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Student Learning Time Regulations: Proposed Delegation of Authority to Commissioner to Approve Waivers for Innovative Programs

Members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education
Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner
April 17, 2013


The Student Learning Time Regulations (603 CMR 27.00), which were last amended by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (Board) in 1995, establish the minimum length for a school day and the minimum number of days in a school year for Massachusetts public schools. Under the regulations, school committees and charter schools are required to schedule a school year that includes at least 185 days at each school, and must operate the schools for at least 180 school days in a school year. In addition, schools must ensure that students are scheduled to receive a minimum of 900 hours of structured learning time per school year for elementary school students and a minimum of 990 hours of structured learning time per school year for secondary school students. Kindergarten students must receive a minimum of 425 hours of structured learning time per school year.

The regulations include two waiver provisions (603 CMR 27.06). One allows the Commissioner to waive the 180-day requirement when an emergency forces the closing of one or more schools. Those waivers are granted only in extraordinary circumstances, as described in our November 2012 guidance document. The other waiver provision, 603 CMR 27.06(1), authorizes the Board to grant a waiver for innovative programming:

The Board of [Elementary and Secondary] Education may, upon the written application of a school committee and the recommendation of the Commissioner of [Elementary and Secondary] Education, grant a waiver of any requirements set forth in 603 CMR 27.00 for good cause. School committees are encouraged to apply for waivers, as needed, to permit the district to initiate innovative programs or schedules intended to improve student learning.

Although this regulation has been in effect for over 15 years, we have had few requests for an "innovative program waiver" until very recently, with the advent of early college high schools. I propose that the Board authorize the Commissioner to establish a waiver process to encourage innovative, high quality programming for students who would benefit from options that vary from the existing school schedule, while assuring that the programs are reviewed for educational adequacy. I am requesting further that the Board delegate authority to the Commissioner to grant the waivers, with periodic reports to the Board on any waivers that have been granted.

Examples of Innovation: Early College High Schools

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) is actively encouraging innovative programming such as early college high schools for secondary school students. Early college high schools are a proven model for preparing students, especially low-income, minority, and first-generation college-goers, for postsecondary education. They provide students with a college experience and an opportunity to get a head start on earning college credits while still in high school. Two examples that DESE is supporting are the Gateway to College and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Early College High School options, which will operate in about 20 districts around the Commonwealth in the 2013-14 school year. Early college high schools are designed to result in higher rates of college-going for students currently underrepresented in higher education and to build an accelerated route linking secondary and postsecondary education. These programs and schools are developed through agreements between high schools and postsecondary institutions.

The Gateway to College program is an early college model that specifically enrolls students who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. Gateway to College is a national model. It gives students the opportunity to earn their high school diploma in a college setting and also earn college credit. The students are placed in a cohort on a partnering community college campus where they enroll in college courses and receive one-on-one advising and counseling from a resource specialist as they matriculate through college. DESE is helping districts in Massachusetts launch three new Gateway to College programs through the MassGrad project (the federal High School Graduation Initiative grant).

Similarly, the STEM Early College High School initiative accelerates students' learning through college level coursework. Given the state's need for highly skilled workers in STEM areas, districts have been encouraged to consider developing early college high schools that motivate and prepare students to explore STEM career pathways while still enrolled in high school and to pursue STEM majors in college.

Early college high schools vary in design, but in some instances these innovative programs, such as the Gateway to College model, are based on a college academic calendar rather than on the 180-day, 990-hour minimum standard for public secondary schools. With the likely expansion of early college models with a range of designs and academic schedules in the future, we want to establish a waiver process under the Student Learning Time Regulations that will encourage innovation while assuring program accountability and educational benefit to the students.1

Waiver Approval Process

The intent of the waiver process is to encourage innovative programs and schedules that will benefit students educationally and improve student learning. The waiver will focus on quality programming that is supported by a sound educational rationale and accountability for results.

In order to reduce the burden on the Board, I propose that the Board authorize the Commissioner to review and take action on waiver applications. DESE will establish guidelines for which programs and schools need to apply for a waiver. The waiver process will include the following:

  1. An application from the school or school district that contains:
    1. A description of the proposed innovative programming, including proposed grade levels and the typical daily and yearly schedule.
    2. A description of how the proposed programming is "innovative" in that it creatively fills an unmet student need in the district.
    3. The educational rationale for why the student learning time requirements (days and/or hours) cannot be met with the proposed programming.
  2. DESE staff will review waiver applications and make recommendations to the Commissioner.
  3. The Commissioner will review the recommendations and determine final approvals.
  4. The Commissioner will report periodically to the Board on waivers approved or denied.

Waiver Oversight and Monitoring

DESE will review student results and other relevant data for program sites approved through the waiver process to learn about the impact on students. Staff across the agency (Office of Planning, Research, and Delivery Systems; Office of Education Data Services; and Office of College and Career Readiness) will collaborate to develop program quality standards and data collection requirements, and will review approved sites annually to determine whether they are providing a quality, innovative education for students that justifies maintaining waiver approval.

A motion is attached for your consideration. With the Board's approval, DESE would begin the waiver process this spring and report to the Board in the spring of 2014 to share progress and findings.

Senior Associate Commissioner Bob Bickerton, Associate Commissioner Pati Gregson, and Jenny Caldwell Curtin of our Office of College and Career Readiness will be at the Board meeting on April 23 to respond to your questions.


Last Updated: April 24, 2013
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