Margaret Raymond Driscoll is a nine-year Melrose School Committee member who is passionate about excellent teaching and learning for all public school students, and considers it a privilege to collaborate with others who share that passion. You can also follow her on Twitter at @MargaretDrisc. Just to be clear - opinions expressed here do not represent those of the Melrose Public Schools, the Melrose School Committee, or the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials - they are hers alone.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Secretary Peyser's Education Plans

State Education Secretary James Peyser provided remarks on goals for, and approaches to, education by the new administration and took some questions at the Mass. Association of School Business Officials Conference this past Thursday. Here’s my take on what was said:

Public education is where the rubber hits the road (starting with central administration). Local level decisions make meaningful and lasting improvements in education quality. Governor Baker’s administration is proposing a framework for the months ahead. 2015 is a good time to begin this conversation (and evaluate the status quo), with a new Senate President, Higher Education Commissioner, Governor, and UMass President. 

Goals of administration (a framework around education finance):
·      Making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Results are now underwhelming in efficiency and outcomes. We have to break down silos in all sectors and look for opportunities to align education and workforce skills.
·      Valuing results over compliance; the latter are obstacles to common sense and sound judgment. They are freezing all regulations that were in process when the Governor took office. There is a new initiative to review all regulations. Needed are clear outcome goals and metrics for each department to streamline and hold all accountable. In terms of the budget, we need not just take action on line items, but pay for performance.
·      Encouraging innovation and customer service. It’s easy to do what we’ve always done’ but that doesn’t recognize new ways of doing things. In public education, we need to recognize the unique needs of students and then identify things they are accomplishing. Both students and families are customers of schools; taxpayers are customers too. The state must share information and help solve problems. We have to respond quickly to questions and collaborate.
·      Transparency, predictability, sustainability. The volatility of funding from one year to the next is frustrating. We have to commit to core funding streams.

How to approach:
·      Greater alignment between early education and college. We must incorporate the Foundation budget (per pupil formulas). K-12 doesn’t have all the answers. There need to be incentives instead of consequences for higher standards and better outcomes – expand what works.
·      Affordability of the whole, not just the parts. Skeptical that we can afford it all, but use resources smarter, even though there will still be trade-offs. Need new funding plans., otherwise, it will remain first-come first-serve since it rewards who can get legislation in the fastest.
·      Rethinking teaching and learning. Can’t layer costs on existing base and can’t use the same educational model. Technology is not the solution to all problems. We’re still barely touching how to be additive vs. transformative. Need to use that information to inform reducing costs.
·      Allocate state grant funding; it’s not supposed to support ongoing initiatives. Districts have been using money to advocate for the status quo instead of using it to make change that the grants were intended for. “Doing good is just not good enough.” The proposed Competitive Grant Fund in the Governor’s budget combines grants. They encourage school/community clusters in districts (e.g. 4th grade pairing with early education or expansion of technical high schools and and pairing them with local employers. The fund supports those initiatives. We need ideas to make this reform happen.

He ended by noting that reforms require our participation and he looks forward to working with us.

Questions (underlined with responses following):

Speak about mandates: The state is going through every regulation on the books, which will be complete by the end of the calendar year.

View on expansion of charter schools. Need more charter schools - they are producing great results for students they serve – particularly in low income/urban districts. Must make progress for students in those communities. Can’t leave children behind. Next question will be  how to effectively manage.

What about the needs of other public schools? Right now, the money should follow the child. Districts should allocate more to the school level (not district-wide overhead) and restructure resources to address shrinking enrollment. That requires more communication between the state and charter schools.

Mandates? Some truth to the fact that mandates (designed by legislators alone) can be bad. Concerned that there are successes at the school level but if we don’t have practitioners involved, then we can’t offer perspective – that makes it policymakers “reviewing their own stuff.” Collective wisdom and experience in this room that can inform that process.  Would like advice on how to receive that information in order to engage effectively.

Not a proponent of charter schools – Holyoke experienced middle class “white flight” and poor students were left in district in Holyoke public schools. Why doesn’t charter funding work like school choice? Don’t agree on “white flight” comment but will give thought to school choice model.

Reference to pay for performance. Have teachers union been involved? Conceptually, we should think about (through formula or grant funding) providing some preference or incentive to districts/schools, with incremental dollars based on an index of growth. There are a lot of details that would make it easier or harder to do. Scale up what’s working. He recognizes that student assessment is not for teacher evaluation (but he’d like to see that implemented).

Districts are ravaged by charters. Extended Learning Time offered, not union, work rules different. Questioner believes in fair play but public schools don’t have a chance to compete. What thoughts are there around a level playing field? Don’t disagree – need to address concerns to have flexibility in public schools. Receivership allows relaxation of constraints. Let’s let parents decide.

Cape has a charter high school. K-8 students are in traditional public school, then kids go to charter high school and that charter gets the kudos, but the reason they do well at the charter is because their parents are involved and they have a good foundation from the public schools. Also, the traditional publics got slapped for a bad school lunch review – that is symptomatic of unfair playing field. Finally, grants are a huge administrative nightmare for districts. Baker wants to reduce burdens, but we want to be aggressive about things we do control.

Charter school funding – Holyoke loses $11m to charter schools. Just because it costs $10k to educate at charters, the district doesn’t save that $10K by having those students leave. (Publics can’t change staffing based on that.) Reimbursement doesn’t cover costs because overall staffing is not affected. That’s a legitimate argument in that if you lose handful of students, you can’t resize. When charter has been around awhile, they can restructure. In Holyoke, the reimbursement is very generous. But it does create pain and people lose their jobs.

One of the excellent things DESE has done is Edwin (the now defunct data collection and analysis system) since that kind of work can be a game-changer. We should continue to support that work. That’s an underappreciated asset right now – it was a tremendous platform with incredible potential. The extent to which it’s being used is tremendous.

The local high school that’s a charter (Sturgis) has history of serving free and reduced lunch students but the ELL population is never served. Is that a problem? There is no evidence of discrimination/screening/counseling out. If there are structural barriers (ELL, sped) from gaining access to a school, we need to be proactive about addressing. Overall, charters serve a higher proportion of low income students than a district itself (Boston). The charter population is representative of those whom they serve.