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.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Senator Lewis and Commissioner Chester Discuss Public Education in MA

Last Wednesday, October 5th, State Senator Jason Lewis held a Community Conversation at Melrose's Memorial Hall with Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester. The evening began with a back-and-forth between Senator Lewis and Commissioner Chester, and then Senator Lewis opened the floor to questions from the audience. (Edits and errors mine....)

Conversation with Senator Lewis:

What is the future of public education in MA? We are the top-achieving state in the nation. How do we know that? Our students participate in an assessment that is nationwide and there are also two different international assessments (in both of which we score up with the top tier nations in the world). The US alarmingly doesn’t come in the top tier, but in the mid-ranks. The challenge is that not all students reach that level of success resulting in the achievement gap. The achievement gap is based on how groups of students compare with other groups. Groups are broken down in many ways – not everyone is succeeding at the same level (lower income, students of color, English Language Learners). Gaps are found based on tests, persistence in graduation, college readiness, etc. Another gap to focus on: whether K-12 is preparing students well for opportunities after college. It’s a mixed record in MA. Of matriculating kids, more than a third end up in remedial classes and on two-year campuses, at a rate of 2/3. Often students who attend two-year schools are challenged (e.g. first in family to go to college). They’ve done what we’ve asked and have no reason to think they are underprepared, but they are.

Why are they not successful? Their program of study is not aligned with the skills and abilities they need for college and work (problem solving, communication, etc.). There is still a wide variation in what students experience in schools (quality of instruction, etc.) Regarding assessments, the Board of Education voted 8-3 to transition to MCAS 2.0 in 2017. Please share your thoughts on testing and where are we headed with MCAS 2.0. I’m a believer in strong, high-quality statewide assessment. It’s important to have a marker of expectations at certain grades. As parent, I rely on what teachers tell me, but want another measure (determining whether the child is where he/she needs to be), but it must be high quality. There is concern from teachers about testing but most assessment is not coming from the state. The state is asking whether assessments are providing useful data. We’ve had high-quality assessment in MCAS (in place 20 years now with little change). But a lot has transpired and evolved with learning, assessment, and technology. Children overwhelmingly prefer on-line MCAS. MA helped develop PARCC, but ultimately made the decision in Nov. to take the best of MCAS and PARCC with significant input from various stakeholder groups (student accommodations, etc.) Tricky thing with assessments – everyone wants them to be really useful but really short, and those are at odds.

Using results of standardized tests to evaluate teachers: where is that going? It’s critical to look at how students are learning. Each district should have a say in how students are learning. Observations, discussions about meeting student challenges, and test results should all be part of the equation.

Sen. Lewis pushing to update the education funding formula. Now there’s not a strong correlation between the amount spent per student and student performance. There’s an $800M shortage for what we should be providing students vs. what we actually provide. Are the findings of the Foundation Budget Review Commission accurate and how do we move to implement these recommendations? The Commissioner was a member of that commission. Special education and healthcare costs are running far ahead of what was anticipated. Thoughts: it’s important to think about being willing to examine what we’re doing with the dollars we have. MA identifies students as needing SPED second only to RI in country (17%); the national average is 12%. Asking districts to think about whether a student has a disability, deciding whether we’ve tried everything we can before we make that decision is important because it’s hard to lose that label. The message isn’t to deny students services, but to provide them without special education services.  Separately, healthcare costs are escalating at a rate that is significant.

English Language Learners: we have more and more students who are refugees and don’t speak English and may not have had a formal education. The Senate wants to revisit educating students who don’t speak English. How are we doing? We’re gravitating to the phrase “English Learners” (their proficiency in English is not enough for them to be fully on their own in classes). 80% of ELL’s have grown up in MA – coming from households where little if any English is spoken. Most have been in our system since pre-school or K. A 2002 ballot issue passed that said that Sheltered English Immersion should be the framework - not a bilingual setting. This is a national challenge. Doesn’t see research that shows that one method is better than another – any can be done well and any can be done poorly. The ballot issue dealt with students who were in separate classrooms all day. The biggest casualty from ballot issue was denigrating the value of bilingual proficiency.

Behavioral health – often referred to as Social Emotional Learning. K-8 school in Malden revealed one week’s worth of issues: hunger, trauma, homelessness, incarcerated parents, domestic abuse, etc. Share your thinking across state agencies to support students and staff around social emotional issues. All educational associations have taken on this issue. At DESE, they’ve restructured to support these needs and there are many situations that need immediate attention. We need a staged approach; more and more districts ensuring that teachers have more support as part of the classroom program. In specialized situations, need good connections (social worker, school nurse, community agency) to provide services. Virtually every community in the Commonwealth is trying to improve in this area. DESE is exploring Affordable Care Act financing that could come to school, inquiring whether there are ways to employ its monies.

What are DESE’s plans for informing students about gender identities? Proud of educators who do this every day to make families feel protected and welcomed. Schools have risen to the challenge. Will there be materials in the curriculum about gender identity or gender non-conforming to treat the topic respectfully? The DESE website has materials. DESE is working closely with other departments and doesn’t dictate materials but does act as a source for them.

On charter schools: Sen. Lewis has made his position clear (no on Question 2) given issues around funding, differential treatment, accountability. In 1993, charters were designed to be laboratories and best practices should be brought into traditional public schools. Is that what we’ve done or are we building a parallel public school system? Where are we headed, what is the role of charters, and where are we going on the concerns? Back to enabling legislation: to be a laboratory of innovation is one purpose, choice as a value, other multiple purposes. What may not be well known is that MA does a very good job holding charters accountable (getting and keeping charters). DESE hasn’t closed any public schools. One reason MA maintains the high bar is because there is only one authorizer while in other states, there are many. Not sure there are concerns about accountability. Very concerned about the aftermath of Nov. 8th election because there will be people upset. Encourages people not to sulk after the vote. His interest: how do we give every family good options? Voc/techs and school choice (with some districts cannibalizing each other) also play a part. One of his dreams is to create an environment to bring charters in to take over existing low-performing schools. (In Lawrence, three charters operate under management contracts.) Would love to see legislation entertaining charters as a district opportunity to turn around low-performing schools.

Q&A from the audience:

Discipline in charter schools is significant and a problem. In any school that’s suspending a significant percentage of kids, it’s a problem.

Malden cut $2.5M in budget last year. Is there any way to see what programs they have in place to earn that funding so the “minimum number” vs. “padded number” goes to them? Has anyone gone back to “low-hanging fruit” in the Foundation Formula? The school district decides how to send funds to schools; will see more school-level funding.

What have you done about implementation of ESSA (federal education law) and is there any working group info? Feedback and suggestions are on-line. What kinds of changes might be coming from ESSA? There are lots of aspirations for what this law will do. (End testing and accountability? Not end testing and accountability?) It will allow more equilibrium – return some prescriptives from the federal to state level. What will remain are academic expectations, testing programs, issuance of report cards for every school in the state, an intervention plan for schools that are struggling the most, a school quality indicator (which MA is taking input on). Senator Warren became a powerful voice in the discussion; she wanted a strong federal requirement for equity and excellence.

Is it time for DESE to consider history being formally assessed? Yes – very concerned about students’ knowledge of basic civics and how government works. Lack of knowledge doesn’t bode well going forward. The state board is committed to this issue and will start reviewing frameworks in January, which is the starting point for the assessment issue.

Some people feel that the federal government is not doing their job, that the state doesn’t either, and responsibility comes down to the local level. <Listed all the things a teacher must do in one class.> (All in the room – including Commissioner Chester, were impressed and amazed at the list.)

On the merits of charter school and opinion on the funding formula – state leaders must come together. There is a claiming process and accountability. Issues are costs for that student returning to a district; marginal cost doesn’t decline. In suburban districts it’s a much bigger issue that students are going to voc/techs.