Public Policy Updates: January Meetings of the Board of Education

January brings the annual joint meeting of the K-12 Board of Education with the Board of Higher Education, which was followed by a regular meeting of the K-12 Board. This year, the meeting was held on Tuesday, January 23 at Bridgewater State University, the largest state producer of teachers in the Commonwealth. The agenda is posted online here


The Boards were given an update on the Massachusetts Early College Initiative, for which they voted last year. Over the course of the year, the Early College Joint Committee has been working with applicants on their proposals. There were originally 33 applicants; 21 have now been invited to apply for the designation, which will be done by a vote of both boards in June. The criteria, per the original vote of the joint boards, has been equitable access, guided academic pathways, enhanced student supports, connection to career, and effective partnerships. There was also an emphasis on programs admitting without regard to prior academic achievement, and an expectation that recruitment and enrollment in programs would be focused on those least represented in higher education.Ultimately nine grantees will receive $100,000 each for planning grants; this has also been tied to the New Skills for Youth grant, which is at least five grants of up to $140,000 each. 

The Boards next received an update on educator preparation. Nearly 40% of teachers employed in Massachusetts one year after completing a preparation program have graduated from the state college and university system. These programs are becoming increasingly diverse. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education oversees all such programs in the state; the Department has focused on program outcomes in its recent reviews. Organizations are making deliberate decisions, due in part to the reviews, on which programs to continue to support. There was some Board discussion of the importance of the first year of teaching, of induction and mentorship, of regarding that first year as an extension of the teacher education program. Member McKenna spoke of her concern with the number of teachers from Teach for America going into the most challenging schools and spoke of her commitment at Leslie University to their teachers. 

The Joint Boards also received a presentation on access to computer science, leading to a joint vote supporting an initiative that works on increasing access to K-12 computer science, potentially by adding it to the subjects that are counted as a science in MassCore. The discussion was particularly focused on issues of equity: of urban students not receiving access to such programs, of rural students not having the same access to technology. This is not only an economic issue for the state--the state does not have enough graduates to fill the jobs that require such skills and knowledge--but also an issue of equity. As one of the members of the Higher Ed Board commented, the current inequity "creates two classes: a class of creators and a class of consumers...there is no reason why all of our students shouldn't be creators if they choose to be."

The Joint Boards then adjourned to meet separately.

The K-12 Board, as usual, began with comments from Chair Sagan and Acting Commissioner Wulfson. Sagan announced his semi-annual disclosure that his wife serves on the Sposado Board, remarking that if something from MATCH came before the Board, he would "consider" recusing himself. Wulfson spoke of the appointment of Jeffery Villar, current Executive Director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, as the new receiver for the Southbridge Public Schools. He announced that the federal department recently granted the state a waiver on the 1% cap on the use of alternative assessment; as the schools work with parents on Individual Education Plans determining if students will use such assessment, it would, Wulfson said, be "totally inappropriate" for the Department to determine the number or percent of such assessments given. Wulfson noted the report on access to technology and commented that he was proud of the gains being made by districts. He also mentioned the top position of Massachusetts in Education Week's recent Quality Counts report; while any such report should be taken with a grain of salt, he said, it is "better to be at the top of the list than the bottom" and reflected the "work that teachers, and administrators, and students, and families are doing." 

 Public comment included concerns about the Bentley Academy waiver request,  a member of the Turkish-American National Steering Committee objecting to removal of language that questioned the Armenian Genocide, assurances from the new Executive Director of the Paulo Freire Charter School of their intent to complete the conditions being imposed, and two alums of KIPP  Lynn endorsing the proposed expansion of that charter school. 

 Commissioner Sagan then gave the Board an update on the Commissioner search. He began by thanking Jeff Wulfson for his work as Acting Commissioner, saying he "has not only kept the lights on, he has kept the Department moving forward." He said that the preliminary screening committee was created to try to hear from the field and "people came with very different viewpoints" but all had agreed on the three finalists. The schedule for interviews was shared with the Board along with a compiled list of questions submitted by stakeholder group. The Board reviewed which questions had been asked in some form in the screening; Board members also suggested others that appeared absent. Member McKenna specifically raised the question of finalist Penny Schwinn's involvement in the current special education findings in Texas, to which Rosa Morris, the search consultant responded, "we definitely feel very comfortable that there was no behavior that was out of line."

 The Board then continued their ongoing discussion on the changes in the accountability system under the new federal law, discussing the weighing of elements within the new system. The presentation can be found here. There are three decisions to be made: the weighing within the school percentile system, the weighing of meeting of targets, and the weighing of all students versus the lowest performing students. Warning that this discussion can get "a little into the weeds," Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin reminded the Board of the indicators that will be included (with which members will be familiar from our explainer). As was suggested at the last meeting, the Department has decided to recommend dropping ninth grade passage as an acccountability indicator; it may still become part of the school and district report cards. The first discussion was on the weighing of student growth versus achievement. Currently, the state does this at a 1 (growth) to 3 (achievement) ratio, up from 1 to 4 several years ago. Increasing the weight of student growth "increases the differentiation of schools whose achievement is the same," said Curtin, and the Department wants to be sure to flag both schools which are low achieving and schools which are low growing. However, there are a number of issues with increasing growth. First, growth is a normative measure: it's based on how kids do compared to other kids over time. As Curtin put it, "if everybody did great on that test the next year, somebody's still going to be in the 99th percentile and somebody's going to be in the 1st percentile." Increasing the value of growth also decreases the value of the third grade assessment, as no growth can be measured there; likewise it decreases the value of the science assessment, as no growth is measured there. The Board was reminded that this measure is also used to determine possible locations of new charter schools. Member Craven, asking for a reminder of the change, commented "Because Brockton experienced a lot of growth, we were unable to open a charter school there one year." Member West said, "I see a strong argument for bringing growth into a school accountability system" and remarked that many states are heading more strongly in that direction, with some even weighing 50/50. Secretary Peyser said, "I don't want to make it all about a smell test and where we think schools and districts ought to be" but that it should be consistent with what we know about schools and districts.

The state is required to include an ELL measure as part of the accountability standard, but not all schools have enough ELL students to count as a subgroup. As such, the balances looks different dependant on that percentage. And high schools have more measures than elementary schools do. As such, the proposal for elementary schools is as follows:

Screenshot 60 

The proposal for high schools is as follows:

Screenshot 61

The above, recall, is for the school's percentile.
The proposed weighing on meeting targets for each of the above is to have equal weights accorded to how well schools do at meeting their targets (with 0=declined, 1=no change, 2=improved, 3=met target, and 4=exceeded target). That will be done for both all students and for the lowest performing students (25% or enough to create a subgroup, whichever is smaller). Schools and districts will thus decline, not change, improve, meet, or exceed the target for each of the above categories for both all students and for the lowest performing students. Those sums will then be averaged: all students and lowest performing students will each count for 50%.

Member West expressed concern, as targets set school-specific goals, that it might not provide the information parents who wished to compare schools would like;it "wouldn't be useful to parents" if schools were meeting their targets. Curtin responded that it would provide a measure of where the strengths of the schools lie. The revision of the school and district report cards are intended to "paint a more complete picture to accompany a school accountability measure."  Wulfson added, "The complexity is deliberate, because the field has asked for more than how your kids did on MCAS." There will be more discussion of this at future meetings.

The Board then moved on to charter school matters. There currently are two charter schools applying for opening; the Acting Commissioner has yet to make a recommendation, but he will do so before the February meeting, at which the Board will vote. KIPP Lynn is also applying for an expansion. The Board was asked for and granted a waiver to Bentley Academy Horace Mann Charter in Salem in having the union vote for the school accountability plan; the union, citing their not being invited to play a role in the plan, declined to take a vote on it. Paulo Freire Charter in Springfield was, as was recommended, put on a renewal under probation, due to concerns about leadership, enrollment, and thus the long term fiscal stability. 

The Board voted in favor of sending the revised History and Social Studies standards out for public comment; please see more information on that here

Finally, the Board received an update on students evacuated from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. As of January 12, 2573 students have enrolled in Massachusetts public schools due to this situtation; 275 of those students have since exited the system. The administration has released $60,000 in McKinney-Vento funds to those districts most impacted. Secretary Peyser, responding to questions later in the week, acknowledged that the administration plans a supplemental budget for the current fiscal year with further support in the coming weeks. Additionally, the budget proposed on Wednesday has $15 million for those students for next fiscal year. 

The Board adjourned; the next regular meeting of the Board is on February 26.