Public Policy Updates: October 2020 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for their October meeting on October 20 at 9 am in Malden. The agenda can be found here; the livestream is here

 Several members of the Vocational Educational Justice Coalition spoke during public testimony. Members spoke of the current admission requirements for vocational schools being “a more sophisticated form of tracking.” Gladys Vega of Chelsea Collaborative speaks of her own experience of being told by her guidance counselor that due to her accent she wouldn’t amount to much; notes that counselor recommendations can have bias. Barbara Fields of the Black Educators’ Alliance, said “The students who may need them the most are systematically shut out as the number of students from middle income households and college bound students increase.” The owner of a kitchen and bath company said the majority of her labor is over 55; younger labor does not exist to hire; she noted the large number of students attending vocational schools that don’t then pursue the trade for which they have received training. A training coordinator from the carpenters’ union likewise noted the “obvious disconnect between those in vocational programs” and those ending up in the trades. There was related testimony that admissions requirements should reflect the end goal; if the goals is to have future members of the trades, the admissions should reflect that. As lew Finfer of the Massachusetts Communities Action Network, parents who pursue seats in regional vocational schools for their children seeking to eventually matriculate into an engineering or other STEM college are “taking a seat of another student” who wanted to pursue the trades. The issue of racial justice in this country obliges departments to look at the equity in their policies. Commissioner Riley told the Board that he anticipated this issue being before the Board at their December meeting.  

The Board briefly spoke of ‘equity pods’ operating in various places in cities across the state.
The Secretary noted it is STEM week. 

The business of the meeting opened with the introduction of the 2021 Teacher of the Year, Jennifer Hedrington, who teaches seventh grade math at the Ferryway School in Malden. Ms. Hedrington spoke with the Board briefly and she responded to some questions. She said, “I want to become the teacher that I needed when I was in school and I didn’t have.” Asked about remote learning, she said that “especially right now…it’s about relationships.” She observed that many of the conversations teachers expect their students to be having about race and other issues are not ones they themselves are comfortable discussing, but they are issues that “hit the heart” and need to be given space to be discussed.

The Board then heard on the Department’s Language Interpretation project, in which 21 districts are participating; the presentation focused on the work in Holyoke, which Dr. Vázquez Matos, the Holyoke receiver, spoke of being “grounded in access through equity.” Emphasizing the work of human interpreters, and giving families access to translation and interpretation to speak to the district, rather than only hear from the district, allowing for family advocacy is part of that work. Dr. Vázquez Matos said it was part of “being an actively anti-racist district that is culturally responsive to the families it serves.” The district is working to embed within the curriculum strengthening the dually lingual and literate abilities of students.

Uxbridge Public Schools came on STEM week to present on their innovation pathways program. It’s been a natural extension of the district’s Project Lead the Way work. It also fits well with Uxbridge’s position in the Blackstone River Valley, a manufacturing hub. It has led not only to pockets of innovation then spread through the district, down through the grades, but to cross-collaborations with other districts nearby. Students are given hands-on experience, even at younger grades, with relevant technology, and, through a collaboration with Quinsignamond Community College, high school students are graduating with 6 to 12 college credits. Cross-disciplinary work means students are getting to know how systems work.

Updating the Board on learning across Massachusetts, Commissioner Riley said the Department has shifted from guidance to “more of a support and monitoring position.” He noted some recent work–assisting districts under cyberattack, working on the updated nutritional standards, assisting with timely Chromebook deliveries, updating districts on federal grants–before speaking of the monitoring the Department is doing. Having sent out warning letters to 16 districts in September, concerned, the Commissioner said, over “their misalignment with the metrics and the data” in remote learning, the Department now plans to audit two, Watertown and East Longmeadow. He further said that the Department will be monitoring districts for “access to quality instruction” in five areas:

  • learning model
  • learning time
  • academics
  • family communication
  • special student populations

The Department has heard from some districts concerned that their metrics are unduly affected by the presence of a prison, college, or nursing home in their community. The Commissioner said he was “hoping that when the new metric [from DPH] comes out, it will take that into account.” He further said we”have to think about that we have not seen robust transmission in our schools” and, while schools have had positive cases, we “have seen we’re able to move on with instruction.” There will, he said, be more letters going out, as they plan to “use the best science and data going forward.”

The Commissioner also presented his goals to the Board. Briefly, they are:

  • COVID response
  • supporting families and students
  • evidence based policy and practices to strengthen teaching and learning
  • deepen teaching and learning
  • strategic planning inside the Department

After a request for clarity on the strategic planning from MemberStewart, and a request for how MCAS planning fit in from Member Hills, these passed unanimously. 

Finally, CFO Bill Bell briefly spoke about budgetary matters. In sum: “a lot of things are happening, but [there is] not a lot of closure,” The Governor has refiled his FY21 budget; legislative leaders have said they intend action by next month. We are all waiting for further federal action; Bell said that there is “a lot of chatter” we may see something this week. The big question is how this will roll forward into FY22.