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Commissioner's Weekly Update - June 21, 2013

An End-of-Year Message from Commissioner Chester:

Twenty years ago this month, state policymakers enacted reforms to our public K-12 education system that introduced a new era of clear, measurable academic standards for all students aligned to an accountability system that held students, schools, and districts accountable for results. State leaders also committed billions of new dollars in state education aid to support those reforms. We would not be where we are today - our students lead the nation in reading and mathematics achievement - without the high standards and strong accountability measures implemented under the Education Reform Act of 1993. And, more than anything, we are where we are today because our educators are demonstrating the ability to rise to the challenge of effectively educating our young people.

Our Successes

The success of our work is evident in many important outcome measures, including our most recent student data on high school graduation, MCAS scores, Advanced Placement (AP) results, and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) scores. As examples:

High School Graduation

  • Our four-year graduation rate improved once again and reached the highest level to date (84.7 percent).
  • Our annual dropout rate declined again and reached the lowest level in the two decades for which we have comparable records (2.5 percent).

MCAS

  • Our 2012 MCAS scores showed the highest performance ever in English language arts, mathematics, and science for high school students, with more students than ever scoring "proficient" or higher on their first attempt.

Advanced Placement Courses

  • Participation and success rates in Advanced Placement courses increased, with more than 15,000 high school students in 2012 scoring a 3 or higher on at least one AP exam, which is a predictor of college readiness.

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Survey

  • On the 2011 TIMSS, Massachusetts 8th graders placed among the world leaders in mathematics and science achievement; scored double-digit gains since 2007; and achieved the strongest mathematics gains and second strongest science gains worldwide when compared to 1999.

Gap-Narrowing

  • While virtually all student groups made progress from prior years, students from the groups that started furthest behind (based on race/ethnicity, family income status, and disability status) made stronger gains on average in graduation rates, reduced dropout rates, and MCAS results than students from groups that started ahead - thus narrowing gaps on most key outcome measures.

The Challenges

Despite our accomplishments, challenges remain. Employers report that too many high school graduates are unprepared for the literacy and mathematics expectations of the workplace. Almost 40 percent of graduates who enter our public higher education system are placed in non-credit bearing, remedial courses. Too often it is students of color, students from low income families, English language learners, and students with disabilities who are not enjoying the level of academic success that defines our results in the aggregate.

It is my conviction that we must make adjustments to our current educational system if we are to tackle these gaps successfully and address inconsistencies in educational attainment. I have heard from you, too, that continuing to build on our reforms of the past two decades is the right goal. Our successes over the last 20 years - which are a result of the dedication of our exceptional teaching and administrative corps - demonstrate that we are capable of delivering for all students, not just for some students.

The end of the current school year also marks my fifth anniversary as your commissioner. Over that time, the Commonwealth has accelerated its reform efforts. The passage of the Achievement Gap Act of 2010 was a major milestone, as was our securing a four-year, $250 million Race to the Top grant to support this work. We are implementing new Curriculum Frameworks in English language arts/literacy Download PDF Document and mathematics Download PDF Document to ensure that every student experiences a course of study that will prepare them for college and career. We are looking closely at who is leading our classrooms, schools, and districts, as well as how to provide our teachers and administrators with feedback to support their growth and development. We are working hard to accelerate turnaround efforts in our lowest performing schools and districts. We have also begun to think about the role of technology, how to better leverage its use, and what opportunity it provides for teachers.

My Commitment

I consistently hear from you - and I believe this firmly myself - that this is work worth doing. I also hear from you a desire to implement this work well, along with concern that the pace and substance of the work be manageable. Make no mistake - I understand that this is hard work. To this end, my staff and I will work closely with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and the statewide professional organizations representing teachers, principals, school committees, and others to identify opportunities to support your efforts and adjust timelines and deliverables so that you - and ultimately our students - are able to realize the benefits that thoughtful implementation will yield.

At the same time, I want to be clear that I have a tremendous sense of urgency about the need to pursue the changes that will address the gaps in educational attainment and thus prepare all of our students for success after high school. While I am committed to making adjustments that will help you with successful implementation, I am not interested in delaying or pausing. Our students do not get to put their lives on hold until the adults are ready to tackle the upgrades that will ensure student success after high school.

Having made these points, I want to emphasize that I do worry about the danger of making perfect the enemy of good. I view the reform work that we have taken on as developmental. With each successive year, we will become more skilled and competent in delivering upgraded programs. The year that we start up an initiative will be one of fledgling implementation. The second year we will be more sophisticated. By the third year, we will be even more skilled. There is no shortcut - we need to start the work before we can move from novice to good to great.

ESE's role as the state education agency is to increase our level of assistance, upgrade the technical assistance we provide, continue to share exemplars of high quality practices and programs, and convene stakeholders for meaningful collaborative work and sharing of best practices. You have my commitment that we will continue to identify opportunities to provide you with support, technical assistance, and resources that further the work.

Core 2012-13 Initiatives

As you know, ESE has launched a number of reform strategies to improve curriculum, instruction, and assessment, enhance educator effectiveness, turnaround out lowest performing schools and districts, and use technology to drive improvement. I wanted to provide a quick update on the following initiatives and to forecast the key accomplishments that lie ahead in the 2013-14 school year:

ELA and Mathematics Frameworks: Schools are implementing our new college and career ready standards in ELA and Mathematics. The new Frameworks provide a clear signal to students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12 about their readiness for the next grade level, and in high school, their readiness for college and careers. The Frameworks capitalize on feedback from employers and higher education about where our graduates were most often falling short in terms of their literacy and mathematical skills.

ESE is working with educators from across the state to develop more than 100 pre-K to grade 12 model curriculum units in ELA and literacy, history/social science, mathematics, and science and technology/engineering. We are also piloting the new Edwin Teaching & Learning system that provides online tools for educators to create standards-based curriculum maps, curriculum units and lesson plans, and the ability to build and deliver interim and formative assessments. Educators will be able to access an array of digital materials and resources to aid in classroom instruction. Our goal is to roll out the new system to all Race to the Top districts by March 2014.

Educator Evaluation: While Race to the Top districts began implementing the state's new evaluation framework this past year, all of the remaining districts will implement the new system during the 2013-14 school year. We are getting great feedback from teachers and administrators about the value of the new system in building opportunities for teachers to set goals, work with colleagues, and share evidence of goal attainment. The system is providing opportunities for educators to learn from high-performers, to identify what is working, and to adopt practices that promote better student learning.

ESE hosted a one-day convening in Sturbridge in May that brought together more than 700 practitioners from districts across the Commonwealth to hear about the importance of this initiative and learn about emerging practices in implementing the new system. ESE will continue to post new materials to support this work at http://www.doe.mass.edu/edeval/.

SEI Endorsement Course: During the 2013-14 school year, ESE will continue to provide training for more of the nearly 26,000 core academic teachers who teach one or more English language learners (ELLs) and must meet the state's new requirement to earn a Sheltered English Immersion (SEI) Teacher Endorsement by July 1, 2016. ELLs are the Commonwealth's fastest growing group of students, and they have the largest proficiency gap. To strengthen the academic achievement of ELLs, the state board of elementary and secondary education in 2012 adopted new regulations to transform the teaching and learning of ELLs. The new requirement that all core academic teachers of ELLs earn the SEI Teacher Endorsement is central to our larger RETELL initiative to improve outcomes for ELLs.

School and District Turnaround: The 2012-13 school year is the third year under our new accountability system - we identified 34 Level 4 schools in March 2010. The Achievement Gap Act provided new flexibilities to turn around our lowest performing schools. Each school designated as Level 4 was required to produce a turnaround plan and received priority to apply for federal School Redesign Grants of approximately $500,000 per year for up to three years. ESE also provided targeted supports to the schools and helped connect them to additional turnaround resources where appropriate.

Lawrence Public Schools Receivership: In 2013-14, schools will implement their plans to extend the school year so all students in grades 1-8 have a minimum of 1,330 hours this fall. The district will continue to work with high quality educational management organizations and bring new partners to Lawrence. Students who need additional academic intervention will continue to receive intensive instruction tailored to their individual academic needs and will participate in enrichment activities. Lawrence has also created a new teacher compensation model with a career ladder to attract, retain, and reward great educators. And Superintendent Jeff Riley has launched a central office reorganization to reduce positions and direct more resources to schools.

The work in Lawrence is among the most important and significant that the Commonwealth has undertaken. The successes we achieve in Lawrence will serve as a model for urban education.

PARCC: In 2013-14, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) will administer a field test to a sample of students from each member state, including Massachusetts. We anticipate notifying schools in the late summer of their selection for the spring 2014 field test. This fall we will adopt a plan transitioning from our legacy MCAS assessment to PARCC. This plan will take into account the technology needs of schools.

PARCC has the potential to build upon the strengths of our current assessment system by adding technology-based components, assessing college and career ready standards, and including more open-ended components that assess a broader range of the skills and competencies we value in our standards. I want to be clear, though, that Massachusetts will only adopt PARCC if we are convinced that these next generation assessments are able to provide a better product than our current MCAS tests. Whether MCAS or PARCC, Massachusetts will maintain its high standard for proficiency. Our students deserve no less.

In Summary

This is a lot of work on the plates of schools and districts. We know that districts and their staffs are feeling the pressure to carry out all of these initiatives at once, particularly given the tough fiscal times. That is why we remain committed to working with superintendents to see where we might provide some relief - without backing off our commitment to reform.

The best education today is happening in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, we cannot let complacency about our nation-leading standing jeopardize the remarkable gains made over the past two decades. We owe it to our students and their families, and to the Commonwealth's future, to prepare all Massachusetts public school students for success in the world that awaits them after high school.

We are doing the right work, students are benefitting, and educators are excited about the future. Thank you for all that you do every single day to improve the lives of each child in your classroom, school, and district.

I hope you are able to relax and enjoy well-deserved time with family and friends this summer.

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Last Updated: June 26, 2013
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