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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Response to the Proficiency Gap Task Force Recommendations

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
September 14, 2010


At a special meeting of the Board on May 24, 2010, Jeff Howard presented the report and recommendations of the Board's Proficiency Gap Task Force. I want to thank Jeff for his leadership of this group, and for bringing so many varied and knowledgeable voices to the table on this critical issue. Many of the Task Force's recommendations will serve as an important guide for this agency's work over the coming years, particularly as additional, sustained resources become available.

Three touchstones have driven my responses to the Task Force recommendations:

  1. respect for the input, deliberation, and expertise that the recommendations reflect;
  2. the goal of policy coherence-pre-existing policy drivers (i.e., BESE priorities, Race to the Top commitments, 21stCentury Skills Task Force recommendations, and Readiness Project recommendations) provide the opportunity to focus on the overlapping policy space and thus to avoid fragmentation of efforts; and
  3. the reality of continuing state fiscal constraints and the recent reduction in force of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

I look forward to discussing my response to the report with you at this and future meetings.

1. A Clear Objective

The Task Force recommends that the Board adopt a goal that at least 85 percent of students from all subgroups score Proficient or Advanced on MCAS by 2020. While targets are important, I do not advise that the Board adopt this target at this time, for one primary reason-I believe that the adoption of this target on top of the other targets that currently exist in state and federal statute will tip the noise/signal ratio further toward noise than signal. If we were starting from scratch, with no existing targets, then setting a proficiency target that aimed at least at 85 percent (I would argue for a higher percentage) would be important. Our current accountability system, however, already employs multiple targets:

  • The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act requires states to hold schools and districts accountable for Adequate Yearly Progress - an element that contributes to the classification into five levels in the accountability/assistance schema that the State Board adopted.
  • The recent state achievement gap legislation requires us to identify the lowest performing 20 percent of schools and 10 percent of districts. We currently are developing a valid and reliable measure of district and school progress in closing proficiency gaps and are exploring the possibility of using this measure as a factor in identifying the lowest performing schools and districts.
  • Exit criteria for Level 4 (underperforming) schools include a measure of progress in closing the proficiency gap for high needs students in the aggregate.
  • Our Race to the Top application commits to closing achievement gaps between the lowest and highest performing student groups by 25 percent over the next four years, while improving the proficiency rates for all student groups. This statewide target is being translated into individual district targets based on each district's starting point for its various student groups. Each district will be held accountable over the four years of Race to the Top funding for their progress on their targets.

In addition, I anticipate that Congress will reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) sometime in the near future and in doing so likely will revise the current federal accountability framework, which sets the expectation that all students achieve proficiency by 2014. Accordingly, I recommend that the Board wait until Congress takes action before considering new/additional achievement targets.

2. An Operational Structure

The Task Force recommends that the work of closing the proficiency gap be given prominence within the agency. I have designated the former Office of Planning and Research to Close Proficiency Gaps to take the lead on this work and, consistent with the Task Force recommendation, have renamed the unit the Office of Planning and Research to Close Proficiency Gaps. This is an appropriate place for the monitoring and evaluation work tied to this effort to be housed, as this office will serve as a central driver of the work of the Department as well as manage our work on Race to the Top. To that end, some RTTT funding will be used to build the capacity of the office to take on these new responsibilities, but it is important to note that the additional positions will be removed after the four years of RTTT.

As recommended by the Task Force in (2.1), this office is well-poised to serve as a liaison with DESE offices to ensure progress is being made in closing the Proficiency Gap. One of OPR's primary responsibilities has been to monitor the agency's Strategic Plan, and to ensure progress is made in achieving our goals and objectives. Through this effort the staff of the office will work directly with the Commissioner under the direction of Deputy Commissioner Nellhaus to monitor implementation of Department initiatives, coordinate office efforts, track progress against targets, and implement DESE internal performance reviews that will be led by the Commissioner.

The Task Force appropriately recommends that the lessons learned as a result of this complex work is widely disseminated (2.3) and carefully measured (2.4). These are both appropriate tasks for this office, to be done in conjunction with the Commissioner's Office, to ensure that the "lessons learned" inform reallocation of resources and efforts as well as modification to Department initiatives.

The Department has begun transforming the Office of Planning and Research to Close Proficiency Gaps with the assistance of the newly-formed United States Education Delivery Institute. Under a grant from the Gates Foundation, the Institute was created to apply the techniques developed by Sir Michael Barber during the Blair administration in England. Barber was charged by the Prime Minister with overseeing the implementation of domestic policy. Barber developed a "delivery unit" that developed protocols for monitoring the implementation of national policies and their impact on outcomes. At the heart of the Institute approach are a set of tools, processes, and a common language for implementation. Its key features include the following:

  • Clear goals: A prioritized number of specific, measurable, ambitious, and time-bound targets to measure progress and determine mid-course corrections.
  • Delivery Chain: A concrete understanding of the people, and the relationships between them, through which services reach various constituents, and a plan for improving services through these relationships.
  • Trajectories: A projected progression towards the goal that creates a tight link between planned interventions and expected outcomes over time.
  • Data for Measuring Progress: Real-time performance information and leading indicators that allow leaders to gauge progress, make mid-course corrections, and create meaningful consequences for education units that are on or off track to meet their goals.
  • Taking Stock: Regular routines that give leaders the feedback they need to uncover situations that require targeted correction or intervention.
  • Best Practice: A continuous global search for lessons from analogous situations, states, and systems that have achieved success.

Together, these tools provide a framework for sizing up challenges and ensuring a sustained focus on meeting them.

Finally, the staff in our existing Office of Adult and Community Learning Services is poised to take on the role of providing information, support, and guidance to families and community leaders (2.5). They have the greatest expertise within the agency in reaching out to groups that would most benefit from greater engagement with their schools and communities, and they already run programs and outreach on related topics such as family literacy and adult education. They intend to further expand this outreach, in conjunction with other stakeholders.

3. Strategies for Change
Focused Interventions (3.1)

The Task Force recommends the development of a "Commissioner's Network" of 15-30 low performing Level 3 and Level 4 schools. I recommend utilizing two existing networks, the Urban Superintendents Network and the Level 4 Network. The former is a well-established network of urban district leaders that meets monthly to discuss common issues, share best practices, and provide one another with needed support. The latter is the recently-developed network of the nine districts with one or more Level 4 schools. We are already deeply invested in the work of these districts, and creating a separate network would unnecessarily splinter our efforts.

The quarterly data presentation and analysis meetings are an excellent idea, and one that is strongly supported by Sir Michael Barber's U.S. Education Delivery Institute. To that end we have recently completed a District Data Team Toolkit that supports districts in using multiple forms of data to inform system-wide action planning. Six modules progress from establishing a District Data Team to launching an inquiry process, analyzing data, taking action, and monitoring results. This resource is available to all districts through our public website, and plans are underway to highlight its availability and provide implementation support for high need districts through our six District and School Assistance Centers (DSACs). In addition we have placed a data specialist in each DSAC to facilitate access to high quality data analysis for smaller districts that lack the capacity to employ their own data teams. We intend to double that number using RTTT funding.

Boston is planning to pilot a Comstat-based (3.1.1) process for intensive analysis of the progress of each of its 12 Level 4 schools. We will closely monitor that work to determine whether this is a process DESE could and should adopt for other Level 4 and/or 3 schools. At one meeting we will invite Boston to introduce to participants its developing Comstat process. A second meeting will introduce participants to practice in at least one Level 4 school that is employing implementation benchmarks effectively. In the meantime DESE is piloting an interview process with the eight other Level 4 districts with Level 4 schools to introduce some of the features of this process.

In addition, DESE will pilot two data meetings with the Level 4 school network in spring 2011. We will invite district superintendents, central office staff, principals, and teacher leaders in the 35 schools with an eye toward learning from one another. One limitation to implementing a more frequent than annual schedule of data meetings across multiple districts is the absence of standardized data that can be captured more frequently than annually. As we develop and gain greater experience with interim assessments and upgrade our data warehouse to permit real-time data transactions, the possibilities for utilizing this approach will grow.

As to quarterly data, through RTTT we intend to develop an online test builder platform, loaded with newly developed and released MCAS items that will be available statewide to allow districts to create, administer, score and report formative and interim assessments as recommended by the Task Force (3.1.2). Use of interim assessments is a condition for school effectiveness and therefore a requirement for Level 4 schools. Those Level 4 schools that do not already have an interim assessment system in place will receive high priority for access to the new state-developed system, and we will build a network for them to work together on and to learn from one another's experiences with implementation and deployment.

To support statewide use of formative assessments, part of the job of the six new DSAC data specialists funded through RTTT will be to help deploy the interim assessment system, focusing first on district leadership teams.

This work must be monitored, evaluated and enforced by school leadership teams to ensure ownership of the school's reform efforts and consistent collaboration and communication (3.1.3). Over the course of the next school year, the Center for Targeted Assistance will extend its work with districts with Level 4 schools to include Level 3 schools that receive federal school turnaround grants. The Center-sponsored network of turnaround schools will explore ways to bring district and school leaders together to examine data about student progress, chart courses of action based on that data, and together assess impacts of those actions. Each district's superintendent and/or designee will be expected to participate in these meetings (3.1.4).

A Drive for Statewide Improvement (3.2)

The recommendations in this section address the statewide needs of schools and districts to support early literacy, English language learners, improve instructional leadership and do more to engage families and community organizations. I agree with many of these recommendations, and have responded to each individually below.

Recommendations to Support Schools and Districts

  • I have already begun discussions with Department of Early Education and Care Commissioner Sherri Killins on the development of a pre-K to grade two literacy assessment (3.2.1). These discussions are ongoing, and I am pleased to report that the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (the Governing Board of which I am currently chairing) was awarded a $10 million dollar grant to develop formative assessments in reading and math for students in grades K-2.
  • A steady flow of tailored academic performance data is critical to continued success in each school and district (3.2.2). RTTT funding will be used to create customized dashboards in our Education Data Warehouse to provide quick access to critical data points for superintendents, principals, and teachers, as well as to deploy the Schools Interoperability Framework for data-sharing statewide so that our Data Warehouse includes the most timely, up-to-date data possible. We will also pre-qualify vendors that provide professional development and support on effective use of data to ensure their quality and to make them easily available to districts for contracting.
  • Continued success in a low-performing school hinges on, among other things, the strength of its leader (3.2.3 and 3.2.4). To that end, since 2005 the DESE has been working with the National Institute for School Leadership (NISL) to provide leadership training to urban school and district leaders. The intent of this initiative is to build leadership capacity through distributed leadership, increase recruitment and retention of effective leaders, and most importantly, to improve student achievement. NISL alumnae participate in an ESE-developed instructional leadership coaching program that focuses on implementation of effective leadership skills and strategies that lead to improved student achievement. Local RTTT funding can be used to support participation in this highly successful professional development initiative.
  • The Department continues to advocate for additional resources to support the efforts of teachers and administrators to serve the needs of English language learners (ELLs). Our Race to the Top application included the development of a model curriculum, specific components to be incorporated into our digital library and teacher training opportunities to address specific ELL needs. We also plan to revise the Commonwealth's English Language Proficiency Benchmarks and Outcomes, which is designed to inform the instruction of English language learners, to align with the newly adopted Common Core State Standards.
  • As detailed above, the staff in our existing Office of Adult and Community Learning Services will expand their efforts to include family outreach (3.2.8), and to work with districts to enhance their efforts to support parents.

Recommendations to Support Educators

  • Our RTTT initiatives include extensive supports and professional development opportunities for educators, including many focused specifically on meeting the needs of English language learners (3.2.5 and 3.2.9), building early literacy skills (3.2.11), and developing strategies to close proficiency gaps (3.2.12).
  • We continue to advocate with stakeholders and the legislators for additional resources for our Office of English Language Acquisition and Academic Achievement (3.2.10) (OELAAA). Esta Montano, a former ESL teacher and administrator in the Framingham Public Schools, recently joined our staff as director of OELAAA in August, and is eager to build the Department's capacity to assist districts serving ELLs. She has been charged with reviewing all of our existing programs, grants, training and other activities to support ELLs, and to make whatever changes are needed.

Recommendations to Support Students and their Families

There is no question that language, culture, demographics and socio-economic differences can lead to non-academic barriers to learning that must be addressed in 21st century schools. Much of this work requires enhanced partnerships and support with community organizations and other state agencies.

  • We do not currently have the resources to develop and staff a separate Office of Family and Community Engagement (3.2.14), but will expand the capacity and responsibilities of the Office of Adult and Community Learning Services (ACLS) to incorporate this work. They will work closely with other stakeholder organizations to develop and disseminate templates and model plans for districts to use in developing their own plans to better engage parents and members of the community (3.2.15). ACLS is already responsible for our adult literacy efforts, and will work closely with the Department of Early Education and Care (3.2.16) to refine, strengthen and expand these efforts as resources are made available.
  • A primary responsibility of OELAAA is to work with districts to ensure that ELL students are properly identified and placed in appropriate instructional programs, taught by qualified and effective teachers, and assessed (3.2.17) to ensure their English language skills rapidly progress.
  • All Level 4 districts currently offer free full-day kindergarten (3.2.18) to 100 percent of their students, as do many other districts. The Department of Early Education and Care is currently working to strengthen and improve all licensed preschool programs.
  • We will use RTTT funding to address the social/emotional needs of students in our lowest performing districts (3.2.19) by improving dropout prevention and recovery programs and leveraging community support to meet the social, emotional and health needs of students and their families. We will also identify and encourage expansion of partners with expertise in this area.
Proficiency Gap report

Last Updated: September, 17 2010
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