Public Policy Updates: October Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education held their regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, October 29 at the Department in Malden. The agenda is online here; the video of the meeting is also available. 
Public comment included a call for students to be challenged at the level at which they need challenge.


Commissioner Jeffrey Riley welcomed new member Paymon Rouhanifard to his first meeting as a member of the Board. He also spoke of his visits last week to schools celebrating STEM week. The Boston comprehensive review involved the visit to over 900 classrooms in about 100 schools; that report is due to be finalized this winter. There is hope the supplemental budget will be coming out this week. Over 500 schools have expressed interest in Kalidoscope; the finalists will be announced around Thanksgiving with selection at the turn of the year.

The main report to the Board was on the CURATE curriculum evaluation process and OpenSciEd science curriculum development. CURATE grew from the Department's interaction with teachers who were seeking high quality curricular materials, and the Department looked for its role in that work. It is to "cut through the noise" around ELA, math, and somewhat science curriculum. They use Ed Reports as an initial sorting mechanism, then further review by teacher leaders. They have a step by step process, and evaluate the curriculum on test quality and organization; classroom tasks and instruction; usability; impact on learning standards alignment; classroom application. They also give an overall rating. If they meet overall expectations, they qualify for a statewide contract. The Department is also creating "heat maps" tracking which curriculum is being used where in the state, which they plan to make available. Member Amanda Fern├índez, noting that this process only evaluates curriculum that is commercially available, asked about teacher-created content. The Department has a research project through Johns Hopkins with fourteen districts across the state for sharing of best practices.  OpenSciEd was created in recognition of the lack of quality science curriculum; they are in year two of piloting middle school units, as two units per grade level are being publicly released. The curriculum is designed to be student, rather than teacher guided. Senior Associate Commissioner Heather Peske said, "this board has had decades of work in building the standards...and the assessments" but hasn't done work connecting the two through the curriculum. She said it was an effort to ensure that every student has access to high quality materials. Member Paymon Rouhanifard asked how many districts are using curricula that "meet expectations," and the response was that the number is "quite low." In response to a question from Member Marty West, the intital work on creating a project like OpenSciEd in history and social studies was also described, though not, as was assumed, in civics, but in upper elementary grades, pre the request of the field.

The Board was next given an initial discussion of the creation of a new MCAS competency determination for high school graduation. The Board has kept the old standard for two classes and keeping it for a third is currently out for public comment; should that go forward, it would be the class of 2024, this year's eighth graders, who would graduate under the new standards. Per Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, a key element in this process is the involvement of an advisory committee of key stakeholder groups, who would have access to student work samples, have a public comment process, and further engage with educators in K-12 and in higher education. The Department has contracted with researchers who have done work on the outcomes after graduation of students with different MCAS scores, which will be shared at the joint meeting with the Higher Education committee in January.

Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston gave a presentation on the work of the Department on dyslexia, in light of the passage of Chapter 272 in 2018. The process has been a little slower than anticipated, as there were no initial responses to the RFP. In reviewing the RFP, the Department found that the initial RFP was too much involved, so they revamped it to include less. There is training going on with educators across the state on dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia; every time the course is run, it has a waiting list. The Department will be having stakeholder meetings in January to ensure the recommendations don't simply sit on a shelf but are leading to real interventions with children. 

The Board next received an update on the school finance bill, which currently is in conference committee, awaiting reconciliation. The funding recommendations largely reflect the recommendations of the Foundation Budget Review Commission; Deputy Commissioner Wulfson said that there were technical corrections between the two on which the Department is being consulted. By design, much of the funding will go to cities, due to the concentration of low income and English learners in the cities. The bills do retain traditional minimum aid, with an additional hold harmless provision that keeps any district from doing worse than it would had the bill not passed. It also includes out-of-district transportation as part of circuit breaker reimbursement, and increases the capacity of the Massachusetts School Building Authority. 
There are several studies for which the Department is responsible: jointly with the Department of Revenue, they are to report back on the municipal wealth calculation. The Department is to create a methodology for calculating the number of low income students. They are also to staff a commission on rural schools. In response to questions, the Commissioner said that in contrast to the 1993 Education Reform law, long described as "a grand bargain," these bills are "a little less restrictive." The original bill, as that passed by the House, does allow for greater oversight, and ""we think we'd love to be able to have some oversight, but it's not certainly to the extent that it was in 1993." The Secretary agreed that this was well-said. Chair Katherine Craven noted that, as the bills are not funding bills, they are not severable, thus Governor Baker does not have line item veto power; he can only sign, veto, or amend the bills. 

Finally, the Board received a brief update on the FY21 budget process, though it became with a reminder from Deputy Commissioner Wulfson that the FY19 supplemental budget, as it is being passed as year end appropriation, do not go to school departments, despite the account allocations; they go to the general fund revenue, and are reported out as the city or town year's end surplus. Cities and towns may then choose to appropriate those funds to the school district, bu they are under no obligation to.
Member Matt Hills, chair of the budget committee, reported that the key priorities for the Department for the upcoming budget year are: investments in partnership with districts, targeted interventions, increased literacy resources, arts and health frameworks professional development. There is also a question of if there will there be additional needs with changes in foundation budget. The budget proposal will be before the Board at their November meeting.

The Board next meets on Tuesday, November 19.