Public Policy Updates: June 2018 Board of Education

On Tuesday, June 26, the Massachusetts Board of Education held their final meeting of the school year. In opening the meeting, Commissioner Jeffrey Riley spoke of the Teacher of the Year event recently held, commenting that it was a great day to celebrate teachers. He announced the first of what will be an annual award in memory of the late Commissioner Mitchell Chester, honoring a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education employee, which he awarded to Russell Johnston, who filled a number of roles simultaneously this year. 

Public comment brought in a number of those who had served on the committees for the review of history and social studies standards and regulations related to the LOOK Act to speak in support of the provisions before the Board. There was a concern expressed by the Intertribal Commission on Deer Island that there had not been a government-to-government process to the tribal governments around Native American history. 

The monthly Level 5 school report focused on Parker Elementary in New Bedford, as it changes receiver due to the change in superintendency in New Bedford. The Commissioner has appointed School & Main Institute as the receiver organization, and they spoke of the transition, commenting "the capacity to improve Parker lies within Parker."

The passage of new history and social studies standards, "a comprehensive two year endeavor," as Commissioner Riley put it, were proposed with a few changes from the May meeting. Most notably, the standard covering race relations since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. added a series of additions to create a more comprehensive picture of the succeeding decades. There was some discussion with the Board of feedback and next steps, including professional development over the summer for the new eighth grade civics course; it was noted that some of these next steps require the funding currently in the Legislative budgetary conference committee. The standards were approved unanimously.

The Board next took up the regulations to implement the LOOK Act for English Language learners. Noting the more truncated timeline, Commissioner Riley framed the regulations as needed in order to implement the law but open to tweaking as needed after feedback from the field. There was some discussion of the achievement gap for English language learners and the hope that new options for the teaching of English will assist in closing that; Member Amanda Fernandez asked what the vision is, "What is our North Star?" Member Margaret McKenna spoke of the lack of success of the Sheltered English immersion model and urged the Department to survey teachers around the training that has been provided to teachers by the state. Member Michael Moriarty, expressing concern over what he saw as a low bar of English proficiency being set for English in the seal of biliteracy, due to its tie to MCAS, voted in opposition to the new regulations. All other members voted in favor, and the new regulations passed. 

Next, the Board took up the new regulations for accountability. Noting that the regulations are rooted in ESSA and look towards the publication of new accountability information in the fall, Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin summarized the public comments that had been received by the Department and noted that in response specificity and clarity had been added to the regulations. The Department has made available this summary and has a draft one pager of the new accountability system. Member Ed Doherty opened the Board discussion by remarking at length on why he would vote in opposition, commenting he did "believe the accountability system being proposed was not significantly different than the one we've been living under for two decades," the "ironclad correlation between socioeconomic level and achievement" remained, and as schools "remain terribly underfunded, especially in our poorer communities...if the state can't provide these things, it's time to stop blaming teachers and blame the state." Agreeing with much of what Doherty said, Member Mary Ann Stewart said that she felt the plan was "not clear and actionable" and it wasn't "a very progressive document." Fernandez said she also was not excited and asked, as the field will still have the mindset around the former system, how the state planned to change that. Secretary Jim Peyser said that he was strongly in favor of the work that has been done, of the additional indicators and addition of the bottom quartile in emphasis, commenting further that it was "outrageous and wrong" to blame the current accountability system, and "this puts us on a more solid footing going forward." McKenna noted the unintended consequence of the current system in low income systems teaching to the test and her concern that this new system would do the same for the lowest performing quartile of students; she wished for the time for Commissioner Riley to finish his listening tour and incorporate that feedback into the system. Chair Paul Sagan referred to Riley's recommendation that this plan be adopted and said that he would vote in favor, fearing that it would "send a chaotic signal" to do otherwise. Riley agreed that approval was needed due to federal requirements. He said further that meritocracy only works if all kids start in the same place, that he is searching for the formula that gets all of our kids there; he said, "If we can't figure this out in Massachusetts, who's going to get this done? I believe in Massachusetts exceptionalism." The plan passed, 7-2, Stewart and Doherty opposed.

The Board approved the addition of computer science to the courses that may count towards mathematics in MassCore, noting and commiting to work on closing the disparities around who is offered and takes such courses. 

There was a brief update on budgetary matters: the Legislature has passed an interim $5B spending bill which is on the Governor's desk, as the conference committee will not finish the FY19 budget by the close of the fiscal year on June 30. The Department has finalized the second round of this year's support for districts receiving students displaced by Hurricane Maria, which districts can carry over to next fiscal year. The federal government has made $2.5B available to states receiving students displaced by last year's natural disasters; Massachusetts has submitted an application for those funds. The Department is putting together the applications for the federal grants it administers, which will be rolling out over July and August. Secretary Peyser noted close to half a million dollars of the funding being discussed in conference committee impacts implementation of the new history standards. Riley, referencing the striking down of the Fair Share ballot question, said that the state needs to come to terms with the needs of the educational community. 

The Board adjourned for the summer.