Public Policy Updates: June 2021 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education had their regular June meeting on June 22, 2021 at 9 am. The agenda for the meeting can be found online here. Video of the meeting can be found here


The Board meeting opened with public comment, most relating either to the proposed changes in vocational admissions or to masking requirements in schools.
Concerns were raised by speakers around the vocational regulations regarding the oversight of having those who had historically overseen admission now being responsible for making and enforcing changes, of outcomes of students being disparate, of impacts on historically marginalized populations. Sky Kochenou, staff attorney for the Center for Law and Education speaking on behalf of the Vocational Education Justice Coaltion, noted the VEJC’s testimony having been initially omitted from that forwarded to the Board and posted online, as well as mischaracterized some of the comments made regarding the evaluation of disparate impact, and the resolution of such impact. The Board was posed the following questions: what admission outcomes need to be fixed? what outcomes are fair? which outcomes necessitate a lottery?
There were also several parents, several of whom had brought their children, who spoke in opposition to any masking or other pandemic related public health requirements in school this fall. Several demanded that the state mandate that districts be barred from requiring masks; there could be, it was said “no interpretation of your regulations.” There also was some false information shared regarding masks being ineffective or dangerous.
As the Board was meeting in a regular, publicly accessible session, those who spoke stayed, at several points disrupting the meeting until they were cleared from the room during a recess. Some then pounded the windows of the Board room until they were stopped by Malden police, whose sirens could be heard during much of a later presentation.

Chair Katherine Craven then turned the floor over to Vice Chair James Morton to speak of Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s annual evaluation, the text of which can be found here. Morton listed a series of words that he said described the Commissioner: available, accessible, approachable, active, and others. Morton commended him for his “strong and effective leadership…tremendous support, courage, and boldness” during the past year. The Commissioner was also commended for his accessibility. It was recommended that he continue to meet with stakeholders as much as possible. The evaluation subcommittee also encouraged him to lean “more heavily on his very talented team” and to work with stakeholders in setting priorities, even to”work with others to reimagine education in the Commonwealth.” Morton closed by acknowledging “the stellar performance in one of the nation’s most difficult time.” He received a 4.75 out of 5. The matter of a salary change is waiting further information from the Secretary. 
The Board voted approval without further comments at the time, though both Secretary James Peyser and Member Paymon Rouhanifard spoke approvingly of his performance later in the meeting, with Rouhanifard positively referencing his own family’s experience in the Public Schools of Brookline.

There was also a brief update from Member Amanda Fernández on the teacher diversification program. Emergency licensure is continuing into next year, and the Department is following with interest the impact this has on the field; an “unintended positive consequence” of the pandemic is the diversity this has brought into the field. There is currently a vendor under review to evaluate MTEL pilots; the Department is also closely watching a bill in the Legislature regarding teacher diversity.

In his opening remarks, Riley noted that there had been no change in guidance for the end of school, that masks were encouraged but not required by the state for summer school, and that as yet, there were no restrictions for fall. He said the Department would be working with the Department of Public Health regarding any such guidance.

Rouhanifard then asked Riley about the recent resignation of two members of the Boston School Committee (this was not referenced on the agenda or in Riley’s comments). Riley said he regarded it with concern; he said his “team” was discussing freezing the Boston Public Schools’ access to ESSER II and III federal funding, saying it was “fair to question” if “such a diminished board” could make such a substantial decision.

The Board then moved to discuss the proposed changes to vocational school admissions regulations. Riley introduced the phases of work that had brought them to this spot. In particular, these regulations do give the Department authority to intervene in admission if the results of the changes in admission requirements at a school make it necessary. Riley also said he didn’t want to see this drag on for another admissions cycle.
It was at this point that further disruption caused a recess to be called and the room to be virtually cleared.
When the Board came back, Peyser said this was setting up “fair access to this valuable resource,” that it required affirmative obligations on the part of school committees on admissions policies not having disparaty impact, and affirmative obligation on the part of the Department in oversight. Member Darlene Lombos applauded the process, which she called bottom up, that those most impacted were involved in setting the policy. Member Michael Moriarty said he’d support it, and then spoke at length about the impact third grade reading has, he said, on student outcomes. Member Matt Hills said that the Department had created the right policy rather than the right political solution. 
It was at this point that people outside began banging on the windows.
Fernández said she appreciated the focus on the equity piece, but she wondered if this went far enough. She said long term, if the results were not there, a lottery to enter should be on the table. Rouhanifard said that he remembered when vocational schools were disproportionally children of color and wondered to what degree the schools and the state were tracking the relationship of students woh studied a particular field with that field. He would love to know if schools in high demand to connecting students to their fields, and to what degree these schools are fulfilling their mission. Member Jasper Coughlin said he was looking forward to taking tihs vote, and he appreciated the focus on equity. Member Mary Ann Stewart again raised the quesiton of how far this change went, saying several times, “I don’t think we’re there yet.” She asked if the Department planned to intervene if the admissions policies yielded a class which was not reflective of the applicant pool, if the applicant pool was higher in protected classes than the sending student body. She did not get a solid ‘yes’ but a commitment that the Department “will be looking at all the data…and will be very involved.” On a question from Craven, the closer relationship between Title VI and the Perkins grant, which upon receipt districts need to attest regarding their impact on protected classes, has increased, with the current federal administration making the two align more closely. The Department has had to update the U.S. Department of Education on how they’ll be doing that. Morton said he appreciated the years of work. The change in regulations passed.

The Board then took up the update on the Kaleidoscope Collective, as well as the pilot science assesment. During much of this presentation, the sirens of the police department were clearly heard. 
Komal Bhasin and Michelle Ryan presented on the Collective, and Sam Ribnick on the innovative assessment. The intent is to create a state ecosystem that supports deeper learning and a state assessment that embodies deeper learning. The direction is building knowledge, producing authentic work, and developing 21st century skills. The work is to create tasks with a deep sense of relevance and purpose that can foster deep engagement of students, and the interactive work then fosters development of interpersonal skills, that are important in developing global citizens. Ribnick spoke of the pause in regular instruction that happened as a 9th grade science teacher as they approached March and MCAS. This pilot creates simulations that allow students to interact with real science work in a storyline in a purposeful context that is culturally responsive with diverse characters doing science. Al characters are diverse and are intended to be representative; the storyline is told through a graphic novel format. The goal through this process was to listen to those most affected: students on their experience in taking the assessment, and teachers in their experiences in teaching the students the standards and giving the assessment. Students commented when surveyed that they felt this assessment allowed them to show what they know and that they appreciated that it was hands on and interactive. Teachers felt students couldn’t simply memorize their way through this one and that it would allow a move away from MCAS prep; students can “do so much more.” During the bimonthly meetings of the Collective, the process has been to intro a strategy, to study implementation and impact, to engage stakeholders, and then to iterate on the strategy introduced in a cycle. Educators want a “pathway not a blueprint,” and this recognizes teachers as “savvy consumers” of materials presented. It was also strongly noted that diversity, equity, and inclusion work cannot be separated, but all professional development must be embedded in equity. There will be a webinar open to all on the science pilot; sign up here. Hills asked about the size of districts participating–mostly medium to small–and if innovations in the other assessments will be forthcoming–not yet. It was also noted that as yet there is no piloting of changes going on with the high school assessments, as those directly impact individual student graduations. Member Marty West asked why it was that they felt that a shift to this sort of assessment would lead to less test prep; was it due to less material being covered? Ribnick noted that the tasks are all related to the same standard; they are also intended to be more of the work of a scientist. Peyser asked for a future report on possible costs. Lombos asked if other states were moving; as yet, there is not a lot of discussion with other states. More to come on this. 

The Board then quickly and without discussion passed the amendment to the accountability regulations (effectively freezing accountability for another year), the amendment to the charter school regulations (freezing the lowest performing 10% of districts for a year), and the amendment to educator licensure regulations (continuing to allow for flexibility). The Board then sent out for public comment the amendment to the competency determination, which would extend the current interim cutoff until the class of 2025. To the concern raised by Hills on when the connection with the pandemic would end, Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin said that this timeline would allow the committee setting the new cutoff to do its work, which would then not apply until the next class is in high school. 

The Board then received a budget update. CFO Bill Bell noted that the FY22 state budget is in conference committee, and that the major lines are agreed upon. Both House and Senate included $40M for enrollment return costs; a district could seek reimbursement if student enrollment rises next year. The House passed $15M for COVID-related summer remediation, while the Senate passed $6M social emotional behavioral health needs, which thus needs resolution in conference committee. There is included state aid for rural school districts; that will either be three or four million, depending on conference. 
On the federal side, in addition to the usual federal lines, the group of funding known as ESSER (Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief) is now in process. In total, there is $2.9B in three programs; they can be spent through 9/30/22, 9/30/23, 9/30/24 (I,II,III respectively); all districts have applied for I, 43% of districts have applied II, and 2 have applied for III. Member West recalled the fiscal cliff of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and asked Bell if the phasing in of Student Opportunity Act funding would allow for a smoother transition. He also asked if the Department would be doing modeling for districts of this. Bell said the Department’s guidance was to warn districts to plan for the transition; there is some time to spend the funds, but it will sunset. He said the Department “can’t get out in front of what the Legislature appropriates” which is not to say that districts can’t model. In fact, those that “are thinking about it are already down that road.” The Department is happy to partner with those that do model but don’t want to get ahead of the Legislature.

The Board then voted authority to the Commissioner for the summer, and voted approval on their meeting schedule for next year
The Board then moved to executive session regarding litigation, the nature of which was not posted.

The Board will next meet in September.