Public Policy Updates: June Board of Ed

True to new Chair Katherine Craven's promise to take meetings on the road, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on Tuesday, June 25 at Rumney Marsh Academy in Revere. The agenda is online here; the video of the meeting may be viewed here

Chair Craven again took public comment first. The first remarks were from MassCreative, speaking on behalf of the Arts for All coalition, spoke of the state arts frameworks, on the agenda for a final vote. Testimony urged passage, nothing the "countless hours" spent by member of their own coalition and so many others, while also calling attention to the need for more linkage between the arts and STEM courses. 

A panel of Peter Demling of the Amherst School Committee, Sarah Hall of the Pelham School Committee, and Molly Burnham of the Northampton School Committee spoke next in support of Commissioner Jeffrey Riley's denial of the expansion of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School. The panel shared demographic information in support of the Department's note that the demographics of the school are not reflective of the sending districts. The insufficient demand and the drag on local districts alone would be enough, but the school has not stepped up as required in admitting and retaining students that reflect the rest of the population. In particular, the disparity in special education is vast, noted Demling."I know that the Board does not have the power to change funding, but you are the guardians of public education," said Burham. Hall noted that it is the school's eighth request for expansion in an area of the state in which overall enrollment is dropping. 
There was also testimony regarding an upcoming gifted and talented report which in particular focused on the racial and ethnic disparities; students of color fall behind their white peers by sixth grade and "their gap widens with each year of schooling."
There were also concerned raised about layoffs at the Pappas Rehabilatation Hospital in who treats children. 

Chair Craven welcomed new student representative Matt Tibbits from Ludlow High School. She has appointed member Amanda Fernández to chair a subcommittee in support of Commissioner Riley's work on teacher diversity. She has asked member Martin West to work on a data roadmap as part of the joint work with the Departments of Early Education and Higher Education. She also also appointed member Matt Hills as her own successor as budget subcommittee chair.

Commissioner Riley then presented his report reflecting on his first year "Our Way Forward." The Commissioner spoke of his meeting across the state with stakeholders; he said we have "so much to be proud and grateful for," but there are still students being left. He is concerned that NAEP scores are flat, and he has heard much of the narrowing of teaching that has happened. He proposes, then: 

  1. Deeper learning for all, with an aligned curriculum that gives teachers freedom and inspires and excites students
  2. Holistic support and enrichment recognizing that students can't learn if they are in crisis and that enrichment opportunities can provide a buffer for students struggling with mental health
  3. Innovation and evidence-based practices, saying "if we do get this [additional] funding, we are going to need districts to implement evidence-based practices." These include, the Commissioner said, workplace diversity, acceleration academy, home visiting programs, and literacy instruction. 
  4. The state as a partner, as a source of expertise on which districts can draw;"obviously, the state is always going to be a compliance based organization," the Commissioner said, but will be seeking to partner with districts.

To that end, the Department will be creating the Kaleidoscope Collective for Learning for districts to work on engaging performance tasks, innovative assessment design, increased school and district flexibilities, and resources and support. A letter of intent is due over the summer with full applications due in the fall and the work beginning early next year.
Member Ed Doherty noted that all of this will take funding, and said that he hopes the Board has a role in advocating for getting increased funding to schools. Member Mary Ann Stewart said that she is interested that NAEP and PISA are moving towards more performance-based tasks, and she is interested what direction the state is going on that; she asked if there was coordination going on with MCIEA. The Commissioner commented that Associate Commissioner Rob Curtin is doing work on K-2 assessment with them, and he thinks they will be involved in some way. Member Michael Moriarity spoke of community support on turnaround, mentioning a recent podcast on the Oak Hill CDC and Union Hill School in Worcester. He said making the protocols for the identification of dyslexia more widely known is important. Member Margaret McKenna gave credit to the Commissioner for the vision of partnering with districts, saying "it's a tribute to you;" he interjected that he had inherited the Department. Member Hills asked if this was "a foot in the door" on the direction of the state on MCAS; Riley said "We are not in any way shape or form abandoning the MCAS test" but that having it take less time and getting it scored more quickly is a priority, and the need for a new assessment on history and social studies is going in a different direction than the current MCAS exams. Vice-Chair James Morton said that he agreed with a number of parts of the report; students "can't be what they can't see," making teacher diversity crucial. Students also "struggle with a college-going identity," making early college an important support, and he is looking forward to other ways to assess students and districts. Fern├índez said the report gave her "a new sense of hope," and she hoped it will change how we talk not about these children, but our children. 

The Board next took up the evaluation of the Commissioner; the full document can be read here. Vice-Chair Morton chaired the evaluation subcommittee, which interviewed stakeholders in creating the evaluation. The four dimensions considered were: 

  1. Facilitating student growth and achievement, weighted at 30%, in which the Board rated him 3.8 out of 5
  2. Management and Operations, weighted at 25%, in which the Board rated him a 3.75 out of 5
  3. External relations and communication, weighted at 25%, in which the Board rated him a 4.5 out of 5
  4. Board support and effective interactions, weighted at 20%, in which the Board rated him a 4.75 out of 5

This then resulted in an overall rating of 4.15 out of 5. The Board reported concluded: 

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts continues to rank as the best public education system in the United States, which evidences the ongoing exceptional work of the MA DESE and its leadership. Nonetheless, our work is not complete, as achievement and opportunity gaps persist. The Commissioner has given us great hope that addressing this challenge will be his strategic and personal imperative.

The subcommittee recommended a salary increase of 2%, which the Board unanimously approved.

The Board next took up the final vote on the new arts framework for the first time in two decades. As has been previously noted, the arts frameworks outline eleven artistic practices in which skills and knowledge develop over a child's education. It adds media arts as a discipline and it recognizes eight grade spans. It holds as guiding principles culturally aware instruction, social emotional learning, and engaging communities in the arts. The intent is for 2019-20 to be transition year with full implementation in 2020-21. Member McKenna asked (as she often does) about resources behind implementation; there is now a Departmental position for the arts with the hiring of Dawn Benski and there will be online resources, but there are not financial resources for implementation from the state. There is also hope for cross-disciplinary implementation. The Board unanimously passed the new frameworks.

The Board then heard the Commissioner's recommendation to update the accountability system for the coming year. The presentation is here; the redlined changes are here. These changes not only had been out for public comment, but also were before the Accountability and Assistance Advisory Council. The changes are not major this year, as the intent, per Associate Commissioner Curtin, is "to give the system time to breathe and to grow and to develop a bit" before more changes are made. As such, the recommendation was to add Project Lead the Way courses to those considered advanced coursework (a list that is being updated); to shift the calcuation of participation in testing of subgroups by combining subgroup participation across subject area tests; to add a second year of data to that considered, with this most recent year being weighted at 60%; and to change the description of schools and districts as meeting or exceeding targets, significant progress towards targets, moderate progress towards targets and limited or no progress towards targets. These are not changes to the regulations, but changes to the system of implementation. 
Thought it was not proposed for any changes, the discussion centered on chronic absenteeism, which has been the focus of several kinds disagreement. The Department sees this as a measurement of loss of instruction. There have been concerns raised over the level of control districts and schools have over student attendance, over the disparities among students in what might cause absenteeism, and over student health. At this time, the Department has no plans to change this measurement. Member Moriarty said that he felt this pushback was due to lack of professional development;"it's not rocket science; it just has to be clarified for people," he said. Member Stewart asked about what counts as attendance, which Curtin said has been clarified with districts as at least a half day of instruction which can be attained in various ways. The Department has data from districts with similar student populations that have different rates of chronic absenteeism; Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston spoke of the work of some districts in creating the habit of going to school. Member West noted the difference between what causes absenteeism and what causes chronic absenteeism. The changes passed unanimously.

The Department has begun an update on the health frameworks, last updated in 1999. Much more is now known of effective health education. There is a focus on this on problem solving and decision making, and the transfer of skills. At this time, the intial outreach and planning is completed, the panel of nearly 50 members is now reviewing and revising. The intent is to be back before the Board to solicit public comment on a draft in the fall, with a final vote to implement in the winter. Implementation then would be in 2020-21. 

After delegating authority to the Commissioner on expected summer actions on charter schools and setting the dates of meetings for next year, the Board next heard the appeal of Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School's expansion request, denied by Commissioner Riley. The counsel for the school spoke at some length of the charter school laws, of the school's high enrollment in earlier grades, and the unique nature of the program offered. The Department cited as reason for the denial: 

This type of enrollment plan, with assumed attrition, is no longer a viable choice under the current charter school statute. In 2010, the charter school statute was amended, adding new statutory requirements to backfill vacancies, to create and augment recruitment and retention plans, and to retain students.The changed statute made impermissible significant planned attrition in the first half of the school's grade span.

The issue of attrition over the school's history and over the years of attendance of students was the issue spoken of by Senior Associate Commissioner Cliff Chuang. The school argued that retaining students over the upper grades was not their model. Several members of the Board noted their support for charter schools in general and this school in particular and asked that work be done to get the Department and the school on the same page. On Vice-Chair Morton's motion, the appeal was denied. 

Outgoing student representative Maya Mathews then delivered the State Student Advisory Council End-of-Year Report (not, alas, available online; we will update if it becomes available). The Council worked this year on mental health, global outreach, and civics. They have taken voter registration into schools and have discussed the varying levels of student government involvement in school governance. They have advocated not only for the expansion of language study but the education of students as global citizens. They have also advocated for increases and best practices in mental health services for students.

Finally, the Board received an update on the FY20 state budget, now in conference committee. The Board was also told that there have been requests for modelling from the education committee as they work on a school funding bill. Associate Commissioner Bill Bell said it was important to note that the funding bill does not impact the FY20 budget; any implementation of a school funding bill will happen beginning in FY21.

The Board adjourned and will next meet in September.