Novick Reports: March Board of Education Meeting

The March 28 meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education opened with Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester speaking of his recent visit to Washington with other heads of state school systems. He reviewed what Massachusetts receives in federal grant funds of the grants proposed for decrease or elimination by the Trump administration: we receive $40 million from Title IIA; $15 million in 21st century grant funds; and $6.7 million in Title IVA funds. Also the staff of DESE is 60% federally funded; 15 or 17 positions in the department are covered by the grants mentioned above. Chester further commented that with Secretary DeVos, "choice is front and center on her agenda."

Secretary Peyser spoke of the recent early college launch, commenting that the state is "catching a wave rather than pushing a rock uphill" on the concept.

Public comment opened with a presentation by Lexington High School students endorsing the review and adoption for optional inclusion of the Council for Economic Education's financial literacy standards. They were followed by testimony regarding the state's ESSA plan: concern was expressed by the Arts for All Coalition regarding the drop of arts as an evaluation piece after earlier consideration; by Citizens for Public Schools that "this new plan largely continues the old plan with continuing harm to our children;" and by several parents of gifted children that the plan has no mention or consideration of such children's needs. The former headmaster of the now-closed Dorchester Collegiate Charter testified, disputing accounts of what DESE saw as issues with the school and warning the Board to more carefully consider the process and criteria for such closures.

Members Stewart and Moore updated the Board of the National State Boards of Education conference; you can read Mary Ann Stewart's written report here.

Member Noyce reviewed that the Board will evaluate the Commissioner over the next few months, with a report out in June. That will involve interviews with Board members, DESE staff, and "occasional outside people," and will also include a recommendation regarding salary.

Lawrence receiver Jeff Riley was accompanied for his report on the Lawrence public schools by students who presented a short musical revue from recent Lawrence performances, something I have never seen in a Board of Ed meeting, and which brought down the house. In introducing the students, he remarked, "arts don't always show up on the test, but they show up in life." His report regarding the district included not only test scores and graduation rates, but also the remark that Lawrence residency by district faculty and staff has gone up markedly. He spoke of the overhaul of the special education system, of parent outreach, of college access, and of the need for implementation of the Foundation Budget Review Commission's recommendations (Lawrence is funded at foundation). To questions from member McKenna regarding breakfast after the bell, he agreed to explore it further with staff, while leaving much power of decisions to individual school leaders.

Michelle Ryan, a Randolph Public Schools teacher and the 2015 Milken Educator Award winner, spoke before the Board on the importance of equity and social justice in education, and of engaging in deep conversations with students regarding these issues when teaching (as she does) history and social studies.

The Board unanimously adopted new ELA and math standards. Next steps on this now are copy editing, updating author lists, transmitting statewide and to the Joint Committee, providing implementation support, and aligning MCAS with new standards for spring 2018.

The Board was given a presentation on the state's ESSA plan (executive summary here), which the Department will submit to the federal government on April 3. My notes on that are here. The plan focuses on:

  • Early grades literacy
  • Middle grades mathematics
  • High-quality career pathways
  • Historically disadvantaged student groups

The "core" accountability measures, which will make up the accountability system under this plan are as follows:

  • ELA, mathematics and science achievement results
  • A measure of student growth in tested grades
  • Gap closing by accelerating the gains of the lowest performing students
  • High school graduation rates
  • English learner progress and attainment of proficiency in English

They are also considering:

  • Chronic absenteeism
  • Annual dropout rates in grades 9-12
  • Successful completion of a broad and challenging curriculum
  • Success in the 9th grade 

They will also be updating the "report cards" issued for schools, arguing that public reporting is also a form of accountability. Those will now include:

  • Breadth of curriculum (e.g., access to a well-rounded curriculum including the arts and advanced coursework)
  • School-level financial allocations and expenditures
  • School climate surveys
  • Enrollment in career-technical education and other pathways (e.g., early college)
  • Percent of high school graduates achieving the competency determination
  • Preparedness for post-secondary education
  • Pre-kindergarten experience/readiness for kindergarten

There was some discussion at the meeting regarding the federal government's oversight under the Trump administration, with several mentions of the emphasis on state-level governance of education. There is an expectation by DESE that US Ed will be responding over the summer, such that districts in Massachusetts will have some direction for the new school year.

Finally, the Board approved new MCAS descriptors. Those are:

  • Exceeding Expectations: A student who performed at this level exceeded grade-level expectations by demonstrating mastery of the subject matter.
  • Meeting Expectations: A student who performed at this level met grade-level expectations and is academically on-track to succeed in the current grade in this subject.
  • Partially Meeting Expectations: A student who performed at this level partially met grade-level expectations in this subject. The school, in consultation with the student's parent/guardian, should consider whether the student needs additional academic assistance to succeed in this subject.
  • Not Meeting Expectations: A student who performed at this level did not meet grade-level expectations in this subject. The school, in consultation with the student's parent/guardian, should determine the coordinated academic assistance and/or additional instruction the student needs to succeed in this subject.

During this discussing, member McKenna raised a question flagged by Citizens for Public Schools in public testimony: what direction is DESE giving to districts regarding test refusal this year? (Read my notes on that exchange here) There is no directive from DESE that the students be given the test for any period of time. Schools are not required to give alternative assignments; students should not be allowed to be a distraction, but it is up to the schools where the student is. They also don't expect there to be any punishment or any shaming of students who might refuse (on their own or under parent directive).