Public Policy Updates: December 2017 Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for their regular meeting on December 19, 2017. You can find the agenda here
The meeting opened with comments from Acting Commissioner Jeff Wulfson. He reported that, pursuant to authority delegated to the Commissioner by the Board, he had renewed the charters for Four Rivers Charter, Boston Collegiate Charter, Foxborough Regional Charter, and Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers (Horace Mann) Charter. He reported that Massachusetts has now received over 2000 students from Puerto Rico from across the state. Please note that at last week's MASBO bimonthly, Associate Commissioner Jay Sullivan said that it was the intent of the administration to include funding for such students for this fiscal year in a supplemental budget filed at the same time as the FY19 budget. The Department has issued guidance on social-emotional learning. With mode choices now in for next spring's MCAS, which grades 4, 5, 7, and 8 are all required to take online, Wulfson said he was "very pleased by efforts of school committees and district staff" in making the technology available. Regarding the new early college effort, there have been 33 early college and 10 innovation pathways submitted to the Department at this time.


Public testimony included the Mass Business Alliance for Education, testifying in favor of computer science, K-12; testimony on the Hodolomor, the Ukranian genocide; and testimony from two residents of Lynn in favor of KIPP Lynn's expansion, which will be taken up at next month's meeting. A mother of four students in KIPP Lynn said, "I think the Lynn Public Schools are great, too, but this would be a great expansion for Lynn."

Secretary Peyser spoke of last week's announcement of the Advanced Manufacturing Education Program, in which adults can earn both a certificate in manufacturing and an associate's degree.

The presentation given was on the Springfield Empowerment Zone, a quasi-public board running the middle schools and a high school in Springfield. The mayor, superintendent, and a single school committee member sit on the Board, along with four Department appointees. Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston referred to it as "an in-district receivership." Chair of the Empowerment Zone Board Chris Gabrieli said that the "one crisp goal" of the zone was to achieve 50% student growth in both ELA and math in all zone schools by 2017, something which was not achieved. Five out of the nine schools did achieve that in ELA. The co-chairs spoke of their work as "we set up the conditions for the schools to be successful and then get out of the way," of "exemplifying positive change," of "really dig(ging) into the school level." They spoke of beginning "a path towards a shared definition of student success" that were "developed collaboratively with our Board, with the Department, with the union." They are designing and centrally operating some systems for economy of scale. They feel they can already see it bearing fruit. There was a great deal of praise from the Board for the zone. Member West asked what the thought long term was of local district control of those schools (similarly to how he asked this question about lawrence last month), to which Gabrieli replied, "I don't think there's a crisp answer to that...the karma in Springfield is very positive...I think that collaborative joint state district is a model." Mentioning that Springfield is predominately state funded, he said that it was important that the state's intervention not be seen as "a police action." Wulfson commented that the real focus was on school autonomy "and that's the thing we want to be sure we maintain for the future...what's the administration that supports that model?" Chair Sagan wondered if the zone would ever extend to Springfield elementary schools, to which Johnston noted that Springfield has a good record in turning around its elementary schools. 

Chair Sagan updated the Board on the search for a new Commissioner. The screening committee met yesterday to review the applications; he said there were "between fifteen and eighteen."He said he was "very impressed by the level of candidates," that more than a third were women, and that more than 50% were of color or from underserved communities. Approximately two-thirds of applicants were from outside the state, one-third from inside the state. Sagan noted that he is "very focused at looking for educators for the job...someone very experienced in fulfiling facets of the job." The screening committee will confidentially interview applicants during the second week of January. The finalists will be forwarded to the full Board and will be interviewed in public session on Monday, January 22. The Board plans to vote on a new Commissioner on Friday, January 26. 

There was then a brief report on the Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council, which was created as part of the 1993 education reform act to advise on accountability and assistance matters. Last year, they offered advice on the state's Every Student Succeeds Act state plan, changest to the state accountability system, and the state's assistance strategies. This year, they so far have advised on the redesign of accountability and assistance systems.

This led into the report on the state's redesign of the accountability system. Acting Commissioner Wulfson opened by laying out a system of beliefs, goals, and considerations the state had in moving foward, namely:

  • we believe the state has an obligation to identify schools in need of intervention and to work with those schools
  • we believe that we have an obligation to identify and shine a spotlight on the schools that are doing really well
  • we believe we have an obligation to share information with parents
  • we believe we have an obligation to provide information to the taxpayers of the Commonwealth, who provide a combined total of $18 billion a year to public education
  • we are required by both state and federal law to hold districts accountabilea and to report on their performance

The goals and considerations were as follows:

  1. a system that meets federal requirements and works for Massachusetts (a single system)
  2. multiple measures of school and district performance must be included, balancing that more measures mean more complexity in reporting
  3. not everything that is important can be quantiatively measured
  4. sensitivity to the labeling of schools; any such thing needs to be done for a clear purpose
  5. an awareness of the comments around the correlation of achievement and demographics, thus using measures that allow for schools to be recognized despite demographics, while recognizing success is happening in schools of various demographic types

The presentation opened with the note from Assistant Commissioner Rob Curtin that this discussion would not include the weighting of the various measures at this point. The school and district accountability indicators that will be included are:

  • ELA, math, and science MCAS achievement values (based on scaled scores)
  • student growth in MCAS scores (as measured by the student growth percentile)
  • high school completion (as measured by the four year graduation rate, the extended engagement rate, and the annual dropout rate)
  • English language proficiency (as measured by progress made by English learners towards proficiency)
  • Other measures: chronic absenteeism in all schools; percentage of students passing all ninth grade courses; percentage of students completing advanced course work

Note that extended engagement is a new measure, incorporating both the five year graduation rate PLUS the percentage of students still enrolled in school. It is intended to encourage, rather than penalize, school and district encouragement and programming that keeps students in school and working towards graduation, as well as recognizing work with students with disabilities working towards certificates of completion. 
English proficiency is set at the six year mark and students working towards that, although the degree of progress will vary with at what level of proficiency students enter.

There was a great deal of discussion and questions from the Board regarding this. There was some concern around six years as the English proficiency measure; some felt that was too long. The AAAC were concerned that ninth grade passing rates could be gamed, while also putting responsibility on high schools for middle school concerns. Member West suggested that "transparency without weight" would be perhaps a good direction for that measure (that is, reporting it while not penalizing for it). There has been some discussion of district ability to impact chronic absenteeism (the percentage of students absent for 10% or more of the school year), but at the same time, some districts have had success in doing so. Member McKenna asked if there were a question of equity in measuring access to challenging coursework; Curtin responded that such concerns had led to the list of what would be included, as courses such as Advanced Placement had an economic impact on districts. Secretary Peyser suggested the use of MassCore as another possible measure of challenging coursework. Member Moriarty hoped that history and social science would be included once it was state required; Wulfson responded that such was the intent.

Several members asked about other indicators: art, music, social emotional learning, school climate. A number of these are intended to be placed on the school and district report cards, now undergoing a fundamental redesign; the Department is seeking public input on those now. Curtin commented that they "view this as one that will grow over time." It thus is possible that other indicators will become part of the accountability system over time; part of the Department's uneasiness at this time is due to lack of dependable data.

The Department plans to use both "relative" and "criterion-referenced" components, that is both absolute measures and measures against the school and district's own work. There will be an accountability percentile calculated using all available indicators for a school, and, due to the new MCAS being cross referenced across grades, it will allow cross-grade comparisons. That is the relative measure. The Department will also focus on closing the achievement gap by "raising the floor;" as Curin commented, the Department found that a lot of gap closing was from the highest performers doing worse. Thus, in addition to meeting targets for the school as a whole, schools will be responsible for the performance (in all indicators, not just testing) of the lowest performing 25% of students who have been enrolled for more than one year. Morton noted that this would provide an incentive for schools to welcome, for example, students from Puerto Rico without fear of being penalized in accountability. Wulfson agreed that this and a recognition of both the difficulties of mobility in general, as well as the good work schools are able to do with students who attend for a stable period of time, was what the Department was intending to recognize.

Progress towards school and district goals both for all students and for the 25% group will be recognized: schools and districts might decline, have no change, improve, meet their targets, or exceed their target, and have that marked accordingly. How that then is weighted is still to be determined.

Schools will no longer be placed in a vertical hierarchy of levels 1-5. The lowest 10%--not, as now, the lowest 20%--will be "normatively placed" as in need of intervention. Only approximately 15% of schools will be classified as in need of assistance or intervention: those with percentiles under 10%, plus those with persistently low graduation rates and those with low testing participation over two years. To Secretary Peyser's query regarding if, in the case of a Boston Latin having low participation, "we're in essence just trying to call them out" the answer was "yes." 

In middle, Curtin said, "are a lot of very good schools that we don't necessarily need to label." Schools with particularly high achievement, significant improvement, or high growth would be suitably recognized by the Department. Note further that district accountability status will no longer be based on the district's lowest performing school, but on the district as a whole.

Curtin closed by mentioning the upcoming transition in testing in the high schools and the redesign of the school and district report cards. There will be a discussion of system refinements and weighing at the January meeting.

The Board then voted in favor of raising the virtual schools' tuition rate, as discussed at last month's meeting.

The Board was then given an overview of the implications of the LOOK bill for English learners. Statewide enrollment of English learners has more than doubled since 2001. Fifteen districts in the state have 63% of all English learners, the majority of which speak Spanish. At this time, more than 90% of all such learners are in Sheltered English Immersion programs. The LOOK bill, signed by Governor Baker last month, allows for district flexibility in meeting student needs. It also charges the Department with developing and conducting reviews of all new programs for language acquisition; requires licensure endorsements for such programs; requires district to create parent advisory councils for English learning; directs the Board to establish a state seal of biliteracy; requires the establishment of English proficiency benchmarks, guidelines, and student success templates; and expands the reporting requirements for English learners. The Department expects to bring back to the Board the first of required rounds of regulations on this issue in March, as much of this is to be in place for next fall. 

The meeting then adjourned. Note that the next meeting on Monday, January 22, 2018 (location TBA) will be to interview finalists for Commissioner of Education. The next regular meeting of the Board on Tuesday, January 23, 2018 will be at Bridgewater State University for the Board's annual joint meeting with the Board of Higher Education.