Public Policy Updates: February Board of Education

The February meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took place on Tuesday, February 27, 2018. In his opening remarks, Acting Commissioner Wulfson acknowledged the hard work of districts on two recent releases of good news for the Commonwealth. First, Massachusetts led the nation in the percent of the graduating class to score three or higher on Advanced Placement exams; Wulfson noted that this measurement not only rewarded high scores, but rewarded percentage of students participating and achieving them. Wulfson likewise noted the graduation data released earlier this week, marking the eleventh consecutive year in which Massachusetts increased the graduation rate; more was said on this topic later in the meeting. He also noted the first year of collected restraint data, cautioning that the first year of data, while important, was little to from which to draw conclusions.

Wulfson noted the upcoming review of the state arts standards and encouraged applications for serving on the panel.  He referenced the supplemental budget recently passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Baker that provides $15M in funding for the districts serving the majority of the students evacuated from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with the first round of funding to come in April; a similar provision is made in the Governor's proposed FY19 budget, and there is an expectation the federal government is making some provision, as well. The Department is working with districts who have seniors evacuated to share data with their original schools to allow for diplomas from those schools (as the seniors have not passed MCAS). 

Regarding school safety in light of the recent Parkland, Florida shootings, Wulfson spoke of recent conversations with MASS and others; he said that he was confident that districts were working with local public safety and that it "is not clear to me that additional state mandates at this time would be useful." He noted that this pointed to recent important work in districts on social-emotional learning, on early warning systems, on multiple pathways - work to "keep students engaged and try to catch those who might be falling through the cracks." He said, speaking only for himself, that recent talk of arming teachers "strikes me as an incredibly bad idea," that innocent people would get caught in the crossfire. Regarding upcoming announced student walkouts, he said he was confident that local administrators would handle matters sensitively; he said "we have spoken a great deal about civics involvement. This is it. This is as real as it gets. If this is not a teachable moment, I don't know what is." Secretary Peyser echoed his comments on the importance of school climate. Member McKenna asked for a Q&A or some reference to districts regarding such walkouts from the Department.

As the most of the actions to be taken by the Board had to do with charter schools, most public comment was in reference to those applications and renewals. Phoenix Academy in Lawrence, which is being spun out of the district, spoke in support of their recommended charter, and answered Member Doherty's question regarding teachers who may wish to stay with the district (they may). Veritas Charter spoke of their expanded seats. Davis Leadership Charter in Boston contested some of the reasons for the probationary nature of their renewal, speaking of their clean audit. Several members of the Board responded regarding the lack of duty of care they saw in the reports that they had received. Both the head of the Mass Charter School Association and others representing KIPP Lynn spoke of their disappointment over the Department's decision that Lynn did not have seats. There was a comment that this was a restriction of choice impacting disadvantaged and underrepresented families, and that this sent "a message to the children of Lynn that education does not matter."

Finally, AFT-MA President Tom Gosnell spoke against the President and others who have advocated for arming teachers, asking that the Board take a strong position in opposition, likewise.

Chair Sagan updated the Committee on contract negotiations with appointed Commissioner Jeffery Riley. Sagan agreed to a salary equal to that being received by late Commissioner Chester at the time of his death, which is $241,000 a year; this, Sagan reported, is a 2 1/2% increase from Riley's current salary in Lawrence. He will also have travel reimbursed, and he will receive 20 days of vacation a year. The starting date remains fluid, as the Lawrence receiver board searches for a new superintendent; at the latest, Riley will start on July 1. The Board approved the contract unanimously.

The Board then received updates on the Level 5 schools and districts, beginning with an introduction of the new receiver in Southbridge, Jeffery Villar. Villar is in his third week as receiver. Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston, who had been acting as receiver until Villar's appointment, then spoke of some of the lessons learned from the district level. He gave as an example that there were 23 different forms coming into Human Resources for payroll each week, and "every system [in the district] had correlaries." At one point, one of every four invoice being paid was from a prior fiscal year. There has been a focus on explicitly connecting each school improvement plan to the district tunaround plan. There has also been a focus on literacy and accurately evaluating students on literacy. The Board asked several questions regarding governance--school committee subcommittees in budget and curriculum have been started again--and on authentically representing to the Board the highs and lows of what is happening in receivership districts.

The Level 5 schools first noted that New Bedford's Parker School will need a new receiver, as Superintendent Pia Durkin is leaving the district. All Level 5 schools have focused on instructional rounds and on teacher-level leadership; a challenge for all such schools is with teacher retention. The Board expressed concerns regarding the systemic nature of issues of teacher retention.

The Board then considered the charter school matters before them. With praise for the work of the statewide network of Phoenix Academy charters on reengaging students who have or are at risk of dropping out, the Board unanimously granted the Phoenix charter for Lawrence. The Veritas expansion carried on a vote of eight in favor, four abstensions. There was a lengthy discussion regarding the lack of space in Lynn; due to the district's improved performance, it now leaves the lowest ten percent, and as the district was spending less than nine percent of net school spending on charter schools, the cap then remains at nine percent. This leaves no space in coming years. This was boiled down to the Department being unable to foretell the future. While there was a great deal of discussion, there was no resolution, beyond the Board asking that charter applicants be repeatedly warned of the changeable nature of the availablity of seats. Member Craven also again raised the question of the balance of growth and achievement, again expressing a sentiment that this prevention of the opening of charter schools being unfortunate. Member West suggested using two lists: one for accountability, with another (with different measures) for charter growth. Davis Leadership Charter was renewed under probation as recommended. 

The Board then approved the change in regulation that will allow the classes of 2021 and 2022 to have the competency standard in the new 10th grade MCAS required to graduate from high school be set statistically equivalent to the current level. 

The Board then received a report on graduation rates, which has increased for eleven consecutive years. In response to a question regarding how Massachusetts measures against other states, Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin explained that states have different systems of measurement: "it's not really apples and oranges; it's that everyone uses their own flavors of apples." Massachusetts now has an 88.3% four year graduation rate and an 89.4% five year graduation rate. Gaps among different demographic groups are also closing:

Gaps Narrowing Graduation

The dropout rate has also continued to decrease. Curtin reported that they are "the lowest on record."

dropout rate 2017

In response to Board questions on what is causing this, Curtin cited the work of districts of keeping students engaged in school, including having multiple pathways and of doing the work to get those out of school back in school. 

Finally, there was an update on the FY19 budget with information on the budget submitted by Governor Baker last month. There was a mention of the $250,000 set aside for the development of a new history and social studies assessment, with again the suggestion that this may not be an MCAS of the same nature as those we currently have in other subjects. There was also brief discussion of the passage of a two year federal budget deal, allowing the state some degree of predicatibility when it comes to federal resources, which are expected to be level funded.