimony given regarding gifted education, saying it was “wrapped in a false cloak.” It is disingenuous, he said, to state that such assessment compensates for inequities built into the system. He then introduced Latia Paul.
Ms. Paul, who is twelve years old, said that after her experience in elementary school, where there was support and challenge for students who were gifted and Black, she now can’t find people like herself in her new school. She said she wanted to assure gifted Black and Latinx students “you are not alone.” She is concerned that gifted students fall into their schools standards, however low they might be. “Gifted students,” she said, “are not the only ones who should be pushed to succeed.”

Commissioner Riley spoke of the continuing work that needs to be done in making the Department a truly anti-racist agency. Regrettably, the remote link cut out while other members spoke in response to this. Secretary Peyser read a section of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'”
The Board also thanked Dr. Stephen Zrike for his service as the Holyoke receiver, as he becomes superintendent in Salem, and welcomed Dr. Alberto Vázquez Matos as the new Holyoke receiver.

The Board then had a presentation on the remote learning guidance issued by the Department last Thursday. The Commissioner noted that this is preliminary guidance; more in depth and further guidance will be coming later in July. He said, as is emphasized throughout the guidance, that the state has “to plan for in-person instruction…for all our kids.” Stressing the support of the state’s pediatric association, he said that the medical literature “appears to say, at least initially” that children are less likely to get the virus and less likely to spread it. Two pediatricians spoke to the report, commenting “now that we’ve pulled through, we need to work on getting our students back to school.” They said over the past three to five months, they have not been seeing the illness in children, but they have been seeing the impact of school closure on students. It was said that the report was “truly a wonderful balance” and that they have heard from pediatricians looking to share it with their own states. 
Vice Chair Morton asked about the three feet citation rather than six feet as has been seen elsewhere. The response is that in “low risk settings like schools,” three feet with a mask is very little difference than with six feet. The guidance from the pediatricians is that the “harm may be outweighed by potential benefits.” 
Member Hills asked “realistically” what feedback the Department was going to be able to offer on all these plans being submitted. The Commissioner said,”we’re asking districts to begin a feasibility study…to begin to get to in-person instruction.” Once the Department has that and the early August plans, they’ll be reviewing “with the full force of the Department.”
Member Fernández noted that the question of true feasibility lies not only over distancing, but also bus and school year and other considerations. She noted that the conversation did not take into consideration multiple parent concerns; scientific piece is part of the picture, she said, but does not tell the whole story, which lies with impact and implementation. She also heard the concerns of educators.
Member Stewart noted how difficult the past several months have been for students, parents, and educators. She said “putting a priority on staff and safety…isn’t something we’ve heard of” enough during this discussion. She said there was a need to hear from districts, and this underscores the inequities. Stewart said, “we’re going through this process without a state budget…frankly I don’t feel that any of this is possible.”
Secretary Peyser agreed that the state needed to hear from districts, saying we “need to get going on the fiscal and operational implications now,” which requires district planning first. He said that the hope is that the risk in schools will be less than in other settings. In response to a question, one of the doctors said that the AAP had avoided making a list of risk factors for children, but that very few children would need to avoid school. We will “have to adapt.”
Stewart noted that we haven’t seen an illness impact on children because they’ve been at home. She said, “it isn’t always a sense of fear that’s driving concerns here…we have reasonable things we need to look for.” 

The Board then took up emergency regulations, published not long before the meeting, allowing for the guidance that the Commissioner published last Thursday. As an emergency regulation, they are immediately voted upon by the Board without going through a public comment period, though they go out for public comment after being voted on, and expire unless they are renewed. There were few questions, and the regulations were passed. 

CFO Bill Bell then gave a brief update on the state budget. He noted that the Governor had signed a $5.25B spending authority last week to keep state government operating. The Department of Revenue sent out initial guidance that July and possibly August payments would be based on FY20:”what you received in your payments last July is what a community could expect to receive starting tomorrow” with the exception of school choice and charter, which is based instead of June 2020. In terms of FY21, the big thing that is being heard is that they’re wanting a better revenue picture before moving forward. That includes income taxes due in 16 days, “as well as any further revenue support from federal government.” At this point, the state is getting two revenue sources to districts: the ESSER grant, which is a statewide total of $214M, of which $194M is grants to districts based on Title I, with $20M for DESE to fill gaps. As the Governor announced last week, $200 plus million additional is in a school focused COVID-19 relief fund, allocated on per-student basis of $225/pupil from foundation enrollment in House 2. 

The Board received a report on early literacy guidance being created, which is an outgrowth of the 2019 Literacy Strategic Plan, which which set as priorities “high quality core instruction” and “evidence-based early literacy.” This report speaks to the latter. There is grave concern over the disparities among students on third grade reading:

 3rd grade reading

The Department will issue literacy guidance to the field related to early literacy in order:
to provide information about reading and writing acquisition and instruction based in current evidence
to describe evidence-based literacy practice to seek to have used in schools and in ed prep programs
to compile quality instructional resources and useful references
Teaching reading is “an extremely complex activity” and DESE heard in developing the strategic plan of the wish for trusted resources; content will be on the Department website. They have created a new “Literacy Champions” advisory panel, also national and international researches engaged in this work. The Department will be developing guidelines about reading difficulties, and will be capturing video of excellent teaching, plus will offer early grades literacy grant for PD and instructional resources. There will also be Department-led professional development of conference and networks, and they plan to develop free resources PD and curricular materials, plus new tools for ed prep, as well. DESE has also applied for the Comprehensive State Literacy Development grant; they have applied for about $20M from the federal government. It would “extensive support to our high need districts in support.” The awards expected to be announced in August.
Member Moriarty spoke of how “incredibly excited” he is about this work; he said, “systematic racism exists in a lot of different places…and we have to call that out and we have to own it and we have to act with real attention…otherwise whatever statement we want to make is a platitude.” He has seen the impact on children’s lives if they don’t go into fourth grade reading proficiently. “If it doesn’t start right, it doesn’t tend to get right, in any endeavor in life, and that includes K-12 education…something like this cannot stand.”
Member West echoed Moriarty’s enthusiasm, and said he appreciated that it extends into educator preparation as well. He asked about the changes on the MTEL. The revisions will be on the foundations of reading test; the reading specialist test; the general curriculum test; and the early childhood test.
Member Rouhanifard said that he has seen firsthand the importance of phonics, phonemic awareness, and he asked how this work connects to CURATE and the overall curricular network for our schools. It was agreed that curricular materials that are in use in schools often dictate pedagogy and how students are taught. In review, the Department has discovered that there are gaps in much material, “there is no one thing that a school can go out and buy.” It was further noted that high level literacy development includes phonics and phonemic awareness, and also, equally important, includes authentic engagement with text and language and language-based materials; “both of those are evidence-based practices and both of those are provided in our guidance.”
Member Stewart said “notwithstanding the anti-racist MCAS,” there are a whole cohort of students that are far behind due to COVID. There is a need for low or no-cost assessments. She also asked about outreach for parents. The plan is for the work to be web based and interactive, and it is designed to be navigable by parents and families. They have also done work on low-cost assessments.
Vice Chair Morton said that at another time, he’d like to hear a report on the importance of this work. 

Matt Tibbetts, the (graduating) student representative gave the annual report of the Student Advisory Council. They have representatives from 60 high schools in every county save Dukes and Nantucket. This year, they worked on: 

  • College and Career readiness, looking at the resources the Department has available, and finding many of their peers hadn’t heard of DESE. Many found the website hard to navigate, but those that were able to find the resources available found them useful. Feedback has been given to the Department on navigability.
  • Legislative advisory, which did work to advocate for the EMPOWER and SOA legislation, and then turned to work on civics engagement. 
  • Equity in race and economics: that 92% of teachers in Massachusetts are white creates a lopsided balance with the demographics of the statewide student body. Their work was on supporting educators of color, so more students can have teachers who look like themselves.
  • Global outreach, on world languages. They have advocated for EL and world language departments to be one and for the programs to cross pollinate, thus shifting the narrative in language acquisition. 

Tibbetts was given best wishes. Usually the new student representative would attend the June meeting, but as yet, one has not been elected. 

The Board permanently adopted the emergency regulations regarding the Commissioner’s authority to alter timelines; it will still, it was noted, expire when the state of emergency does.
The Board adopted the delegation of authority to the Commissioner for the summer. Member Hills asked why they could not possibly still meet as necessary, and it was agreed that they might very well do so.
The Board also adopted their schedule for next year, which is as follows (note that the earlier of each pair of dates is a reserved evening, should the Board need a special meeting for a longer presentation; as a rule, meetings are on Tuesday mornings):

  • Wednesday, September 23, 2020*/ Tuesday, September 29, 2020
  • Monday, October 19, 2020 /Tuesday, October 20, 2020
  • Monday, November 16, 2020/ Tuesday, November 17, 2020
  • Monday, December 14, 2020 /Tuesday, December 15, 2020
  • Monday, January 25, 2021 /Tuesday, January 26, 2021
  • Monday, February 22, 2021 /Tuesday, February 23, 2021
  • Monday, March 22, 2021/ Tuesday, March 23, 2021
  • Monday, April 26, 2021/ Tuesday, April 27, 2021
  • Monday, May 24, 2021/ Tuesday, May 25, 2021
  • Monday, June 21, 2021/ Tuesday, June 22, 2021

*due to the Yom Kippur holiday on Monday, September 28.

Vice Chair Morton presented the evaluation subcommittee’s report on the Commissioner. The Commissioner is evaluated on the following four areas: student growth and achievement; management of DESE; external relations; and the relationship with Board.  Regrettably, the livestream of the meeting again dropped during this portion.  In response to the pandemic, the subcommittee made two adjustments for this year: facilitate student growth and achievement is set at 25% rather than 30%, and external relations and communication is set at 30% rather than 25%. 
The subcommittee gave the Commissioner the following scores (each out of a possible 5):

  • student growth and achievement: 4.2
  • management of DESE: 4.3
  • external relations: 4.8
  • relationship with Board 4.5

…which gives a 4.5 out of 5. The report says, “Based on the evaluation of his job performance, the Committee affirms its strong endorsement of the Commissioner and recommends that the Board do so as well.”