Public Policy Updates: September 2018 Meeting of the Board of Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education resumed their school year schedule with a meeting on Tuesday, September 18 in Malden. The meeting agenda may be found here

Chair Paul Sagan opened the meeting by welcoming the Board's new student representative Maya Matthews of Newton, noting that she is a full voting member of the Board. He also called attention to Commissioner Jeffrey Riley's proposed goals, found later on the agenda, commenting that it was the Commissioner's first full year. Chair Sagan suggested that he would like the Board to focus more on "evidenced-based policy making" in concert with the Early Education and Higher Education boards, as there is a great deal of data available, including data from students after graduation. He specificially referenced economic outcomes as one aspect in which he is interested.
Commissioner Riley expressed the Department's condolences to the Lawrence schools on the loss of Leonel Rondon in the recent gas explosions in the Merrimack Valley. He thanked those who have contributed and Eversource Gas, which went school by school to allow them to reopen in Andover, North Andover and Lawrence. He noted the recent release of the model MOU for school resource officers. He also asked that the Board reserve judgment on the state's new accountability system, which will have its first demonstration at the end of this month.
Secretary James Peyser spoke of the Governor's proposed FY18 supplemental budget, which would put $70M toward school safety in various ways. He also spoke of recent visits to some of the early college high school programs across the state.
The single public comment was made by Emily Ruddock of MassCreative, who said she is "so delighted to see there is an update on the arts curriclum framework," noted the organization's support for the incorporation of arts in the school and district report cards, and asked that a staff person be added within the Department specifically to coordinate professional development and implementation of the updated arts curriculum standards once they are completed. 

The Board next discussed the Commissioner's proposed goals for the coming year. The Commissioner said that his goals take note of the timing: "We've done 25 years of education reform. There's been some good things; there's been some things that haven't been as good as we've hoped." As part of that, the communication goal is intended "to bring people under one tent to try to work together" on a way forward. He asked that we take this year to celebrate our teachers, "getting back to our bread and butter focus on quality instruction." He said that he would be remiss if he didn't talk about the foundation budget, and said that the Department will provide "whatever help we can" in helping Beacon Hill come "to a good resolution." Noting that 40% of Massachusetts students are of color while 8% of Massachusetts educators are, the Commissioner spoke strongly of the need to recruit and retain teachers at all, but particularly teachers of color. In response to a question from member Mary Ann Stewart regarding institutional racism, the Commissioner said that the Department had engaged with Courageous Conversations internally last year and will be focusing externally next. Member Amanda Fernández noted the need for multilingual and multicultural recruitment efforts as well. Member Marty West asked that the history and social studies assessment be mentioned, while Member Michael Moriarty asked that early literacy be added. Member Margaret McKenna noted the need for those who look like those being recruited to be part of recruitment efforts. Vice-Chair James Morton asked that the Commissioner call and ask the Board members for support as needed; echoing that, Member Maya Matthews specifically said, "in many cases, the answers are going to lie with the students." The Board asked that the Commissioner redraft his goals and share them with the Board.

Jamel Siddiqui, the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, next spoke to the Board of his work and what he sees as his priority during this year. A mathematics teacher in East Bridgewater, Mr. Siddiqui has twenty former students who also teach math. He asked them why they became teachers, and many spoke of their own teachers. The passion that drives teachers too often is being replaced by frustration, Mr. Siddiqui told the Board. He urged them to support meaningful professional development, to encourage common planning time for pedagogical conversations, and to allow for failure. True growth only comes from failure, and "room to grow should be the fundamental basis for education."

The Board next was updated on the effort to overhaul the arts curricular standards, which haven't been touched since 1999. The Department has four goals in updating: 

  1. emphasizing the importance of arts education
  2. including media arts and other emerging forms
  3. aligning to current research and resources
  4. aligning to the structure of other curricular frameworks

The panel is now in the writing and revising stage, with the intent to be back this winter with a request for public comment and adoption in May.

The Board received an update on the MCAS, ahead of scores bieng released next week. This year, participation was over 99%; 89% of students in grades 3-8 were tested in ELA and math on a computer. The planned official release of state, district, and school results are Thursday, September 27. This spring is the first year that the new high school test will be given to tenth graders. That class and the one following will have their scores scaled to current standards. The plan at this time is for the Department to have community input around the competency determination, with the Board voting to set that in the winter of 2019-20. In science, the Department plans to phase out the technology/enginnering and the chemistry tests, which only 3.3% and 0.6%, respectively, of students take for the first time. The Department feels that the biology test and physics tests will serve the vast majority of students, with a few submitting portfolios, as they do now. The Department is also continuing to investigate ways to have students spend less time on testing and to have results back to teachers more quickly.

 Finally, the Board received an update on the foundation budget and on the fiscal years '19 and '20 budgets. Deputy Commissioner Jeffrey Wulfson reviewed the history of the foundation budget, its review by the Foundation Budget Review Commission, and the bits of implementation that have taken place thus far. He also spoke of the support the Department had given the conference committee in their efforts to resolve the two different bills before the Legislature. He noted that all such consideration had nothing to do with the current fiscal year. He called to the Board's attention that an increase in the foundation budget for any particular district will not translate to a dollar-for-dollar increase in state aid and, "in some, it may not translate to any increase in state aid." Member Katherine Craven said that the only one of the four items that "could be translated into achievement gap closure" is poverty. Wulfson said that there are two types of districts most suffering fiscal distress: the Gateways, which are growing but are only funded at or just above foundation, and rural districts west of Worcester, which have shrinking enrollment. Craven said she would "prefer something more targeted" than the Commission recommendations, with the Secretary echoing, asking how the Board could ensure those funds are being used to have a larger impact on student outcomes. McKenna noted that while there is highly documented data on how to attack the achievement gap, "the budget doesn't target those things." To the board's comments along this line, Wulfson explained that the money for such programs are instead being put into health insurance and special education, both of which have to be paid for. 

Regarding the budget, Chief Financial Officer William Bell said the Department is awaiting the review of their spending plan for FY19; they are now on to planning FY20. On the federal side, Bell said "Congress has pretty much continued to fund federal eduation programs at a baseline program level."

The Board then adjourned; they will next meeting on Tuesday, October 30, unless a Monday special meeting is required the evening prior.